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The Consistency

of Irving Babbitt
(Part One)
Milton Hindus

WHILE OTHER WRITERS pride themselves on least say that literature of the romantic
their inconsistency and self-contradic- type, compared with that of the classical
tion as inevitable failings, or as signs of tradition, is so deficient in certain quali-
incorruptible honesty, Irving Babbitt ties of sobriety and discipline as t o make
more modestly strives for and achieves us doubt its value as a formative influ-
consistency from his first publications ence upon the minds of the young.. . .
to his last almost four decades later. Romanticism, at that stage of his think-
Long before the appearance of his first ing, was already characterized by its
little book (Literature and the American extreme subjectivity, even violent sub-
College) in 1908,when he was approach- jectivity in some cases, while its oppo-
ing his mid-forties and still not a full site was distinguished by its objectivity
professor at Harvard, he had become and by its appeal to our higher reason
the contributor of essays and book re- and imagination, which enabled young
views to The Atlantic Monthly. Such was men, who were in many instances little
their maturity of style and substance more than troubled adolescents, to rise
that they lost little of their force when above their own personal concerns in
reprinted later, and there is an unbroken order to participate in a larger universal
continuity between them and his contri- life:
butions of essays, letters to the editor,
[Classical literature] is thus truly educa-
and book reviews decades later to such tive in that it leads him who studies it out
magazines as The Nation and The Forum, and away from himself. The classical
from which many of them were collected spirit, in its purest form, feels itself conse-
into his other books, including one (Span- crated t o the service of a high, imper-
ish Characterand otheressays) published sonal reason. Hence the sentiment of re-
in 1941, eight years after his death. straint and discipline, its sense of propor-
In 1897,there appeared in The Atlantic tion and pervading law. By bringing our
an essay entitled “The Rational Study of acts into an ever closer conformity with
the Classics,” which is in no sense infe- this high, impersonal reason, it would
rior to or more callow than Rousseau and lead us, although along a different path,
t o the same goal as religion. . . .
Romanticism, published more than
twenty years later: But if Babbitt was anatural admirer of
Romanticism may not mean the Com- the ancient languages and literatures
mune, as Thiers said it did, but we may at (despite the fact that it was his own fate
to profess their modern offspring-his

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field of expertise was French), he was spired the initial composition that won
hardly pleased with the “scientific”way him an academic prize and made him
they were coming to be studied by what famous: “Amongthe multitude of ‘truths’
he described as the “philological syndi- that flashed upon Rousseau in the sort of
cate”: trance into which he was rapt at this
As the field of ancient literature is more
moment, the truth of overshadowing
and more completely covered, the vision importance was, in his own words, ‘that
of the special investigator must become man is naturally good and that it is by our
more and more microscopic. The present institutions alone that men become
generation of classical philologists, in- wicked.”’
deed, reminds one of a certain sect of Here, for Babbitt, is the real conver-
Japanese Buddhists which believes that sion-experience of Rousseau, supersed-
salvation is to be attained by arriving at a ing completely his earlier conversion to
knowledge of the infinitely small. Posi- Catholicism, which confessedly was ve-
tions, it is said, have recently been given nal in motivation and nominal only. The
in American colleges t o men who have vision on the road to Vincennes is not
shown their assimilation of the classical
spirit by writing on the ancient horse-
only the key t o the rest of Rousseau’s life
bridle and on the Roman door knob. but to the whole heresy (or choice) of
modernity, which makes it proper for
Underneath this jocularity (reminis- him to serve as the emblematic figure to
cent of the humor of Matthew Arnold), represent the ages that followed him.
there is aserious concern with the devel- Granted that “there are conservative and
opment of “lopsided specialization,” even timid elements in his writings, but
which finds expression in one of his late as a result of the superior imaginative
essays in The Forum in 1929on aspects of appeal of the new dualism based on the
the baneful influence exercised by myth of man’s natural goodness, the role
Charles W. Eliot, who had presided over he has actually played has been that of
Harvard for forty years (1869-1909) and the arch-radical.” The new dualism was
had died in 1926. More pertinent to the heretical in the root sense not only be-
subject of the present discussion is cause it was opposed to orthodoxCatho-
Babbitt’s essay a year later in The Forum lic doctrine and calculated to create a
(1930) entitled “What I Believe: Rous- maximum of dissension, but also because
seau and Religion.” In this essay, he re- it was opposed to any other version of
views some of the recent literatureabout the older dualism, humane or religious,
Rousseau, notes the differences between which insisted upon personal responsi-
some of the interpretations and his own, bility as more important than societal
and grants that, with a writer as prolific responsibility.
as Rousseau, virtually any point of view It was the visionary Rousseau that
which a critic brings with him can be Madame de Stael had in mind when she
sustained with enough selected evidence said: “Rousseau invented nothing but set
to make it plausible and persuasive. everything on fire.” And it was his influ-
Yet Babbitt is astonished by one writer, ence that Gustave Lanson described: “It
who claims simply to set forth Rousseau’s exasperates and inspires revolt and fires
meaning but manages, in his hundreds of enthusiasms and irritates hatreds;
pages, to miss the doctrine that Rous- launches the simplesouls who give them-
seau himself regarded as central t o his selves up to its strange virtue upon the
own thought. This was the exciting vi- desperate quest of the absolute, an abso-
sion he experienced on the road from lute to be realized now by anarchy and
Paris to Vincennes in 1749, which in- now by social absolutism.”

