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The Scholar as Activist

J.E. Spingarn

by Marshall Van Deusen
Twayne Publishers, 198 pp., $4.95

No one could write an adequate account of American letters during the first thirty years of this century without discussing the work and influence of Joel Elias Spingarn. Yet it is only now, a whole generation after his death in 1939, that the first preliminary estimate of his achievements has appeared. We owe a debt to Professor Van Deusen for having undertaken this delicate and exacting task. His brief sketch, interweaving biography with criticism, has a clarity often lost in a more exhaustive study. And one may praise this book further by saying that even when it exposes the weaknesses in Spingarn’s early manifestoes, with their sweeping rejection of the traditional canons of criticism, it would have earned the approbation of Spingarn himself, who was too good a critic to overlook his own shortcomings.

In the 1920s every American critic from Irving Babbitt to Allen Tate reacted to Spingarn’s challenge consciously or unconsciously: Spingarn enjoyed the notoriety of being a writer whose essays were freely discussed without being read; yet some who originally opposed him, like Professor Norman Foerster, were decent enough to acknowledge their debt to him—if only for his pointing out the importance of Benedetto Croce. But surely few scholars ever gained such a large reputation on the basis of such a small output of books and papers. If not the proverbial homo unius libri, Spingarn was substantially a man of only three books: the scholarly classic of his youth, Literary Criticism in the Renaissance, which appeared in 1899, when he was twenty-four; Creative Criticism, first published in 1917 and enlarged in 1931; and his singularly Melvillian poems which came out in 1924. In addition, he edited two collections of critical essays; and in one of them, Criticism in America, he gallantly gave representation even to such an unworthy opponent as Professor Stuart Sherman—he who had questioned Spingarn’s right to be considered “American” because of his affiliations with the Italian Croce and his “sharp Semitic intelligence.”

In all, Spingarn’s writings seem a mere feather for tipping the scales in his favor. The mystery of his inescapable influence is not cleared up by examining the actual contents of his books; for what such a study discloses is less Spingarn’s originality as a thinker than the ingrown provincialism of his American adversaries, who treated as if it were an outrageous attempt to undermine the foundations of scholarly knowledge, political responsibility, and moral discrimination his traditional defense of the activities of thought and imagination as the source of all that can be called a truly human life.

Viewed dispassionately Spingarn’s critical iconoclasm was essentially an attempt to restore the primacy of the mind and do justice to the creative activities of the human spirit. Yet so completely had the positivism, the pragmatism, and the utilitarianism of post-seventeenth-century thought taken possession of Western scholarship that this effort to unity the inner and the outer world had indeed become a heresy, and gave Spingarn the reputation of being an irresponsible iconoclast. Going through Van Deusen’s outline of Spingarn’s whole life and work, one discovers that here was a potential leader who never fully developed, but who was arrested at a critical moment by ambitions and hopes that brought his university career to an end. Instead of exerting the influence of his incisive, powerful mind to become one of the first of the university activists, he became, in effect, one of the first of the rebellious dropouts.

Van Deusen’s study has made it necessary for me to re-examine both Spingarn’s philosophy and my own relation to him as a friend and fellow critic. We first met as members of the group that Harold Stearns had brought together in 1921 to compose “Civilization in the United States”—the prototype of what turned out to be a long and increasingly boring series of symposiums, now being automated and mass-produced by means of the tape recorder. The essay Spingarn contributed to that book, “Scholarship and Criticism,” was one of the best—and by best I mean maturest—of his essays, to be placed alongside his “Appeal to the Younger Generation,” published in The Freeman in 1922. Despite a twenty-year gap in our ages, we edged slowly into friendship, and, surprisingly, he soon invited me, along with Van Wyck Brooks and Ernest Boyd, to a more intimate symposium at his country house, Troutbeck, in the Dutchess Country hamlet I was soon to make my summer home.

That weekend at Amenia gave me the materials for a “Dialogue on Aesthetics,” which was first published in The American Mercury in 1924 and a year later became Troutbeck Leaflet Number Three. Looking over it recently, I was amazed to find how much of Spingarn’s essential views of the nature of art and the function of criticism I was able to pack into that discussion, as well as my own early reactions to his and Croce’s dialectic formulas. Apparently my equable exposition satisfied even Croce, for in a review in Critica he pronounced it “fine e elegante.” Though I was always put off by Croce’s tortuous Hegelian rhetoric and felt that Spingarn shackled his own thought when he conformed to it, this did not keep us from having many keen discussions of our respective positions.

