American Critics. An unsigned review of The Reinterpretation of American Literature: Some Contributions toward the Understanding of its Historical Development, ed. Norman Foerster
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568 ] American Critics An unsigned review of The Reinterpretation of American Literature: Some Contributions toward the Understanding of its Historical Development, ed. Norman Foerster New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928. Pp. xv + 271. The Times Literary Supplement, 1406 (10 Jan 1929) 24 This book is a compilation of essays on related subjects, written on various occasions, but having something of the nature of a symposium, though the various authors do not criticize each other. It is of considerable general interest. The authors are chiefly of the academic world and of the younger generation; they represent the most intelligent aspect of contemporary American scholarship. During the last twenty years, and largely under the influence of Irving Babbitt at Harvard and his friends, a new type of American scholar has appeared. While the influence of President Eliot, of Harvard, dominated – roughly during the last quarter of the nineteenth century–thestandardsofAmericanuniversityscholarshipwereTeutonic.1 The degree of Doctor of Philosophy was all important; in the field of letters it was obtained by minute researches and Forschungen.2 The teacher of modern languages was well equipped with Gothic and Icelandic and Low Latin, but was often without any wide philosophic view of literature, and completely out of touch with the creative work of his own time. Now the tendency is to fly to the other extreme: no American college is without a course or two in contemporary literature, and even of contemporary American literature; and contemporary literature is perhaps given an exaggerated importance. It must be pointed out that the influence of Professor Babbitt has been to establish a just balance: not to disparage the scholarly research of such men as Kittredge and his pupils, which has borne good fruit in our time in the work of men like Professor John Livingstone Lowes, of Harvard, and, on the other hand, not to neglect contemporary literature , but to judge it by universal and severe criteria.3 Mr. Norman Foerster is one of the most brilliant of Mr. Babbitt’s disciples , and one of those nearest to the master.4 His recent work, American Criticism (which has not yet been published in England), contains, besides [ 569 American Critics muchsoundcriticism,anauthoritativeexpositionofthe“NewHumanism.”5 He has edited, with a preface, this collection of essays by colleagues of the American Literature Group of the Modern Language Association.6 These writers demand in unison a thorough revision of the traditional views of American literature and of the traditional methods of composing histories of American literature. As Mr. Pattee’s essay entitled “A Call for a Literary Historian” (reprinted from the American Mercury) shows, they are much in sympathy with the modern school of American history and desire to cooperate with it.7 They seem to belong, furthermore, to what may be called (without too much emphasis on dates and ages) the third generation of modern American criticism. The first generation is represented by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More (the former little known, the latter almost completely ignored, in this country). Theirs was the first attempt to deprovincialize America, to replace the fireside criticism of men like James Russell Lowell by the harder standards of Sainte-Beuve and Taine and Renan.8 There followed a more impatient group of critics of America, represented in the rougher sort by Mr. Mencken with his Prejudices and Americana, and in the genteeler sort by Mr. Van Wyck Brooks with his Wine of the Puritans and his Ordeal of Mark Twain.9 The tendency of Mr. Mencken was to exaggerate the value of everything contemporary which offended Boston – whether it offended the Puritan traditions of Beacon Hill or the views of the Irish-American bishopric; the tendency of Mr. Brooks to be merely querulous. The third generation represents the disciples of the first generation: among general men of letters it is represented by Mumford, Munson, Allen Tate, among others; in the universities it is represented by Mr. Foerster and his friends.10 It is one of the most interesting post-War phenomena of America. It could hardly exist, in its actual form,withouttheconfidenceandself-consciousnesswhichtheWararoused in America; but it represents also the sanest attempt to criticize and control this post-War America. It is true, as these writers join in affirming, that there is no good history of American literature. It is also true, as they seem to be aware, that such a history would be very difficult to write. Barrett Wendell’s monumental work, to which several of the writers refer sarcastically, is out of date; it...