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According to Babbitt, we are all con- anything comparable to Rousseau and
fronted with an unavoidable choice “be- Romanticism and Democracy and Lead-
tween a dualism that affirms a struggle ership for knowledge and passion and
between good and evil in the heart of the social gravity. . . we have to go as far
individual and a dualism which, like that back as Burke.”
of Rousseau, transfers the struggle to The consistency of Babbitt manifests
society.” Humanitarians of all types “are itself not only in the choice of subjects to
hopelessly superficial in their treatment which to address his attention but in his
of the problem of evil. The social dualism style and manner of approach t o these
they have set up in its ultimate develop- subjects. Thus he generally sets out in
ment tends to substitute the class war Socratic fashion with an attempt to limit
for what Diderot termed in his denuncia- and define an abstraction and to distin-
tion of the older dualism the ‘civilwars in guish it from another abstraction often
the cave.”’ confused with it. In Literature and the
Against the false prophecy of Rous- American College, his first object was to
seau and the fanatical extremes which it separate the notions of humanitarian-
has encouraged for several centuries, ism from humanism. In doing so, he pro-
Babbitt arrays “the humanistic virtues- duces a passage which seems to me to
moderation, common sense, and com- bear an unmistakable resemblance to a
mon decency-[which], though much passage in the Introductory chapter of
more accessible than those of the saint, Rousseau and Romanticism. The first
still go against the grain of the natural passage hinges on the role which sympa-
man-terribly against the grain, one is thy should play:
forced to conclude from a cool survey of
Aulus Gellius [a late Latin author], who
the facts of history.” And, as everywhere was a man of somewhat crabbed and
in his writings, most notably in Democ- pedantic temper, would apparently ex-
racy and Leadership (1924), he discovers clude sympathy almost entirely from his
no more potent antisepsis t o the infec- conception of humanitas and confine the
tion of Rousseau, which spread from the meaning to what he calls cura etdisciplina,
French Revolution in the eighteenth cen- and h e cites the authority of Cicero. Ci-
tury to the Russian and Chinese Revolu- cero, however, seems to have avoided
tions in the twentieth and perhaps even any such one-sided view, Like the admi-
to the unexampled homicidal reactions rable humanist that he was, he no doubt
these inspired in Germany, Italy, and knew that what is wanted is not sympathy
alone, nor again discipline and selection
Japan, than the writing of Edmund Burke, alone, but a disciplined and selective sym-
whose summary judgment he cites with pathy. Sympathy without selection be-
approval: “Nothing is more certain than comes flabby, and a selection which is
that our manners, our civilization, and unsympathetic tends to grow disdainful.
all the good things that are connected
with manners and with civilization, have, It is a distinctive style of thinking that
in this European world of ours, depended produces a parallel passage in the open-
for ages upon two principles, and were ing pages of Rousseau and Romanticism:
indeed the result of both combined; I “Lifedoes not give here an element of
mean the spirit of a gentleman and the oneness and there an element of change.
spirit of religion.” It gives a oneness that is always changing.
It was only appropriate and just, there- The oneness and the change are insepa-
fore, that Babbitt’s compliments be re- rable. . . . Moreover man does not ob-
turned eventually t o himself by The Brit- serve t h e oneness that is always chang-
ish Weekly when it observed that “for ing from the outside; he is himself a