Partly under Spingarn’s influence I spent the better part of a year plowing through the formal literature of aesthetics, from Edmund Burke, Coleridge, and the Wisconsin philosopher Bascom—whom Spingarn had independently unearthed—to Schiller, Santayana, and Croce. In this I was perhaps as much under the influence of Tolstoy as of Spingarn; and like Tolstoy in “What Is Art?” I was put off by the aesthetically irrelevant nature of most of this literature, though this did not bring me any closer to Tolstoy’s one-sided moralism than it did to the theoretical aesthetic isolationism of Spingarn’s first expositions of “The New Criticism.”

Spingarn’s book Creative Criticism, which included the original manifesto of 1910, “The New Criticism,” was subtitled “Essays on the Unity of Genius and Taste.” At what crepuscular critical seance, one asks oneself now, did those ancient ideological ghosts come forth? Unfortunately, until the 1920s, Spingarn’s critical discussions were dogged by his effort to use an undefinable idea, genius, to give substance to an equally undefinable idea, more useful in cookery than in criticism, taste. Yet if one substitutes the terms “creativity” and “aesthetic appreciation,” one sees that Spingarn was making a salutary effort to widen the scope of American criticism and overcome its genteel taboos: he sought to open the windows once more to the fresh air that Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Whitman had long before brought in.

Spingarn’s position can perhaps be most easily understood as the precise opposite of Henry Adams’s surrender to the dominant forces of his age. If anything was unreal, Adams observed, it was the poet, not the banker: it was thought, not the things evoked and shaped by thought. Against Adams’s meek abdication of the spirit, with its arbitrary separation of all mundane activities from the formative powers of the human mind, Spingarn’s whole life was a continued protest. Unfortunately, Spingarn’s scholarly training as a critic induced him to put these large issues within the banal framework of orthodox criticism, which had rarely absorbed the energetic attention of first-rate minds. Viewed biographically, Spingarn’s effort to promote the new criticism may be explained as a first effort to throw off the harness, especially the bit and bridle, of the kind of scholarship for which he had undergone a sedulous training. Paradoxically, his own passion for perfection in whatever task he attempted—see his thirty-six-page bibliography for Vossler’s Medieval Culture—had made him the very model of the kind of scholar he had come to despise: one who aimed at easy targets in order to be sure of hitting the bull’s-eye.

In his first polemical manifestoes Spingarn fastened on the domain of aesthetics as the most neglected domain of criticism. While ultimately he demanded for the critic the right to play freely with all the inner resources of the human mind, he sought to release criticism from those arbitrary moral prescriptions and practical concerns which if taken seriously would stultify understanding of the artist’s expression; in the same way Spingarn sought to emancipate criticism, at a lower level, from thematic analysis, piddling textual rectifications, supposedly “objective” historic data that explained away whatever was significant or original in the artist’s inner life, because it had no insight into any kind of innerness.

What Spingarn characterized as the new criticism was a mood and a method that would bring the critic closer to the “madness” of the artist in his primal act of creation. To say that enjoyment, appreciation, and aesthetic discrimination must precede any kind of intellectual or moral judgment seems hardly a revolutionary proposal. Who except the pedants could regard that as a threat to anything but pedantry itself?

From this elevated but not dangerously dizzy position Spingarn unfortunately jumped impulsively into a critical ditch, or rather two ditches. He held that the central office of the critic was to re-create the work of art, not in the impressionist’s sense of merely recording the adventure of the critic’s soul before a masterpiece, but in the sense of representing in purified aesthetic terms the original performance. Spingarn never explained on theoretical grounds why such a recapitulation was necessary or valuable: for why indeed should the critic linger over what the artist had already done except to prepare the ground for a more illuminating judgment? This kind of tautological replication in philosophic terms is what makes Crocean criticism an obstacle rather than a help to aesthetic insight.

By Spingarn’s criterion there was nothing for the new criticism to say about a work of art except to affirm its aesthetic presence. Croce himself did not stop there, for Croce said: “There is no human thought that does not demand and expect to be perfected, enriched and modified by subsequent experience and reflection, and there is no book, no matter how great, that ought not to be read in a critical spirit.” A decade after Spingarn’s attack upon the academic establishment, he expressed the same sentiments in his manifesto to the younger generation.

Yet in one sense Spingarn’s statement is beautifully true. Every work of art must be re-created again and again in order to be savored and understood. But that is the function of the reader, not the critic, though no critic worth his salt will attempt to make an appraisal of any original work unless he has gone back to it at intervals, to efface his own preconceptions and come closer to the meaning and intention of the artist. This vital relationship between the creator and the appreciator was put once for all by the sculptor Naum Gabo when he said that every work of art is by its nature incomplete, that is, only half-created, until it has been finished by the beholder. Essentially it is the reader, the viewer, the auditor who performs the office that Spingarn reserves for the critic.

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