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.

Spingarn had more than a glimpse of this doctrine, which would transfer his conception of criticism to the reader or viewer, in his essay “Creative Connoisseurship.” That essay, which gives the essence of Spingarn’s critical theory, has been largely overlooked, while his polemic half-truths have been given undue emphasis; even Spingarn himself failed to carry it far enough to alter the center of gravity in criticism itself. The reasons for this neglect are quite obvious. Such a simple, nonacademic prescription seems little less than an insult to the academic mind. Who could write an acceptable Ph.D. thesis or get professorial advancement on the basis of such limited activity? Yet Spingarn’s effort to restore the creative approach to criticism miscarried in a peculiar way, for unintentionally he gave support to the kind of scholarship he was challenging. When translated into orthodox academic terms, Spingarn’s new criticism fostered a quite different approach: one that elevated the critic above the creator and replaced the artist with the leaden-footed scholar, a specialist in semantic, symbolic, and rhetorical esoterica.

Once this canon was accepted in scholastic circles it became an offense to approach a work of art directly. Since the critic knows better than the artist what he has achieved, why should the reader bother with the original work at all? The ultimate creator turns out to be the critic. As a result students today are carefully trained to read everything that has been said about a work of art, but to keep a safe distance from the original creation itself. In substance this transposition of functions gives to the academic commentator the role occupied in medieval religion by the saintly intercessor, by whose aid alone one could hope to approach the throne of God (genius). Ultimately this has led to a further perversion of criticism, whereby a population explosion of fake geniuses has come about—people who have no visible justification for being called artists except the ipse dixit of critics who tailor elaborate verbal clothes to cover their subject’s brute nakedness, or rather, his aesthetic non-existence.

In confining the critic to purely aesthetic perceptions Spingarn curiously overlooked an excellent argument for his own belief in the “unity of genius and taste”: the fact that in the very heat of creation the artist himself is at every moment making corrections, critical revisions, and extensions that further clarify his expressions. Proverbially the artist’s severest critic, if he is an artist at all, is himself. But were the artist too conscious of this necessary function, too detached, too judiciously cold, he would be paralyzed. So in the end he must leave the reader and the critic to later amplify the work in a more detached judgment. When Hawthorne pointed out to Melville the rich symbolic meanings of Moby Dick, Melville was properly grateful for this insight. But if he had begun with the symbolism fully worked out in advance, he would have turned the whole fable into a wooden academic exercise.

Neither the artist himself nor his critic can realize what the artist’s purpose actually was until to his splendid surprise he views the final work. Perhaps the simplest way of explaining why Henry James, who had impeccable critical detachment, was inferior in creativity to Tolstoy or Dickens was that he knew all too well, and too deliberately, what he was doing: there was too much method and too little madness. In a decade before the great Freudian insights into the role of unconscious processes had become familiar, Spingarn proclaimed that “madness” was an essential prerequisite to effective aesthetic expression. Carried away by this valid perception, he overlooked the fact that the capacity to assimilate experience and give it coherent intelligible form is what distinguishes art from scatter-brained private fantasies.

Spingarn’s original error of limiting the significance of a work of art to its aesthetic aspect alone caused him out of sheer exuberance to amplify Croce’s dictum that all art is expression. He went farther and proclaimed that all expression was art. On such an assumption art itself can no longer be identified, still less appreciated or judged; and Samuel Butler’s little Italian lad, who thought that “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle” was the most beautiful poem in the world, would be justified. Thus in emptying the aesthetic and moralistic rubbish out of scholarly attics, Spingarn came pretty close to destroying the house of art itself.

Strangely—but perhaps not so strangely!—there is an early poem of Spingarn’s, later called “Art, a Nightmare,” which even suggests that Spingarn himself once was visited by a demonic impulse to work precisely that destruction. But by the 1920s Spingarn was sufficiently detached from scholarly embroilments to have recovered his own intellectual balance: so he reminded the younger generation—though still in pure Crocean terms—of the importance of discipline, tradition, moral responsibility, rational judgment.

Certainly Spingarn would have shuddered over the later extrapolation that all expression is art could he have foreseen the infantilism of Pop Art and the mindless evacuations of the anti-artists. But often a critic’s errors, by provoking further thought, turn out to be almost as important as the firmest truth; and on rereading Spingarn’s “Creative Criticism” I find myself asking many fresh questions: such as how it comes about that some of the greatest works of art—take the Iliad—would be devaluated by a purely aesthetic judgment; and how is it that some of the weakest theoretical conceptions of art have not prevented critics like Taine from making extremely keen aesthetic judgments? Witness his early appreciation of Stendhal. To understand the contradictions in Spingarn’s theory of criticism one must, I find, defy his own strict principles and see how far his failure to develop his great capacities for scholarship must be related to his own personal development.

As I read Spingarn’s life, his audacious manifestoes were directed not against fallacies in criticism but against the entire academic establishment as such. His colleagues at Columbia did not have to read between the lines of “The New Criticism” to perceive that Spingarn, though himself a paragon in exhaustive scholarly research, did not like professors or pedants, and did not admire their finished products. His one chef-d’oeuvre in this genre sufficed him for a lifetime. His reason for rejecting the academic establishment was that it did not by and large produce admirable men, still less mature minds capable of actively meeting the social, political, and moral demands of modern life. The ideal scholar in the new “objective” style was one who had deliberately submitted to spiritual castration: only an insignificant part of the whole personality could function, because both “madness” and “courage” were lacking.