108 Winter 1992

oneness that is always changing. . . when they announced gravely that
and finally the human oneness that is “Babbitt’s fame is spreading round the
always changing seems to vanish away world; it has already left Harvard Yard!”
entirely. . . .”Thisstriking phenomenon If Babbitt was misunderstood, it is
does not lead Babbitt t o nihilism but to because he is, despite his surface sim-
t h e best-known q u o t a t i o n from plicity and clarity, an extremely subtle
Shakespeare’s Tempest, which he de- writer, whose profound complexities
scribes as the most critical account of sometimes seem to require an almost
man in modern literature: Hegelian cast of mind to unravel. His
We are such stuff
complexity is hardly less than the one
As dreams are made on, and our little
which confronts us in T.S. Eliot’s early
life and unsurpassed essay Tradition and
Is rounded with a sleep. the Individual Talent, which has some
stylistic resemblance t o such passages
Babbitt comments upon this apothegm: as I have quoted and presses his point of
“But though strictly considered, life is view perhaps too far but in a direction in
but a web of illusion and a dream within which it was already leaning.
a dream, it is a dream that needs to be The soundness of Babbitt’s work and
managed with the utmost discretion, if it the honest value it continues to give
is not to turn into a nightmare.” readers after almost a century are what
It is little wonder that Babbitt was have made it outlast the objections of
moved to complain that his concept of most of its critics. Rousseau and Roman-
Humanism, which became a fighting ticism has never been allowed to go out
word in 1930, was often misunderstood. of print. Its latest edition makes it part of
The year 1930, which marked the onset The Library of Conservative Thought
of the most famous of American eco- under the imprint of Transaction Pub-
nomic Depressions, was also the annus lishers. It is introduced by Professor
mirabilis of Babbitt’s career, which saw Claes G. Ryn of The Catholic University
the publication of two essay collections of America, who has written several times
(Norman Foerster’s Humanism and sympathetically about Babbitt before.
America and C. Hartley Crattan’s Cri- He finds Babbitt peculiarly prescient and
tique Of Humanism) that centered their pertinent to a present situation, which
attention on Babbitt and made him, for a can only be depicted in primary colors:
brief season, almost a household name The further deterioration anticipated by
among American intellectuals, merging Babbitt has come about much as he ex-
insensibly with the identical name of pected. If some worrisome social trends
Sinclair Lewis’s fictional character of a are to be expected in the best of times,
decade before. The confusion was com- the signs of decay in the Western world at
pounded by the award during the same the end of the twentieth century are
year of the Nobel Prize for Literature to myriad and pervasive. Self-indulgenceand
Sinclair Lewis (the first American to be irresponsibility, lack of discipline; decline
so honored), who chose the world po- of family life; crime and other dishonesty;
dium for an attack on the American Hu- political opportunism and a demagogu-
manists. The ensuing journalistic excite- ery; obtrusive commercialism; financial
manipulation; indiscriminate deficit-
ment produced an invitation for Babbitt spending and borrowing; political and
to address a throng of 3,000 persons in economic corruption; drug abuse; sexual
New York‘s Carnegie Hall, confounding promiscuity; sexually transmitted dis-
those Harvard wiseacres who had once ease; academic superficiality,ideologizing
mocked him as a local campus luminary

