Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


The New Humanist Controversy and the Conservative-Modernist Split in American Intellectual Life




College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Between 1928 and 1930, American intellectuals engaged in a contentious debate about the New Humanists, a group of conservative critics led by the classicists Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, who had been prominent in American life for twenty years, if not more. The Humanists attacked what they saw as excessive individualism and self-indulgence in America, supposedly caused by a "modernist" or naturalist moral philosophy. They declared self-restraint and decorum to be the needed antidotes, hearkening back to a cultural philosophy firmly rooted in the Victorian era and seemingly long irrelevant to American life. Their ideas were positively antique, and yet they somehow touched a cultural nerve in 1928. What was it, and why in the late 1920s, after a decade of tumultuous social and cultural change? The controversy allowed intellectuals, Right and Left, to recapitulate and bring to a conclusion debates that had been percolating for a decade: How had the overwhelming force of technological and social change transformed culture and the arts? Should cultural leadership be tied to religious or moral standards? What is the relation of the intellectual to the public? Both sides in the debate gave clear and opposing answers, yet the commonalities between the contending factions are most striking. Nevertheless, the resolution of the controversy was a jarring rupture in American intellectual life. After the controversy, highbrow cultural traditionalists would emerge simply as self-identified "conservatives." Their opponents, identified by any number of labels, became proponents of a distinct and, to conservatives, dangerous modern spirit.

Conference Name

Third Annual U. S. Intellectual History (USIH) Conference

Conference Location

New York City, Manhattan

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