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…

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