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and intolerance; low and sinking educa- American equivalent of a Mussolini; he
tional standards; religious sentimental- may be needed to save us from the Ameri-
ism; vulgarity, cruelty and debauchery in can equivalent of a Lenin. Such an emer-
art and entertainment; abuse of nature- gency is not to be anticipated, however,
in their glaring and epidemic proportions unless we drift even further than we have
these phenomena all point in the same thus far from the principles that underlie
direction. In spite of the multiplying evi- our unionist tradition.
dence of a precipitous decline of civiliza-
tion, many,especially in the United States, History has not been kind to this pas-
hail present-day Western “democracy” sage, and it did much to compromise
as a model and want to bestow it upon all Babbitt’s reputation, especially among
humanity. such left-leaning intellectuals of the 1930s
as Sidney Hook (who later became a
No doubt there is a feeling of elation at leading anti-Communist but supported
the lifting (however tentative and uncer- the Communist ticket in the election of
tain) of the oppressive Soviet nightmare 1932), Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley,
from humanity. But in 1919, too, when Kenneth Burke, MaxLerner, Harold Laski,
Rousseau and Romanticism appeared, and others, whose journalistic prognos-
there was a feeling of relief at the Armi- tications fared even worse than Babbitt’s.
stice ending the Great War, which Bab- There is little justification for singling
bitt describes in Rousseau and Romanti- out such a passage, however objection-
cism a s “the crowning stupidity of the able, and using it as a shibboleth to
ages.. . . N o more delirious spectacle reject the generally sound conservatism
I has ever been witnessed than that of of Babbitt, any more than there would be
hundreds of millions of human beings for using some of the barbed allusions of
using a vast machinery of scientific effi- Burke against Jewish stockbrokers to
ciency to turn life into a hell for one reject the main thrust of his powerful
another. . . .The dissolution of civiliza- philippics against the French Revolu-
tion with which we are threatened is tion. Surely, the basic attitude of Babbitt
likely t o be worse in some respects than towards all leaders like Mussolini is the
that of Greece or Rome in view of the one expressed in a passage of Rousseau
success that has been attained in ‘per- and Romanticism in which he speaks of
fecting the mystery of murder.”’ “the most dangerous of all the sham
The war, instead of realizing the lib- religions of the modern age-the reli-
eral Wilsonian dream of “making the gion of country, the frenzied nationalism
world safe for democracy,” made the that is now threatening to make an end of
world safe for the monstrous tyrannies civilization itself.”
of Bolshevism in Russia and National More telling than the criticism of ad-
Socialism in Germany. For a brief time in versaries entirely out of sympathy with
the early 1920s, Italy seemed to present Babbitt’s point of view are the occa-
a less malignant alternative, so that Bab- sional reservations of friends who feel
bitt in 1924 in Democracy and Leadership they have learned much from him but
could write: are not convinced about the accuracy of
Though the triumph of any type of impe- his terminology. Thus we find Russell
rialistic leader is a disaster, especially in Kirk, who cites a passage in T.S. Eliot,
a country like our own that has known the questioning the definition of so impor-
blessings of liberty under the law, never- tant a word to Babbitt a s “romanticism.”
theless there is a choice even here. Cir- The passage from Eliot is in his 1934
cumstances may arise when we may es- lecture After Strange Gods:
teem ourselves fortunate if we get the

110 Winter 1992

It is true that from time to time writers all women, and the vast majority of men
have labelled themselves “romanticists” always have been, are and probably al-
or “classicists,”just as they have from ways will be romantic. This is true even
time to time banded themselves together of a classical period like the second half
under other names. These names which
of the seventeenth century in France.”
groups of writers and artists give them-
selves are the delight of professors and To be romantic in this almost univer-
historians of literature, but should not be sal sense is evidently what comes natu-
taken very seriously; their chief value is rally to mankind; to become something
temporary and political-that, simply, of else requires self-conscious effort and/
helping to make the authors better known or instruction to which we are averse.
to a contemporary public.. . .” Only one in thousands would seem ca-
pable of satisfying so stringent a require-
Reflecting on the difficulty of classify- ment, and yet Babbitt strikes us as being
ing such pillars of established institu- the very opposite of a snob. To be a good
tions as Sir Walter Scott and Coleridge humanist, in his own sense, he assures
alongwith subverters of them likeShelley us on more than one occasion, means
and Godwin under t h e same rubric, apparently little more than “to be mod-
Russell Kirk regretfully concludes that erate, sensible, and decent.” The defini-
“perhaps Babbitt should have chosen tion is so broadly welcoming and demo-
some otherword with which to label the cratically inclusive as to exclude virtu-
literary and artistic enthusiasts for over- ally no one from the fold. Irving Babbitt
throwing the established order-politi- was no seeker after a cult following.
cal, moral, economic, and cultural-in Babbitt’s interest in literature appears
order to shape the world nearer to their never to have been primarily linguistic.
heart’s desire.” It is hardly accidental that he shares
It is a weighty objection, but I am not with us an anecdote about the Buddha
convinced by it. Nor am I altogether which has the Enlightened One answer-
convinced that Eliot’s words were inten- ing a disciple who inquires about what
tionally aimed in the direction of his old language is to be used in communicating
mentor; they may have been aimed at his gospel by saying that it does not
some of his associates with whom some really signify, since the import of the
of Babbitt’s insights had turned into cant message is so urgent that hearers are
terms with which to belabor their oppo- bound t o understand no matter what the
nents. Despite its difficulties, it is not language in which it is preached. So
easy to find a replacement for the word much for those who are inclined to make
romanticism that would be equally use- a fetish of language and its magical pow-
ful in describing a wide variety of related ers. The old-fashioned distinction be-
phenomena. Babbitt himself was not tween form and matter, so often denied
unaware that his b e s t efforts t o nowadays, was evidently adhered t o by
deglamorize the word would not suc- the Buddha, by Babbitt, and by Alexander
ceed in depriving it of its honorific sound Pope in his Essay OR Criticism.
and associations, especially in America, If language and its problems are of no
which takes pride in being virtually syn- fundamental interest to Babbitt, neither
onymous with the romantic dream. It is I’m afraid is another central interest of
not for nothing that, at the very outset, many modern philosophers and literary
Babbitt should reassure his reader some- critics, namely pure aesthetics, which
what facetiously: “Those who look with tends in the direction of abstraction in
alarm on recent attacks on romanticism modern painting and literature such as
should becomforted. All children, nearly Gertrude Stein’s that modeled itself on

