Babbitt, Irving, 1865-1933

Alternative names
Birth 1865-08-02
Death 1933-07-15

Biographical notes:

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), a Professor of French Literature at Harvard University, was a social and literary critic, essayist, and philosopher. He was the founder of the New Humanism movement.

From the description of Papers of Irving Babbitt, 1855, 1881-1965 bulk dates, 1908-1935. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 76972760

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) was a Professor of French Literature at Harvard University.

From the description of Lecture notes in Comparative Literature 11, first half, 1931-1932. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 77075972

Irving Babbitt, Professor of French Literature at Harvard University, was a social and literary critic, essayist, and philosopher.

Irving Babbitt was born on August 2, 1865 in Dayton, Ohio to Edwin Dwight Babbitt and Augusta (Darling) Babbitt. Upon the death of his mother at the age of eleven, Babbitt and his brother, Tom, and sister, Katherine, moved to Madisonville, Ohio to live with their grandparents on their family farm. When his father remarried, Babbitt and Katherine moved to Cincinnati and attended Woodward High School. Babbitt graduated second in his high school class out of 50 students. However, he stayed in school a year longer to study chemistry and civil engineering and as a result, entered Harvard College at the age of 20 in 1885.

Immediately after graduation in 1889, Babbitt was named Professor of Latin and Greek at the College of Montana. Two years later, he left Montana to pursue post-graduate studies in Pali literature and Buddhist traditions at the Écoles des Hautes-Études in Paris. Returning to the United States, Babbitt continued his studies at Harvard College and received a Masters Degree in 1893 in classical literature and ancient Eastern languages. Upon graduation, Babbitt was selected as an Instructor of Romance Languages at Williams College.

Babbitt's career at Harvard College resumed in 1894 when he was appointed an Instructor of French. He was to remain at Harvard College for almost forty years serving as an Assistant Professor of French (1902-1912) and Professor of French Literature (1912-1933). Babbitt was a brilliant teacher who left a lasting impression upon his students. His most famous lectures on the Romantic Movement in England, France, and Germany were popular with both graduate and undergraduate students. Drawing on the ideas of the ancient philosophers of China, Greece, and Rome, Babbitt introduced the comparative study of different literary traditions to Harvard College.

Babbitt became a legendary and controversial figure at Harvard College as the founder and champion of the New Humanism movement during the first half of the twentieth century. First expressed in a lecture, What is Humanism, in 1895 at the University of Wisconsin, Babbitt criticized the Romantic Movement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and declared that the naturalism of the 18th century philosopher had a negative influence upon Western civilization and the United States. Babbitt asserted that the naturalistic tendencies of Rousseau had produced a mechanistic society that worshipped power and force above in all, and that, at the same time, society had become sentimental, emotional, and indulgent, liberated from all restraints. For Babbitt, naturalism dissolved individual self-control and consigned human beings to the role of reflex agents under the control of race, the environment, or other natural forces.

As a writer, Babbitt campaigned against the excesses of emotionalism and impulse. He wrote in the light of a humanistic philosophy and touched upon a wide range of issues that effected contemporary culture including education, social and political problems, the arts, literature, philosophy, and religion. In 1908 Babbitt began to define the New Humanism in Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities, when he opposed the introduction of an elective curriculum and specialized courses at Harvard College; he preferred an education based on classical models. In The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910), Babbitt complained of the confused nature of modern art and the emotional and individualistic natural instincts of the Romantic Movement. In this work, Babbitt promoted the idea of an "inner check" that he described as a person's ability to control his impulses and instincts. In The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912) and Rousseau and Romanticism (1919) Babbitt continued his criticism of Rousseau's philosophy and charged it with contributing to the decline of literature. In 1924 Babbitt attacked the democratization of literature and by extension, society, in Democracy and Leadership. For Babbitt, the democratic aims of equality resulted in anarchy and chaos. Finally, in On Being Creative and Other Essays (1932), Babbitt argued that a humanistic philosophy might become a substitute for religion in order to control and check excessive human action because for many, religious belief had become irrelevant.

In an age of Modernism, Babbitt's New Humanism was greeted with derision from contemporary critics. His central doctrines went against the intellectual currents of the time. Moreover, Babbitt's critics charged that he was someone who was mired in the past and afraid of anything new. Babbitt's beliefs and ideas were widely discussed among young intellectuals in both Europe and the United States at the end of the 1920s. With articles in The Forum and other magazines, Babbitt's philosophy was exposed to a large audience. He participated in lectures discussing his humanistic doctrine and in 1930 spoke before a crowd of 3000 people at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In 1930, Humanism and America, a collection of fifteen essays by Babbitt and his supporters was published. This book was countered by his opponents and detractors in reviews, magazine articles, and editorials. Although Babbitt's ideas had created a great philosophical debate, when the Great Depression started, public interest shifted to more practical economic and political problems and Babbitt's New Humanism faded into the background.


Although Babbitt and his followers did not gain ascendancy during their heyday, Babbitt's humanistic ideas became one of the most important influences in the development of conservative intellectual thought following World War II. Babbitt's concepts can be seen in the writings of such conservative scholars as Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and George Will. Moreover in 1957, the journal Modern Age was founded to promote Babbitt's humanistic standards. Finally at Harvard College, Babbitt was recognized for his contributions to the study of comparative literature, when the Irving Babbitt Professorship of Comparative Literature was established in December 1959.

Irving Babbitt was married to Dora May (Drew) Babbitt on June 12, 1900. They had two children, Esther and Edward Sturges.

Irving Babbitt died on July 15, 1933 in Cambridge after a long illness.

References used for this biography were:

Buch, Richard P.Fair-Harvard's Intellectual Giants of the Early 1930s,Modern Age 32, no. 2 (1988) : 113-121. Bentinck-Smith, William and Elizabeth Stouffer. Harvard University, History of Named Chairs.Cambridge,Massachusetts: President and Fellows of Harvard College,1991. Foerster, Norman.Irving Babbitt. Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1-2: To 1940,American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958. Biography Resource Center. 5 May 2004. servlet/BioRc. Hoeveler, David.Babbitt, Irving; 16-00059.html; American National Biography Online February 2000. Irving Babbitt.Contemporary Authors Online, Gale 2003. Biography Resource Center. 5 May 2004. servlet/BioRc. Irving Babbitt.Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 22. Gale Group 2002. Biography Resource Center. 5 May 2004. Irving Babbitt. Harvard Class Reports, Class of 1889, 50th Anniversary Report (1939) : 90-96. Mather, Frank Jewett.Irving Babbitt.The Harvard Graduate's Magazine, December 1933, 65-84. Robinson, Fred N.,Jeremiah D.M. Ford, and Louis J.A. Mercier. Minute on the Life and Services of Professor Irving Babbitt.Harvard University Gazette (October 14, 1933) : 13-14.

From the guide to the Papers of Irving Babbitt, 1855, 1881-1965, bulk dates, 1908-1935., (Harvard University Archives)


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