On the Future of the
Tradition in Literary Criticism
[From HUMANITAS, Volume XI, No. 1, 1998 ©
Until recently, the humanistic impulse has been central to literary
criticism in the West. The works of twentieth-century American critics
like Irving Babbitt, Edmund Wilson and Ralph Ellison, for example, are
part of a conversation about literature that starts for the modern world
with the revival of ancient learning in Italy in the fourteenth century.
The humanistic tradition has demonstrated its ability to accommodate a
variety of tastes, political inclinations and philosophical doctrines.
Through all the debates over the beautiful versus the sublime, romanticism
versus classicism or even political right versus left, the conversation
has continued. Eleven years ago, however, Allan Bloom’s The Closing
of the American Mind warned that our culture, which boasted of its
unprecedented "openness," was in danger of closing off the debate over
philosophical alternatives that begins for us with the Greeks. The trends
that Bloom described then have only accelerated in the decade since the
book appeared. Today it appears that not only the philosophical tradition,
which was Bloom’s main concern, is in danger, but the humanistic tradition
of literary criticism is also threatened, sometimes by people who, like
Richard Rorty, insist that their goal is to replace philosophy with literary
The attack is carried on in the name sometimes of "cultural studies,"
sometimes "postmodernism," sometimes "anti-foundationalism," or simply
the array of tendencies one may call the "cultural left." Mainstream cultural
studies celebrates a world in which "the lightness of being" is taken for
granted, where sex is only gender, morality is only lifestyle, and novels,
plays and poems are merely texts. Richard Rorty’s representative version
of utopia is a "poeticized culture," whose only goal is "the creation of
ever more various and multicoloredartifacts." 1
In this new landscape, radicalism becomes indistinguishable from adjustment
to the status quo. It is a world that "has no purpose except to make life
easier for poets and revolutionaries"—since romantic poetry and revolutionary
visions have become the primary sources of entertainment and distraction.2
Christopher Lasch has noted that the new "multiculturalism," conjuring
up "the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic
styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately,
with no questions asked and no commitments required," is an ideal ideology
for the managers of the multinationalcorporations.3
Can the humanistic tradition survive cultural studies and postmodernism?
In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom formulated an intellectually
serious and emotionally powerful critique of the trends that have culminated
for the moment in the movement to replace the humanities with "cultural
studies." Although his bestseller is most obviously an eloquent warning
against the forces militating against a contemporary expression of Matthew
Arnold’s "high seriousness" in philosophy or literature, The Closing
of the American Mind reaffirms the significance of the humanist tradition
in two somewhat contradictory ways. On the one hand, the book is itself
an impressive example of humanistic criticism. Contemptuously debunking
the intellectual pretensions of "nihilism, American style," Bloom demonstrates
the necessity of confronting directly the masterpieces of literature and
philosophy in undertaking any serious exploration of what it means to be
human. On the other hand, the affinity of Bloom’s intellectual romanticism
with the very spirit of the time that he is questioning suggests that some
seemingly outdated aspects of that tradition may be worth reviving. If
so trenchant a critique as the one formulated in The Closing of the
American Mind can be sharpened by reference to literary humanists like
Ralph Ellison and Irving Babbitt, then that is additional evidence that
the humanistic tradition remains worth preserving.
In The Closing of the American Mind Bloom adopts phrases ordinarily
associated with the cultural left to describe his own educational ideals.
