Herbert Croly’s America

The Promise of American Life

by Herbert Croly, edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Harvard, 454 pp., $5.95

Herbert Croly
Herbert Croly; drawing by David Levine

One reason why Herbert Croly remains a somewhat mysterious figure in American political thought is that the first forty years of his life are largely a blank. Croly left neither private papers from that period nor a public record which in the absence of letters and diaries would at least permit inferences about what kind of person he was. All that is known of his childhood is that his parents, Comtean intellectuals and reformers who came to America from England, brought him up in the Positivist faith, in a household which appears to have been emotionally a little austere. His career was a long time getting under way. Born in 1869, he did not even receive his B.A. from Harvard until 1910, a year after he published The Promise of American Life. At Harvard he had taken courses from Josiah Royce, George Santayana, and William James. For a time he edited The Architectural Record. He wrote two books on architecture, Stately Homes in America and Houses for Town and Country. At one point he suffered a nervous breakdown and went to Europe to recover.

Just how all this led to The Promise of American Life will never be very clear. But it is easy to explain why The Promise of American Life led to national attention; to The New Republic, founded by Willard Straight in 1914 under Croly’s editorship; and to a notable career as the foremost liberal journalist in the country. These things happened largely because Theodore Roosevelt read The Promise, found it highly flattering to himself, publicly praised it, and used it as an argument for his “new nationalism.” Croly did not so much influence Roosevelt as read into his career an intellectual coherence which Roosevelt then adopted as his own view of things. But the important fact is that Roosevelt admired the book and gave The New Republic his moral support. Eventually his crusade for military preparedness alienated Croly, who turned to Wilson instead and made The New Republic into the most high-toned, if not the most influential, organ of Wilsonian liberalism. In 1919 Wilson disappointed him too by signing a peace which Croly thought would only lead to more wars. Deserting Wilson, Croly flirted with socialism and with hopes of a farmer-labor coalition. Later he turned more and more to spiritual exercises—a throwback, perhaps, to Comte’s religion of humanity. A. R. Orage, an English follower of George Gurdjieff, interested him in “psychosynthesis.” Edmund Wilson, in a memorial essay written after Croly’s death in 1930, believed that Croly’s later writings “represented an attempt…to explain to his rational intelligence” the “well-spring of spiritual power.” “It did not seem,” Wilson added, “that he was ever successful.”

The religious, mystical phase of Croly’s career is not the phase that appeals to the dominant school of liberal historians. They prefer the earlier Croly, the admirer of Roosevelt and author of The Promise of…

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