- Learning to be Modern: Pound, Eliot, and the American University
The subject of Gail McDonald’s book—the interrelations between Pound, Eliot, and higher education in America—is so obviously of interest that it is surprising such a project has not been undertaken before now. To be sure, as McDonald shows, almost from its inception high modernism was passionately defended or violently attacked for its pedagogical implications; but partisan arguments for or against modernism were themselves conducted within a larger debate about the aims of education in the modern university, and hence were hardly in a position to clarify either that debate or Pound and Eliot’s relationship to it. More recently, as the dust has settled, a number of studies have reconstructed high modernism’s historical contexts, but have tended to define these contexts either as political or broadly intellectual rather than pedagogical. The history of liberal education, and more particularly of literary criticism as an academic discipline, on the other hand, has become the object of study in its own right, above and beyond its connection to the literary history of modernism. McDonald’s special contribution consists in having brought the findings of institutional historians of literary studies to bear on Pound and Eliot, to show convincingly that the same imperatives that led to the reinvention of humanistic education in the early twentieth century also led Pound and Eliot to reinvent poetry and criticism in forms that would meet the needs of a professionalized academy.
The two poets, in fact, did not come to their craft independent of the university, but were themselves personally caught up in the vortex of change roiling higher education in [End Page 164] America during their formative years. Eliot’s own grandfather, McDonald points out, was one of the primary instigators of that change. As president of Harvard, he helped transform America’s premier educational institution from a religious college designed to produce gentlemen scholars into the very model of a modern research university designed to produce scientists and businessmen. For professors of literature, this sea-change in the aims of education posed a particularly difficult problem. How was one to justify the study of poetry in a world where culture itself could be seen as a distraction from career, as a feminine, leisure-class pursuit? The first response, during the 1880s and 1890s, was to promote philology as a form of criticism that merited the name of scientific research. But as McDonald makes clear, by the time Eliot and Pound entered college, philology seemed less a scientific practice than a mechanical one—“beanery,” Pound called it—and the search was on for other ways to justify literary study as offering more than what Pound derided as old-fashioned Arnoldian “Uplift” or belle-lettristic “Recreation.” Two main alternatives emerged: Irving Babbitt’s New Humanism, with its insistence that criticism had the authority to submit the naive and unruly self to the discipline of tradition; and John Dewey’s progressivism, with its equally strong insistence that criticism had the power to enable students to question authority and cope with the unpredictable contingencies of the present.
This is by now a well rehearsed story whose dialectical outlines McDonald summarizes gracefully. Her primary focus, however, is less on the intricacies of the debate than on how it provided a point of departure for Pound’s and Eliot’s efforts to rethink and renew the bases of poetic and critical authority. By looking closely at hitherto neglected, unpublished, or obscure material from early in their careers, McDonald shows how both men struggled to invent a vocabulary for educational/poetic experience that could synthesize Babbitt’s anti-subjectivist discipline and Dewey’s skeptical presentism. For Pound, the solution was radically to personalize authority, tradition, and the educational experience, a move that permitted him to pump up Dewey-like skepticism into a violent iconoclasm blasting corrupt institutions even as he out-Babbitted Babbitt in worshipful devotion to a set of self-selected authority figures (Ford, Antheil, Gaudier-Brzeska, Fenollosa, Agassiz, etc.) deemed capable...