The university, he says, should encourage the "awareness of other possibilities"
and cultivate "alternative thoughts," thereby promoting an "awareness of
difference" in order "to liberatereason." 4
Only in such a "countervailing atmosphere" will it be possible to conceive
5 The particular
alternative Bloom has in mind, however, is not radical feminism or multiculturalism
but rather a commitment to "intransigently high standards." 6 According
to Bloom the humanities are inevitably at odds with democratic culture
the professors of humanities . . . are essentially involved with interpreting
and transmitting old books, preserving what we call tradition, in a democratic
order where tradition is not privileged." 7
Bloom’s description of the ideal university as "an unpopular institution
in our midst that sets clarity above well-being or compassion, that resists
our powerful urges and temptations, that is free of all snobbism but has
standards" is attractive in its eloquent refusal to indulge the democratic
impulse to be all things to all people.8
If the chief obligation of a university, and especially of the humanities,
could be summed up as the stimulation of the "awareness of other possibilities,"
"alternative thoughts," and an "awareness of difference" in order "to liberate
reason," then Bloom’s critique would be entirely convincing.9
But the notion that the highest praise one can bestow on an idea is conveyed
by the adjective "alternative" should not be accepted too easily, even
when it is asserted by Allan Bloom. The notion that the attainment of the
highest and best and most vital, whatever it may be, at all events requires
that one reject the morality and way of life of one’s own society is one
of the most long-lasting and influential themes of the Romantic movement.
Those who do not accept that assumption should not be too quick to assume
that humanists and philosophers can erect "intransigently high standards"
only by rejecting the ideals that most other Americans hold dear. Matthew
Arnold thought that "the men of culture are the true apostles of equality,"
since culture "seeks to do away with classes" so that all may "live in
an atmosphere of sweetness and light."
It is at least worth exploring the possibility that high literary and artistic
standards, though indeed incompatible with the radical egalitarianisms
so fashionable on campus, are not necessarily at odds with American democracy.11
Ralph Ellison has argued persuasively for an affinity between American
democratic culture and literary and artistic standards. He points out that
in the United States, to an extent much greater than in other countries,
"refinement of sensibility" is not confined to those favored by "family
background, formal education, or social status."
Ellison asserts that "the American artist will do his best" because he
entertains the possibility that, however far out in the boondocks one might
be, "any American audience will conceal at least one individual whose knowledge
and taste will complement, or surpass, his [the artist’s] own."
There is, that is, "no necessary contradiction between our vernacular style
and the pursuit of excellence." Practitioners of jazz, the best-known example
of American vernacular art, are, according to Ellison, "unreconstructed
elitists when it comes to maintaining the highest standards of the music
which expresses their sense of the American experience."
Allan Bloom is surely right to argue that the university in general
and the humanities in particular have a special obligation to question
and challenge those assumptions in contemporary culture that would otherwise
go unquestioned. The example of Ralph Ellison suggests, in addition, that
the principles behind such questioning need not be derived from the special
concerns of academics but from the highest ideals of American culture itself.
If Allan Bloom is right, then, in arguing that the vitality of the liberal
arts derives from their capacity to question the dominant trends, then
the continuing relevance of humanistic literary criticism seems assured.
This argument, however, raises questions about Bloom’s own perspective.
Bloom’s passionate enthusiasms account for much of the literary power of
Closing of the American Mind, and thus for much of the popular appeal
of Bloom’s bestseller. These enthusiasms, however, indicate implicit agreement
with some of the most questionable trends of contemporary culture, trends
that the book elsewhere explicitly and persuasively critiques.
One of the central themes of Closing, the reality and the significance
of the difference between "the philosophers" and ordinary people, parallels
the characteristically Romantic notion of a gulf between the genius and
everybody else. Allan Bloom asserts that, between true philosophers and
the rest of us, "the gulf is unbridgeable," since "the philosophers . .
. have entirely different ends than the rest of mankind."
Bloom’s view of the philosophers may be compared to the narrator’s declaration
at the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Rich Boy" that "the very
rich . . . are different from you andme." 16
The presentation of the rich boy, Anson Hunter, in that story and of Tom
and Daisy Buchanan in
The Great Gatsby—"careless people" who smashed
up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their
vast carelessness . . . and let other people clean up the mess they had
made"—demonstrate that Fitzgerald himself saw beyond the romantic fantasies
that declaration seems to express.17
Allan Bloom, however, never changed his mind about the philosophers, never
grew disillusioned; at least there is no evidence of any such change in
Closing of the American Mind. Bloom, indeed, describes his entire book
as "a plea" for "authentic liberation," thus choosing two of the most notable
cant-words of contemporary romanticism to characterize his entire project.18
For Bloom "the theoretical experience is one of liberation." This "experience
of liberation" marks "conversion" to philosophy as a way of life that is
different from ordinary, everyday existence.19
Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, found a great
deal to criticize about Jay Gatsby; nevertheless, even thinking over all
that had happened a year later, he could not help admiring Gatsby for his
"romantic readiness," for his "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life."
