What’s wrong with the humanities today? Ask Yvor Winters.



For Yvor Winters, literature was not mystical indulgence, but a spiritual discipline.  He insisted that “hedonism” was the death of literature and the human being.

James Matthew Wilson offers an interesting introduction to Stanford’s poet-critic (hat tip to Frank Wilson over at Books Inq).

What’s wrong with the humanities?  Winters thought we might start with some of the professors:

A poet and literature critic, Winters ordered his moral and intellectual life to accord with the spiritual discipline of literature. “It behooves us to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does, how it does it, and how one may evaluate it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important a fact as atomic fission,” he writes in the foreword to his greatest prose book, In Defense of Reason.  One will get no help in making this discovery from the typical literature professor, he warned, for they are all hedonists and romantics, “with the result that the professors of literature, who for the most part are genteel but mediocre men, can make but a poor defense of their profession.”

A doctoral student and then professor of English at Stanford, Winters knew and loathed these men. Against their insouciant relativism, which took for granted that one could enjoy pernicious and self-destructive ideas without being affected by them, Winters held up the suicide of the poet Hart Crane as one of many instances where someone died precisely because he had attempted to live according to bad ideas—in Crane’s case, the irrational romantic mysticism of Emerson and Whitman. Winters’s writing gives voice to a theory of literature that cultivates reason and cordons off the soul from the disintegrating effects of emotion, thereby enabling one to live well in the world.

According to Wilson, “Winters defended the liberal arts against the shoddy emotionalism and politicization of his age, and he provides a model for how to do so in ours.”

Read the whole thing here.

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One Response to “What’s wrong with the humanities today? Ask Yvor Winters.”

  1. Harold Says:

    Yvor Winters looks to be a follower of Irving Babbitt’s criticisms of Romanticism (as he saw it), which were really directed at George Lyman Kittredge, then chairman of the English Department at Harvard. See wikipedia’s article on Kittredge.

    Excerpt:As chairman of the Division of the Modern Languages Division of Harvard, a position he inherited from Child, Kittredge was in a position to set graduate degree requirements and he insisted that that graduate literature candidates master several foreign languages, as he himself had done. Neither he nor Child wished the modern languages to replace the study of Greek and Latin, and Kittredge would oppose Harvard president Charles W. Eliot’s efforts to abolish Greek as a requirement for graduation.[28]

    Kittredge’s administrative power, vast erudition, prestige, and the histrionic attitude he assumed with undergraduates provoked resentment. A notable critic was his colleague, Irving Babbitt (a professor of French) and Babbitt’s former student, Stuart Sherman, who together founded so-called “New Humanist” school of literary appreciation. In a famous article in The Nation of 1913, Sherman accused Kittredge of pedantry and of squeezing the life out of his subject. Deep ideological disagreements lay at the bottom of these attacks. The New Humanists were social and cultural conservatives who conceived of literary studies as leading to moral improvement by providing a guide to conduct and “humane insight” through an appreciation of and reflection on of the timeless beauties of prescribed “great works.” Babbitt bitterly opposed the introduction of elective courses for undergraduates. Deeply suspicious of democracy, he envisioned the goal of a university education as the formation of a superior individual in whom the “will to restraint” would counter what he saw as the degenerate modernism he traced back to pernicious ideas of social progress initiated by Rousseau and his followers. Kittredge and his students, on the other hand, situated the study of languages and literatures in their historical contexts, seeking to capture “the spirit of an age” and often ranging far afield of the traditional Western canon. For Kittredge, reading Chaucer illuminated the world of the Middle Ages, which Kittredge often stated had points in common with our own age and thus helped students understand the world in which we live. Often he guided his students into newly opening fields that he had not had time to investigate, such as Finnish and Celtic studies.

    According to David Bynum:

    In an age of literary ethnocentricity, Kittredge was as readily and as genuinely interested in Russian ballads or American Indian folktales as in the plays of Shakespeare…. Kittredge’s intellectual hospitality toward “foreign” traditions and his equanimity toward “vulgar” ones appear in retrospect as the most important sources of his influence.[29]
    For Babbitt, a self-proclaimed classicist, on the other hand, such disciplines as anthropology, folklore, and the medieval scholarship so dear to Kittredge, represented a dilution of the real goal of literary studies and a waste of time.[30]