Modem Age Ill

it. However deeply sensitive to beauty tent in his repetition but full of surprise,
he may have been, Babbitt would not for which a t times rises to the revelatory.
a moment join thinkers like Benedetto What interests Babbitt in literature
Croce or his learned American disciple most of all are the traces of wisdom
Joel EIias Spingarn, in taking the plea- discoverable there which may lead not
sure produced by formal elements to be only t o an understanding of life, its pos-
the deepest rationale of literary as well sibilities and limitations, but to an intel-
as other art, that aspired to the ideality ligent choice among these of the path
of abstract music, that told us, as likely to lead to a happiness, which,
Archibald MacLeish once did, that a rightly understood in the Aristotelian
poem must not mean, but BE. Long be- way, is “the end of ends” of human striv-
fore them all, of course, there was the ing. In “the battle of the books,” the
influential example of Edgar Allan Poe, to struggle between the ancients and
whom there are not infrequent allusions moderns, the advantage for Babbitt is
in Rousseau and Romanticism. Poe car- clearly on the side of the ancients. But
ried his aestheticism to the extremes this does not mean that he admires all of
which affected deeply Baudelaire in the the old masters or even any one of them
middle of t h e nineteenth century, unreservedly. Friendship to Plato does
Mallarmit toward t h e end, and Paul not exclude an even greater adherence
ValCry in the twentieth century. It must to the truth. Babbitt is not inclined to
be noted, however, that, though Babbitt idolatry even of the great classics. Hu-
rejects pure aestheticism and abstrac- manism insists that every claimant t o
tion, he is hardly more hospitable than attention be brought before the bar of
Poe to the naive didacticism that pre- individual judgment. The ancients have
vailed in America in Poe’s time. the advantage, because they have been
But if so much is rejected that is re- subject to the most ruthless winnowing,
garded by others as the essence of litera- not to speak of the hazards of historical
ture, what is there left more than that accident and destruction. The classics
ether once postulated in physics, which are what humanity has managed most
upon experiment proved nonexistent? desperately t o hold on to, through thick
That is a question which every conscien- and thin, for all the world as if they were
tious teacher of literature must face if he spiritual life-preservers. Babbitt calls
is not to regard his profession as a form them simply members of the highest and
of sophistry. It is at such a moment of best class of literary productions.
self-questioning and examination that Not the least interesting part of Rous-
reading Babbitt may become a bracing seau and Romanticism is its Appendix.
and meaningful experience. It is possible Here in several pages (after almost 400
that Babbitt himself went through such a densely packed pages of the book proper)
process before beginning to write at a Babbitt undertakes what would seem to
relatively mature age, and not writing be a Herculean scholarly task, which is
very much thereafter except when he to prove that the “romantic” period and
felt he had something urgent to say. The culture he has been describing previ-
signs of struggle are still palpable in his ously are not unprecedented historical
work, which may be what makes reading phenomena. There was a period in an-
him a vital experience, no matter how cient Chinese history in which Taoism, a
many times we may have done so before. naturalistic, primitivistic, pantheistic
The reader who feels challenged by him, movement opposed to the dominant
as he himself perhaps was once chal- Confucianism of its time, produced phe-
lenged, will not perceive him to be insis- nomena, events, personalities, and theo-

