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The onus for social betterment fell on the individual, they argued, not on the institution or the state.The liberal arts should serve the perfection of the individual, and Babbitt and More, a literature professor and a book critic, insisted that literature should help the individual achieve that perfection through self-knowledge and self-discipline.
In Stockholm, where he received the gold medal and a check for $46,000 from King Gustaf V, Lewis thanked the Swedish Academy and then devoted the next hour to condemning American literature and criticism.
Most Americans, he told his European audience, “are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.” He railed against the jingoism and anti-intellectualism of American universities and colleges, lamenting that they excluded creative writers from their lecterns because professors liked their literature “cold and pure and very dead.” Lewis saved his harshest words for new humanism, a philosophical movement that promoted a restoration of moral teaching in the liberal arts and opposed deterministic theories of human nature, which he mocked as an “astonishing circus” and a “nebulous cult.” Elitist, moralizing, nostalgic for an imagined past — new humanism, he argued, epitomized the worst of American culture.
Charles Mc Grath, the former editor of the , suggested that the MFA program had transformed books from things to be bought and read into mere “credentials” for professors of creative writing.
Literature scholar Eric Bennett wrote that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his alma mater, discouraged all writing that wasn’t either minimalist, conversational and tenderhearted, or magical realist.
New humanism arose in the first decade of the 20th century as a response to the progressive education movement. Babbitt and More, in their mid-30s at the turn of the century, announced themselves as that rare thing universities have a knack for producing: young curmudgeons. Babbitt and More resented all forms of collectivism, all philosophies that put the group or the nation before the individual.
Irving Babbitt, a Harvard professor of French literature, and Paul Elmer More, a journalist and former student of Babbitt’s, popularized the conservative philosophy, Babbitt through his mentorship of privileged young men in Cambridge, including T. The humanist, Babbitt argued in his 1908 jeremiad, , “is interested in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole.” Those who called for social change, whether scientists, political reformers, or authors who tackled social problems, needed to look in the mirror, Babbitt and his disciples believed.
Some 20,000 aspiring writers apply to MFA programs every year, and the numbers continue to rise.
The range of writers who come out of graduate programs in creative writing make it difficult to argue that the MFA has somehow flattened literature, that T. Boyle, Sandra Cisneros, and Denis Johnson all write with something called “Iowa style.” The world of creative writing isn’t homogeneous, and for a lot of writers it offers time rather than instruction, two years to complete a book-in-progress rather than two years to mimic their advisor’s prose or verse.
The new humanist movement peaked in 1930, the year Lewis condemned it in Stockholm, and all but disappeared a few years later.
Babbitt died in 1933, and the Depression made his bootstrapping individualism a hard sell. In 1930, the new humanist philosopher Norman Foerster, who studied under Babbitt at Harvard, moved to Iowa City to direct the new School of Letters at the University of Iowa.