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COLLECTION Identifier: HUG 1185

Papers of Irving Babbitt


Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), a Professor of French Literature at Harvard University, was a social and literary critic, essayist, and philosopher. He was the founder of the New Humanism movement.


  • Creation: 1855, 1881-1965,
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1908-1935


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13.2 cubic feet (31 document boxes, 1 flat file box)

The Papers of Irving Babbitt document his roles as social and literary critic, essayist, and philosopher. They contain little information describing Babbitt's teaching methods or curriculum.


Irving Babbitt, Professor of French Literature at Harvard University, was a social and literary critic, essayist, and philosopher.

Irving Babbitt was born on August 2, 1865 in Dayton, Ohio to Edwin Dwight Babbitt and Augusta (Darling) Babbitt. Upon the death of his mother at the age of eleven, Babbitt and his brother, Tom, and sister, Katherine, moved to Madisonville, Ohio to live with their grandparents on their family farm. When his father remarried, Babbitt and Katherine moved to Cincinnati and attended Woodward High School. Babbitt graduated second in his high school class out of 50 students. However, he stayed in school a year longer to study chemistry and civil engineering and as a result, entered Harvard College at the age of 20 in 1885.

Immediately after graduation in 1889, Babbitt was named Professor of Latin and Greek at the College of Montana. Two years later, he left Montana to pursue post-graduate studies in Pali literature and Buddhist traditions at the Écoles des Hautes-Études in Paris. Returning to the United States, Babbitt continued his studies at Harvard College and received a Masters Degree in 1893 in classical literature and ancient Eastern languages. Upon graduation, Babbitt was selected as an Instructor of Romance Languages at Williams College.

Babbitt's career at Harvard College resumed in 1894 when he was appointed an Instructor of French. He was to remain at Harvard College for almost forty years serving as an Assistant Professor of French (1902-1912) and Professor of French Literature (1912-1933). Babbitt was a brilliant teacher who left a lasting impression upon his students. His most famous lectures on the Romantic Movement in England, France, and Germany were popular with both graduate and undergraduate students. Drawing on the ideas of the ancient philosophers of China, Greece, and Rome, Babbitt introduced the comparative study of different literary traditions to Harvard College.

Babbitt became a legendary and controversial figure at Harvard College as the founder and champion of the New Humanism movement during the first half of the twentieth century. First expressed in a lecture, What is Humanism, in 1895 at the University of Wisconsin, Babbitt criticized the Romantic Movement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and declared that the naturalism of the 18th century philosopher had a negative influence upon Western civilization and the United States. Babbitt asserted that the naturalistic tendencies of Rousseau had produced a mechanistic society that worshipped power and force above in all, and that, at the same time, society had become sentimental, emotional, and indulgent, liberated from all restraints. For Babbitt, naturalism dissolved individual self-control and consigned human beings to the role of reflex agents under the control of race, the environment, or other natural forces.

As a writer, Babbitt campaigned against the excesses of emotionalism and impulse. He wrote in the light of a humanistic philosophy and touched upon a wide range of issues that effected contemporary culture including education, social and political problems, the arts, literature, philosophy, and religion. In 1908 Babbitt began to define the New Humanism in Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities, when he opposed the introduction of an elective curriculum and specialized courses at Harvard College; he preferred an education based on classical models. In The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910), Babbitt complained of the confused nature of modern art and the emotional and individualistic natural instincts of the Romantic Movement. In this work, Babbitt promoted the idea of an "inner check" that he described as a person's ability to control his impulses and instincts. In The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912) and Rousseau and Romanticism (1919) Babbitt continued his criticism of Rousseau's philosophy and charged it with contributing to the decline of literature. In 1924 Babbitt attacked the democratization of literature and by extension, society, in Democracy and Leadership. For Babbitt, the democratic aims of equality resulted in anarchy and chaos. Finally, in On Being Creative and Other Essays (1932), Babbitt argued that a humanistic philosophy might become a substitute for religion in order to control and check excessive human action because for many, religious belief had become irrelevant.