112 Winter 1992

ries strikingly similar t o some of those he son for many readers survives mainly as
has been describing in Western Euro- the liveliest of talkers or as the subject of
pean history of the past several centu- other biographers inspired by Boswell
ries. The effect of this Appendix, brief as to emulation or, as in the case of
it is, is to stress the element of unity in all Macaulay, to antipathy. Babbitt’s con-
human history, thesort of thingweshould versational talents, like those of most
expect if reality is, as Babbitt would have teachers who are masters (as he clearly
it, a oneness that is always changing. In was) of improvisation, are now irrecov-
fact, in rereading the book, and it is a erable. But the comparison may also
book which, if it held our attention serve to remind us that Johnson’s own
through one reading, emphatically de- writings, though not as popular as those
mands rereading, we could do worse of his enthusiastic friend, are hardly
than to start with this Appendix, which negligible. Alas, for those of us who never
may be helpful in tying together the saw Babbitt plain or sat spellbound at
various strands of Babbitt’s argument. his feet, only his books and essays re-
Babbitt seems quite as aware as Eliot main. And I for one am prepared to say
that every period is a mixture of sepa- that these are quite sufficient, parted as
rate and often conflicting intellectual they are from the fascination of a living
and philosophical tendencies. voice and the weight exerted by the
In the beautiful memorial of Irving spectacle of an integral person.
Babbitt, which T.S. Eliot wrote in his I, too, have my memories of my first
editorial commentary for the October encounter-not with Babbitt but with
1933 issue of The Criterion, he notes that his writing. It was in a college classroom
“Those who only know Babbitt through in 1933 when I was sixteen and enrolled
his writings and have had no contact in a course of freshman composition for
with him as a teacher and friend, will which the assigned textbook was edited
probably not be able to appreciate the by an admirer of Babbitt. After a full
greatness of his work. For he was prima- measure of the classic English essayists
rily and always a teacher and talker. He and a few Americans of the eighteenth
combined r a r e c h a r m and great and nineteenth centuries, there were a
force. . . .”These words, echoed in vari- couple of twentieth-century writers, one
ous ways by other students and friends of whom was Babbitt. It was the late
of Babbitt in the 1941 volume Irving Bab essay (mentioned earlier) on President
bitt: Man and Teacher, are calculated to Charles Eliot. The brilliant young instruc-
make a reader who has not enjoyed the tor of the course was a disciple of Karl
same advantage keenly regret his depri- Marx, and it is not surprising that Babbitt
vation. On the other hand, he is in a should have elicited less sympathy than
better position to refute the unintended incomprehension from him, but he was
imputation, for, if it were really so, we fair in his treatment in that the essay was
should hardly be discussing Babbitt’s among the select number that was as-
bookseventy-three years later, nor would signed for both reading and discussion.
a publisher be willing to risk his capital I wish I could say that I experienced
in making it possible for us to do so. Melville’s “shock of recognition” at this
The honorific but gratuitous compari- first meeting with so distinguished a
son made by several of Babbitt’s stu- mind, but I can’t. It was not the easiest
dents (but not by Eliot) between their work by Babbitt for an immature and
teacher and Samuel Johnson is hardly uninitiated student to be able to under-
illuminating if it reminds us that, owing stand and appreciate, especially when
to the talents of his friend Boswell, John- the intermediary presenting it as an