Even in retrospect and although he had "disapproved" of Gatsby "from beginning
to end," he stands by the affirmation he had shouted across the lawn when
he left Gatsby for the last time: "They’re a rotten crowd . . . . You’re
worth the whole damn bunch put together."
Those of us who appreciate Allan Bloom’s own "romantic readiness" to appreciate
the greatness of literature and philosophy may well find that Nick Carraway’s
comment that "They’re a rotten crowd . . . . You’re worth the whole damn
bunch put together" makes the appropriate comparison between the critics
who denounced The Closing of the American Mind and Allan Bloom himself.
Bloom’s "romantic readiness," dramatized by his teenage wonder at the "fake
Gothic" buildings of the University of Chicago, allows him to sense and
to communicate to his readers much that is truly wonderful.22
The promise of exemption from the frustrations and difficulties of the
common human lot is immensely seductive, as Bloom himself occasionally
recognizes. In criticizing "the alleged superior moral ‘concern’ of the
students" of the sixties, he pays tribute to a very different version of
There is a perennial and unobtrusive view that morality consists in
such things as telling the truth, paying one’s debts, respecting one’s
parents and doing no voluntary harm to anyone. Those are all things easy
to say and hard to do; they do not attract much attention, and win little
honor in the world.23
It is to Bloom’s credit that he articulates this prosaic morality so sympathetically,
since it seems at odds not only with the "histrionic version of moral conduct"
of the protesting students but also with his own intimations that life
lived without the illumination of a philosophic conversion or authentic
liberation is a second-rate affair at best.24
When Bloom speculates that "men may live more truly and fully in reading
Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time, because then they are participating
in essential being and forgetting their accidental lives," one can appreciate
his passion for the great authors and still feel that the dismissal of
family, work and love as "accidental" is a romantic error akin to the one
enacted by those students who reject the claims of family and everyday
obligations in the name of some "authentic" moralgesture.25
Bloom’s romanticism plays into the hands of contemporary culture, inevitably
assimilating philosophy and literature to the other kinds of "liberation"
hawked by spiritual hucksters who share nothing else with Bloom. His critique
of contemporary culture, attractive though it is—and its power of attraction
is derived in large part from its very romanticism—requires a corrective
emphasis available from Irving Babbitt, who like Allan Bloom earned the
enmity of "progressive" thinkers for his attempt to measure the sentimentalisms
of his time against the standards of literature and philosophy.
Babbitt’s own masters are those thinkers who have turned to literature
as a source of insight about human life and who, in turn, have proposed
grounds for judging literature itself—Aristotle, first and foremost, Boileau,
Samuel Johnson, Lessing, Saint-Beuve and Matthew Arnold, among others.
Unlike Bloom, Babbitt does not set his heroes apart from other human beings.
Literature is at least as important as philosophy because men and women,
including even the greatest philosophers, cannot apprehend reality "directly
but only through imaginative symbols." 26
Skepticism about the possibility of achieving truth through reason alone
leads Babbitt to turn to literary fictions for insight into the human condition.
Whereas Bloom seeks a "primary natural experience" that can bring about
a "liberation" or a "conversion" separating the philosopher from other
human beings, Babbitt finds in literature an affirmation of "a general
nature, a core of normal experience," that most human beings, those who
are not saints, descend below when they attempt to rise above.27
This "normal experience" should not be confused with mediocrity or mere
conformity to the status quo; Babbitt contrasts the romantic imagination
of a Shelley, with its "straining toward the unlimited," to "the ethical
imagination—the imagination that has accepted the veto power" as embodied
in Sophocles or Dante.28
Babbitt reaffirms the centrality of the unromantic virtues of "moderation,
common sense, and common decency" while acknowledging that "the uncultivated
human imagination in all times and places is romantic."
