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Irving Babbitt Biography

(1865–1933), Literature and the American College, The New Laokoon, Rousseau and Romanticism

cultural american romanticism eliot

American critic, born in Dayton, Ohio, educated at Harvard, where he held a professorship from 1912 until his death. The vigorous defence of the humanities in Literature and the American College (1908), his first major work, proved controversial for its harsh critique of the ethos of scientific progress which prevailed in American universities. The breadth of his cultural interests was passed on to his students through his courses in comparative literature, which ranged through classical, European, and Oriental materials. His emphasis on the ethical dimensions of literary studies was central to the emergence of the New Humanism. Babbitt's philosophy was largely based on his view of Romanticism as a cultural aberration, responsible for the ‘moral impressionism’ of modern materialism with its worship of ‘the quantitive life’; The New Laokoon (1910) argued that the arts had been reduced to a condition of moral anarchy by Romanticism, upon which a scathingly lucid attack was mounted in Rousseau and Romanticism (1919). T. S. Eliot, who undertook postgraduate study with Babbitt in 1909, was deeply impressed by his ideas; the two exchanged letters until Babbitt's death. His other works include Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912), in which his conception of the cultural interactions of the past and the present fore-shadow Eliot's ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’; and Democracy and Leadership (1924), an expression of his belief in a firmly regulated socio-cultural order. Spanish Character (1940) is a selection of his essays edited by F. Manchester and O. Shepard, the editors of Irving Babbitt: Man and Teacher (1941), a collection of memoirs and tributes.

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