Two Cultural Critics
The Critical Legacy of Irving Babbitt: An Appreciation
A Few Reasonable Words: Selected Writings
by Patrick Henry Reardon
Originally published elsewhere, mainly as articles in the fine journal Modern Age, the essays contained in the first volume here reviewed are George Panichas’s stirring tribute to Irving Babbitt. Not initially intended to be components of a larger work on the same subject, their content is marked by a great measure of repetition that some readers, one fears, will find annoying. This reader, nonetheless, did not find the feature annoying, because the things that Babbitt had to say, quite simply, cannot be said often enough.
I came to this book already persuaded that Irving Babbitt was one of the most important writers and possibly the most important critic of this century, an impression forced upon my mind some decade or so ago when I read his Literature and the American College. Utterly stunned by that work, I immediately took it as a distressing mark of our times that my own three decades of formal education, though entirely devoted to religion, history, and letters, had never introduced me to Babbitt. (If I had ever heard of him at all, it was only as an early teacher of T. S. Eliot, mentioned in passing.)
I am entirely sympathetic with Professor Panichas, then, as he returns repeatedly to the great themes that characterize Babbitt’s thought: the ethical basis of the artistic and literary imagination, the distinguishing features separating quality from quantity, the preference for selection over sympathy, “the discipline of a central standard,” the ongoing need for “an aristocracy of character and intelligence,” and especially the “inner check” of humility, which Babbitt regarded as the first and foundational of the virtues.
The chief objection that conservatives, such as Paul Elmer More and T. S. Eliot, have brought against Babbitt is that he was not an orthodox Christian. Well, fair enough. Schooled in both Sanskrit and Pali, Babbitt was heavily influenced by the Far East and owed much to both the Buddha and Confucius. His religious philosophy, in fact, is amply treated throughout Panichas’s book and more especially in an individual essay devoted solely to that subject. I agree completely with his point that, since Babbitt never portrayed himself as a Christian theologian, he should not be tried as a heretic—that he should be judged, not for the soundness of his theology, but for the value of his wise insights and humane convictions.
Especially interesting were Panichas’s two essays in which Babbitt was compared and contrasted with Simone Weil and Richard Weaver. In the first instance the author outlined an intriguing investigation of Weil’s The Need for Roots and Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership. In the second case his study took the form of a sustained analysis of Babbitt’s Character and Culture and Weaver’s Visions of Order. While both comparative studies are very instructive, in the second case it is proper to speak of “influence,” because Weaver most certainly had studied the works of Babbitt.
While the structure of this work is thematic, a certain biographical interest is added by the insertion of a chronological outline of Babbitt’s life and work. To sum up, this first book is recommended very highly.
Professor Panichas also wrote the introduction to the second book here reviewed, a volume of essays by the publisher Henry Regnery. Most of these were published over a quarter century in the pages of Modern Age, a journal that Regnery was instrumental in founding and is now edited by Panichas himself.
Regnery’s essays here, all falling under a general heading of cultural criticism, are chiefly characterized by an engaging narrative style constantly supported by personal reminiscence. It is a book about authors and books during this century.
Upon the center of this century, of course, falls the shadow of World War II, a subject treated appropriately in the book’s central section. Regnery, himself responsible for publishing much of the relevant literature about those war years, surveys the many examples of revisionist history with respect to World War II, especially the roles of FDR, Stalin, and Churchill. Often at odds with typical schoolbook history in both perspective and emphasis, this part of the volume is a very sad but well-documented tale of serious moral irresponsibility on the part of the political leadership of the Allied Powers, before, during, and after the war, and with respect to both military theaters.
Other cultural, historical, and literary critics, some of them originally published by Regnery himself, are surveyed in the book’s opening and closing essays: Albert J. Nock, Richard M. Weaver, Russell Kirk, Max Picard, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and others, including the composer Richard Strauss. Of special delight is the essay describing the life-long triple friendship of Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and T. S. Eliot. This is an instructive and enjoyable volume.
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“Two Cultural Critics” first appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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