The case for humanistic cultivation depends in large part on the evidence
literature provides that romantic exaltation "is found finally not to make
for the happiness of the individual." The romantic, Babbitt points out,
"seeks happiness and yet on his own showing, his mode of seeking it results,
not in happiness but in wretchedness."
Despite his searching critique of romantic pretensions, however, Babbitt
is unwilling to frame the question as a choice of one "ism" over another—classicism
over romanticism. Taking issue with both neoclassicists and romantics for
separating judgment from imagination, Babbitt insists on the romantic notion
that the imagination is the source of the most important truths for human
beings. The neoclassicists valued judgment over imagination, the romantics
imagination over judgment, and neither camp was interested in finding a
way to integrate the two concepts. Babbitt, however, believes that the
humanist should not be "satisfied with opposing cool reason or judgment
to imagination but rather one quality of imagination to another."
Babbitt always refused to identify the New Humanism with any particular
philosophic system or, as he might have called it, a dogma. He believed
our most urgent problem just now is how to preserve in a positive
and critical form the soul of truth in the two great traditions, classical
and Christian, that are crumbling as mere dogma32
and had no intention of merely producing another dogma that would soon
crumble as well.
Irving Babbitt’s critique of the romantic impulse now seems a permanently
valuable part of the humanistic tradition. During Babbitt’s own lifetime,
however, he was vehemently attacked by champions of modern literature and
radical politics like the young Edmund Wilson. Wilson objected to Babbitt’s
repeated emphasis on the "veto power" or the "will to refrain" on the grounds
that humanity was "now as always as much in need of being exhorted against
coldness and indifference and routine as against irresponsible exuberance—especially
Anglo-Saxon humanity." Wilson intimated that only stuffy pedants would
our clerks, our factory workers and our respectable professional and
business classes were all in danger of falling victims to the rhapsodical
enthusiasm and the lawless individualism of romanticism!
In Wilson’s view, the great social problem was simply that such people
had "been compelled by society to refrain" from living a fully human life,
so that "if it is merely a question of refraining, these people are all
good humanists." 33 Babbitt could
have replied that Wilson wilfully misunderstood the New Humanism he and
Paul Elmer More affirmed in assuming that it equated mere passivity with
the good life. He could also have pointed out that the kind of enthusiasms
he most feared were the mass enthusiasms mobilized by the state to enforce
morality through Prohibition, or to make the world safe for democracy through
world war. Wilson was more convincing when he criticized the New Humanists
for their failure to appreciate contemporary writers or even nineteenth-century
authors like Baudelaire and Flaubert. Employing Babbitt’s own terms of
praise, Wilson argued that the French writers exercised "in their novels
and poems, the most exacting kind of self-discipline, exerted, in dealing
with the materials supplied them by their imaginations, a rigorous will
to refrain," and added that the poems of Baudelaire and the novels of Flaubert
"fortify their readers as well as entertain them."
Today, in the era of postmodernism, the political and cultural differences
between Irving Babbitt and critics like Edmund Wilson or Ralph Ellison
take on the appearance of family quarrels. Whatever their political and
cultural differences, the New Humanists shared with Edmund Wilson and Ralph
Ellison the faith that great literature provides both aesthetic pleasure
and moral insight. Wilson and Ellison did not attempt to revive and redefine
the meaning of humanism and rarely even referred to themselves as humanists;
like Babbitt, however, Wilson and Ellison insisted on aesthetic standards
inferred from an inductive survey of literary works and on moral standards
derived from experience, especially the experience made available in literature.
