Irving Babbitt: The Masters of Modern French Criticism

With an Introduction by Milton Hindus

Farrar, Straus, 1963 (1912)

Front and Back Flap:

BabbittIn this book Babbitt discusses the most significant of the nineteenth-century critics. He begins wih Madame de Staël and Chateaubriand, continues through Sainte-Beuve, Taine and Schérer, and ends with Renan and Brunetière. Babbitt not only analyzes the ideas and taste biases of these thinkers, but he annunciates his own critical position as well. Babbitt, the teacher of T. S. Eliot, Van Wyck Brooks, Austin Warren, Norman Foerster and Theodore Spencer, has and continues to have a great influence on American thought. The bitter enemy of romanticism, he looked to a new humanism to combat the rise of an excessive subjectivity. He demanded restraint, discipline, and a hard-headed study of the facts. His insistence that what writers write can be studied independent of their lives helped inspire the “New Criticism”.

The questions that Babbitt deals with in The Masters of Modern French Criticism are still of the utmost importance and the book remains as up-to-date as when it was issued. In an introduction written especially for this edition, Professor Hindus speaks of Babbitt as one of those rare seminal minds from whom important new concepts have arisen. This is certainly true, but in addition Babbitt is a great historian of ideas. The long essay on Sainte-Beuve is a masterpiece of exposition; so also is the recreation of the thought of the little-known Schérer. It is surprising that this amazingly vital book has been so long out of print.

JOB’s Comment:

Like The New Laokoon, this book is a comparatively “specialized” study – Babbitt would of course have objected to this description, and rightly, but because of the period studied and the critics selected, this is clearly how it is now perceived by many – in literary criticism and to some extent aesthetic theory in broader sense, and thus one of the least read and discussed even among Babbitt’s admirers and followers today. But the extensive essays on these leading nineteenth-century critics add considerably to his general analysis of romanticism and the modern mind, as well as to the formulation of his own defence – as expressed in terms of literary criticism – of a renewed “classicist” humanism based on a deeper understanding of the imagination and the will. Hindus’s introduction is passable, but a new edition with a philosophical introduction by Ryn or someone else associated with the National Humanities Institute, the main custodian of Babbitt’s legacy today, which has also creatively developed his ideas further, would be welcome.

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