The truth is that Spingarn had in his mind broken away from the whole academic establishment and was itching to leave it long before he used President Butler’s inhuman dismissal of his colleague Harry Thurston Peck as an excuse for challenging the university authorities in his own person with sufficient rancor to bring on his dismissal. In taking a stand against Butler, Spingarn found himself backed by hardly even a handful of supporters. The passivity—if not poltroonery—of the faculty only made his decision easier. Plainly, academic routine did not produce the kind of “manliness” Spingarn valued: for him courage belonged equally to the soldier, the poet, and the scholar; and as he left the university he flung at his colleagues the verses that contain the bitter line: “Seven hundred professors and not a single man.”

Though his ignominious dismissal from Columbia was galling to Spingarn, he did both Butler and the faculty too high an honor by accepting as final and total his severance from academic life. This resulted in his seeking in the life of action the qualities he found lacking in academia. In this mood he ran for political office, he trained at Plattsburg to be a military leader, he devoted himself more heartily than ever to the cause of the Negro, he exercised his talents as an editor of Harcourt’s European Library, he sought, as a country gentleman and a follower of Theodore Roosevelt, to invigorate a nascent country-life movement, and in the end he devoted himself to horticulture and became a world authority on clematis.

But his complete immersion in these “extraneous” activities was nothing less than desertion to the enemy: to have been true to his own philosophy, which raised the life of “theory” above that of practice, his duty was to apply both his imagination and his militancy to the reconstruction of the university, which, as then and now constituted, has little use for original minds unless they sham dead. As a scholarly activist, but not necessarily as an institutiontethered professor, Spingarn might have used his personal economic independence to demonstrate what was lacking and to utter challenges which those within the academic walls could do only at some hazard to their future careers. Who was in a better position than Spingarn to play a leading part in this movement? Who had better earned the right to attack pedantic formalism, spiritless drill, subservience to institutional pressures from business and government?

Had Spingarn risen to that opportunity, he would not have been alone. William James had recently uttered his diatribe against the Ph.D. octopus; Thorstein Veblen was soon to attack the Higher Learning; Patrick Geddes in Britain was calling for the “University Militant.” What I am saying, I suppose, is that when Spingarn withdrew from the university it was still open to him to become another Nietzsche, another Charles Peirce, another Whitehead: to demonstrate by his own example the meaning of creativity, not only in literature or painting but in every realm that the mind could reach. This would have been deeply in accord with his own philosophy, namely, that “all true idealism rests on the assumption that inner and outer reality are indissolubly intermingled in the realm of the spirit.” Though Van Deusen has made a fine start in explaining Spingarn’s later activities and evaluating them sympathetically, it remains for still another biographer to review more fully the various personal pressures and public events that turned Spingarn away from the one field where his own example—his “madness” and his “courage”—might have produced a decisive effect.

At the critical moment in his life, when Spingarn turned thirty-five, he made the fatal decision, prompted both by rebellious ambition and Dantean pride, to leave behind him the career in which, whether he went back to the university or not, he seemed destined for eminence. This decision in turn brought on many conflicts and inner tensions that manifested themselves in disabling illnesses, surgical interventions, and in a fading of energy and drive—all of which one would hardly have anticipated in the man whose photograph at this age remains vibrant and radiant with that vital energy which Blake called delight. Despite a succession of disappointments and physical setbacks, Spingarn’s friends all through the Twenties kept on hoping for his return at least as the challenging leader of thought he seemed cut out to be.

During that decade, Spingarn, emerging from his last serious illness, even played with the idea of establishing at Troutbeck an informal School of Wisdom, surrounded, at least in the summer, with kindred spirits. Still later, in 1931, when he accepted Alvin Johnson’s invitation to deliver a series of six lectures at the New School, his friends still hoped he would resume his career as writer and scholar, if not as a tethered university professor. But that effort proved a final disappointment. He had anticipated, I suspect, an overwhelming ovation on the part of the young; but his audience was neither as large, as young, nor as eager for his message as he must have hoped. The depth of his disappointment can be gauged by the fact that, though the lectures were taken down stenographically, he never could be tempted to revise them. Only one lecture, “Politics and the Poet,” was sufficiently worked out to be published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1942.

In the end, the impression left by Spingarn both as a scholar and as a man calls to mind that produced by one of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s enigmatic heroes: proud, reserved, saturnine, but smolderingly passionate. One hardly needed his own confession in verse to know that he had explored more than one dark circle in Dante’s Hell. For those who knew him, Spingarn’s inner greatness outshines his achievements and leaves behind a sense of unused potentialities: potentialities that, if they had been even partly realized, might have altered the academic institutions that had no place for his kind. Yes, he was, at least in theory, one of the first of the university activists; and his life, properly understood, may remain a call to the many succeeding generations who could well use his courage, his sharp intelligence, and his many-sided grasp of the world around him. Happily Van Deusen’s modest monograph has made it possible for a coming generation to get closer to him than ever before.