None of the three attempted to deduce moral or metaphysical certainties
from literature. Indeed, for humanistic critics the greatest value literary
study may have is the critical filter it provides for the social, political
and artistic nostrums of one’s own time. One is less likely to believe
that a currently fashionable philosophy is the summation of human wisdom
if one is able to measure the current fashion not only by one’s own experience
or even the spirit of the age but by the experience embodied in The
Iliad, The Divine Comedy, and Pride and Prejudice. This
critical perspective may seem to be a small thing, but so much "common
sense," to use Babbitt’s term, is surely no less valuable because it is
unpretentious. Those who reject past culture as irrelevant because it is
not "postmodern" or because it is tainted with sexism or racism or logocentrism
deprive themselves of such guidance.
As a professor of literature, I believe I have an obligation to acquaint
students with guides like Homer, Dante and Jane Austen. This is harder
than it sounds. The would-be humanist must reject the temptation to substitute
the teaching of a ready-made doctrine, even, say, the New Humanism of Irving
Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, for the much more difficult task of introducing
students to The Iliad, The Divine Comedy and Pride and
Prejudice. Even teaching two or three competing doctrines, as in Gerald
Graff’s "teach the conflicts" model, is much easier but much less rewarding
than turning attention to what Homer said about war, Dante about God, Jane
Austen about marriage and all three about the human condition. One cannot
teach without making theoretical assumptions, but one can attempt to use
theory not as an end in itself but as a means to come to terms with the
works themselves. For the future of humanistic literary criticism is finally
one with the future of literature. If poems, plays, novels and even intellectual
autobiographies like The Closing of the American Mind continue to
exercise their hold on us, as I believe they will through the postmodernist
era and beyond, then the future of the humanistic tradition of literary
criticism is assured, since its only necessary ground is the significance
and authority of literature.
*James Seaton is Professor of English at Michigan State
1 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 53, 54. [Back]
2 Ibid., 60-61. [Back]
3 Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and
the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: Norton, 1995), 7. [Back]
4 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How
Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s
Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 249, 253. [Back]
5 Ibid., 339, 341. [Back]
6 Ibid., 253. [Back]
7 Ibid., 353. [Back]
8 Ibid., 252. [Back]
9 Ibid., 249, 253. [Back]
10 Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed.
J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), 70. [Back]
11 Claes Ryn has pointed out that Bloom ignores the
possibility that a "constitutional democracy . . . might actually maintain
an ethos not entirely subversive of discriminating norms and tastes." Claes
Ryn, "Universality or Uniformity?" Modern Age 32.1 (Winter, 1988),
12 Ralph Ellison, "The Little Man at Chehaw Station,"
to the Territory (New York: Random, 1986), 8. [Back]
13 Ibid., 9. [Back]
14 Ralph Ellison, "Going to the Territory,"
to the Territory, 140. [Back]
15 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind,
290, 291. [Back]
16 F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Rich Boy," Babylon
Revisited and Other Stories, (New York: Scribner’s, 1960), 152. [Back]
17 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New
York: Scribner’s, 1925), 180-81. [Back]
18 Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind,
19 Ibid., 271, 333, 369. [Back]
20 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 2.
21 Ibid., 154. [Back]
22 The Closing of the American Mind, 243. [Back]
23 Ibid., 325. [Back]
24 Ibid. [Back]
25 Ibid., 380. [Back]
26 Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism
(New York: Meridian, 1955), 280. [Back]
27 Ibid., 27. [Back]
28 Ibid., 274, 279. [Back]
29 Rousseau and Romanticism, 18-19. [Back]
30 Irving Babbitt, "What I Believe," Irving Babbitt:
Representative Writings, Ed. with an Introduction by George A. Panichas
(Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 13;
and Romanticism, 18-19. [Back]
31 Irving Babbitt, "The Problem of the Imagination:
Dr. Johnson," On Being Creative and Other Essays (New York: Biblo
and Tannen, 1968), 92. [Back]
32 Irving Babbitt, "English and the Discipline of Ideas,"
Babbitt: Representative Writings, 69. [Back]
33 Edmund Wilson, "Notes on Babbitt and More,"
Shores of Light (New York: Random, 1952), 457. [Back]
34 Ibid., 461. [Back]
Copyright © 2010 NATIONAL HUMANITIES
Updated 29 July 2010