Irving Babbitt

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Irving Babbitt (August 2, 1865 – July 15, 1933) was an American academic and literary critic, noted for his founding role in a movement that became known as the New Humanism, a significant influence on literary discussion and conservative thought in the period between 1910 and 1930. He was a cultural critic in the tradition of Matthew Arnold and a consistent opponent of romanticism, as represented by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Politically he can, without serious distortion, be called a follower of Aristotle and Edmund Burke. He was an advocate of classical humanism but also offered an ecumenical defense of religion. His humanism implied a broad knowledge of various moral and religious traditions. Babbitt’s humanism emphasized the need for self-discipline and control, and suppression of the impulses seeking liberation from all restraints. He warned that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the major corrupting influence on modern culture. He complained that Romanticism celebrated too much the individual instinct and uniqueness of personality by denying the universal aspects of human nature as depicted in classical pre-romantic literature. He also attacked naturalism, which was popular at the time because it depicted man as a reflex agent of natural forces, and stressed the dominance of the environment over human institutions.[1]

Early career[edit]

He was born in Dayton, Ohio, and moved with his family over much of the USA while a young child. He was brought up from age 11 in Madisonville, a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. He entered Harvard College in 1885. On graduation in 1889 he took a post teaching classics at the College of Montana. After two years, he went to study in France, at the École Pratique des Hautes-études linked to the Sorbonne. There he studied Pali literature and Buddhism, for a year. Then he took a master's degree at Harvard, including Sanskrit.


At this point, he moved away from a career as a classical scholar, taking a teaching position at Williams College in romance languages — just for one year, as it turned out. He then was offered in 1894 an instructor's position, again at Harvard, in French. He was to stay at Harvard, rising from the ranks to become a full professor of French literature in 1912. He is credited with introducing the study of comparative literature there.


It was in the early 1890s that he first allied himself with Paul Elmer More in developing the core doctrines that were to constitute what he called the "New Humanism". In 1895 he gave a lecture What is Humanism?, which announced his attack on Rousseau. At the time, Babbitt had switched out of classical studies. He would later declare his opposition to contemporary textual and philological scholarship, associated with German scholarship, as a finite task, which he was unhappy to see placed above teaching based on what he felt was the "eternal" moral and spiritual content of literary masterpieces. His ideas, and More's, were characteristically written as short pieces or essays that were later gathered into books. Babbitt's Literature and the American College, although assembled from writings already circulated, caused a stir when published in 1908.

He continued to publish in the same vein, often denouncing authors from his avowed specialty, French literature. He also criticized Francis Bacon and denounced literary naturalism and utilitarianism.


He met with increasing controversy down the years: those provoked into announcing their opposition included R. P. Blackmur, Oscar Cargill, Ernest Hemingway, Harold Laski, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Joel Elias Spingarn, Allen Tate, and Edmund Wilson. In the case of Mencken, at least, Babbitt gave as good as he got; he branded Mencken's writing as "intellectual vaudeville", a criticism with which posterity has had some sympathy. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1921.[2]

His influence[edit]

He had an early influence on T. S. Eliot, a student of his at Harvard. Eliot in his 1926 essay The Humanism of Irving Babbitt, a review of Democracy and Leadership, had become equivocal, finding Babbitt's humanism not sufficiently receptive to Christian dogma; his position vis-à-vis religion is still debated.

The identifiable figures of the New Humanist movement, besides Babbitt and More, were mostly influenced by Babbitt on a personal level and included G. R. Elliott (1883-1963), Norman Foerster (1887-1972), Frank Jewett Mather (1868-1953), Robert Shafer (1889-1956) and Stuart Pratt Sherman (1881-1926). Of these, Sherman moved away early, and Foerster, a star figure, later reconsidered and veered towards the New Criticism.

More peripherally, Yvor Winters and the Great Books movement are supposed to have taken something from New Humanism. Scholars influenced by Babbitt include Milton Hindus, Russell Kirk, Nathan Pusey, Peter Viereck, Richard M. Weaver, Claes G. Ryn, and George Will. A relationship has been traced between Babbitt and Gordon Keith Chalmers, Walter Lippmann, Louis Mercier, and Austin Warren; however, claims of influence where it is not acknowledged are not easy to sustain, and Babbitt was known to advise against public tributes.


From a position of high prominence in the 1920s, having the effective but questionable support of The Bookman, New Humanism experienced a drop from fashionable status after Babbitt died in 1933 and modernist and progressive currents became increasingly dominant in American intellectual, cultural and political life. By the 1940s its enemies pronounced it nearly extinct, but Babbitt continued to exercise a partly hidden influence, and a marked revival of interest was seen in the 1980s and ensuing decades. Babbitt is often name-checked in discussions on cultural conservatism. Babbitt's influence in China, which was notable in the 1930s and 40s, is again on the rise with the publication of many books by or about Babbitt.

The position of Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature was endowed by Harvard University in 1960. The National Humanities Institute runs an Irving Babbitt Project.

Babbitt married Dora May (née Drew) Babbitt on June 12, 1900, with whom he had two children: Esther and Edward Sturges.[3]


  • Literature and the American College (1908)
  • The New Laokoön (1910)
  • The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912)
  • Rousseau and Romanticism (1919)
  • Democracy and Leadership (1924)
  • On Being Creative (1932)
  • The Dhammapada (1936) – translator, with essay
  • Spanish Character, and other essays (1940) – reprinted as Character & Culture: Essays on East and West
  • Representative Writings (ed. George A. Panichas, 1981)


  1. ^ Robert Muccigrosso, ed., Research Guide to American Historical Biography (1988) 1:80- 85
  2. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  3. ^ "Babbitt, Irving, 1865-1933. Papers of Irving Babbitt: an inventory", Retrieved October 23, 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization (1930) edited by Norman Foerster
  • The Humanism of Irving Babbitt (1931) F. E. McMahon
  • Humanism and Naturalism: A Comparative Study of Ernest Seillière, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More (1937) Folke Leander
  • Irving Babbitt (1941) edited by F. Manchester and O. Shepard
  • Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study (1984) Thomas R. Nevin
  • Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality) (1986; 1997) Claes G. Ryn
  • Introduction to Rousseau and Romanticism (1995), 42 pages, by Claes G. Ryn
  • Introduction to Rousseau and Romanticism (1991), 59 pages, by Claes G. Ryn
  • Irving Babbitt in Our Time (1986) edited by George A. Panichas and Claes G. Ryn
  • Irving Babbitt (1987) Stephen C. Brennan and Stephen R. Yarbrough,
  • Irving Babbitt, Literature, and the Democratic Culture (1994) Milton Hindus
  • The Critical Legacy of Irving Babbitt: An Appreciation (1999) George A. Panichas

External links[edit]