Modem Age 113

unsympathetic to his point of view as where in the same issue. Pound’s letter
mine was. turns out to be a caustic rejoinder to
Fifty years later, I could read it as a another editorial by Eliot in the previous
confirmation of T.S. Eliot’s observation issue of the quarterly (July 1933). In
that “the point at which Babbitt’s ideas commenting on the appearance of two
converged with the greatest force was new intellectually respectable magazines
the subject of Education.” Unfortunately in America, both of them agitated by the
he has nothing to say about this essay, current social crisis, Eliot had ventured
which deserves both exposition and dis- to suggest that ethics might precede
cussion. Eliot tells us that he first met politics and economics in importance:
Babbitt in a Harvard classroom in 1909,
The system, which the intelligent econo-
when he was twenty-one, and his initial mist discovers or invents must immedi-
reaction seems to have been far from ately be related t o a moral system. I hold
perfect understanding, judging from his that it is ultimately the moralists and
description of Babbitt’s lectures as be- philosophers who must supply the foun-
ginning “anywhere” and ending “any- dations of statesmanship, even though
where.” We have attended too many lec- they never appear in the forum. We are
tures ourselves by professors inclined constantly told that the economic prob-
to ramble not to recognize that descrip lem cannot wait. It is especially true that
tion. What first caught the attention of the moral and spiritual problems cannot
Eliot and impressed him was the author- wait. They have waited too long.
ity, excitement about ideas, and inde-
pendence with which Babbitt taught, “the As if this were not provocative enough,
impression that a lifetime was too short he had dared to quote at some length
for telling us all he wanted to say.” from the Bible a passage about Moses,
To return to my own experience- Aaron, and the Children of Israel wan-
though my own first response was more dering in the wilderness and bitterly
puzzlement than anything else-a seed lamenting their exchange of the security
had obviously been sown which was to of Egypt for freedom. The suggestion of
flower luxuriantly much later, when my unity at the heart of all change in the
infatuation with Marx and the Revolu- human condition was certainly strong.
tion had become a dead letter. During Too strong for Pound, who exploded
that infatuation, however, a flickering in characteristic rage and satirical mock-
interest in Babbitt never quite left me, at ery of his friend’s piety, adding more
least to the extent that I began to regard calmly: “It is not a question of the Editor
him, when I read something else he had believing that ‘a conception of the good
written or refreshed my recollection of life for the individual’ must underly po-
something I had already read, as a no- litical-economic ideas. The issue, in the
table reactionary thinker, a redoubtable Eleventh Year of the Fascist Revolution
adversary of all the notions I had fondly is that ‘the good life’ is impossible until
entertained. Babbitt’s gravity (of mean- certain very simple facts are perceived,
ing more than of manner) made itself [e.g.] That every factory and every in-
felt, as in the Platonic Dialogues that I dustrycreates in agiven period a mass of
encountered around the same time. prices greater than the amount of pur-
By an odd but arresting coincidence, chasing power it puts into circula-
Eliot’s tribute to Babbitt in The Criterion tion.. . .” H e then goes on t o recom-
was followed by his note directing the mend reading C.H. Douglas and Woergl,
reader’s attention to a letter to the editor names familiar t o all readers of his
from Ezra Pound in Rapallo, printed else- “money pamphlets” as well as his Cun-

114 Winter 1992

tos, and certainly known t o Eliot who had judgment could have come as no sur-
published many of them in The Criterion prise to Pound, but he still felt that Eliot
and was to call him the next year in After was not paying sufficient attention to the
Strange Gods “probably the most impor- Bibliography he had compiled for him
tant living poet in our language.” This instead of wasting his time on the Bible.


What tributes shall I bring to you when eager and contentious we

My Friend debated
who have now met, as Henry James those chronic lmponderables-
put it, Life, Love, and Art-
The Distinguished Thing? though reaching no conclusions, No-
not even yet, after these forty years.
Some spontaneous tears
for I was not there to press your hand And I remember our summer of
and commit you to a Bon Voyage canoeing
as you set sail for that other country. when life was sweet and easy
as the little waves that bowed to our
But I remember a soft September night paddles.
when we walked out beyond the
village lights Now it is another autumn
to that little park and 1 see you striding across a
where a caged solitary bear engaged meadow
our pity heavy with sunlight, dappled with
and we spoke of the ways of bears and golden-rod.
not always to the credit of men. Wait for me beside that blazing oak
that curves an arm out over the river.
And I remember our Sunday night
suppers I shall not be long in coming.
with Dick and Fritz and Mary-
the poet, the painter, the pianist- I am already on the way.

-Louise Dauner

Modem Age 115