In an age of Modernism, Babbitt's New Humanism was greeted with derision from contemporary critics. His central doctrines went against the intellectual currents of the time. Moreover, Babbitt's critics charged that he was someone who was mired in the past and afraid of anything new. Babbitt's beliefs and ideas were widely discussed among young intellectuals in both Europe and the United States at the end of the 1920s. With articles in The Forum and other magazines, Babbitt's philosophy was exposed to a large audience. He participated in lectures discussing his humanistic doctrine and in 1930 spoke before a crowd of 3000 people at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In 1930, Humanism and America, a collection of fifteen essays by Babbitt and his supporters was published. This book was countered by his opponents and detractors in reviews, magazine articles, and editorials. Although Babbitt's ideas had created a great philosophical debate, when the Great Depression started, public interest shifted to more practical economic and political problems and Babbitt's New Humanism faded into the background.


Although Babbitt and his followers did not gain ascendancy during their heyday, Babbitt's humanistic ideas became one of the most important influences in the development of conservative intellectual thought following World War II. Babbitt's concepts can be seen in the writings of such conservative scholars as Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and George Will. Moreover in 1957, the journal Modern Age was founded to promote Babbitt's humanistic standards. Finally at Harvard College, Babbitt was recognized for his contributions to the study of comparative literature, when the Irving Babbitt Professorship of Comparative Literature was established in December 1959.

Irving Babbitt was married to Dora May (Drew) Babbitt on June 12, 1900. They had two children, Esther and Edward Sturges.

Irving Babbitt died on July 15, 1933 in Cambridge after a long illness.

References used for this biography were:

  1. Buch, Richard P. Fair-Harvard's Intellectual Giants of the Early 1930s, Modern Age 32, no. 2 (1988) : 113-121.
  2. Bentinck-Smith, William and Elizabeth Stouffer. Harvard University, History of Named Chairs. Cambridge, Massachusetts: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1991.
  3. Foerster, Norman. Irving Babbitt. Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1-2: To 1940, American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958. Biography Resource Center. 5 May 2004. servlet/BioRc.
  4. Hoeveler, David. Babbitt, Irving; 16-00059.html; American National Biography Online February 2000.
  5. Irving Babbitt. Contemporary Authors Online, Gale 2003. Biography Resource Center. 5 May 2004. servlet/BioRc.
  6. Irving Babbitt. Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 22. Gale Group 2002. Biography Resource Center. 5 May 2004.
  7. Irving Babbitt. Harvard Class Reports, Class of 1889, 50th Anniversary Report (1939) : 90-96.
  8. Mather, Frank Jewett. Irving Babbitt. The Harvard Graduate's Magazine, December 1933, 65-84.
  9. Robinson, Fred N., Jeremiah D.M. Ford, and Louis J.A. Mercier. Minute on the Life and Services of Professor Irving Babbitt. Harvard University Gazette (October 14, 1933) : 13-14.

Series and Subseries inthe Collection

  1. Biographical Materials
  2. ___Family Correspondence
  3. ___Writings about Irving Babbitt
  4. ___Student Materials
  5. ___Subject Files
  6. Correspondence
  7. ___ Correspondence between Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More
  8. ___Academic Correspondence
  9. ___Alphabetically arranged correspondence
  10. ___Chronologically arranged correspondence
  11. ___Publisher's Correspondence
  12. ___Dora Babbitt Correspondence
  13. Writings
  14. Lectures
  15. Research Notes
  16. Teaching Materials

Obsolete Call Numbers

The following list provides a map to old call numbers that were eradicated by the archivist during the 2004 consolidation. All the papers of Irving Babbitt now fall under the single call number HUG 1185.

  1. HUG 1185.1 Annotated bibliography: moved to Writings series.
  2. HUG 1185.2 Notes, High School, Cincinnati: moved to Biographical series.
  3. HUG 1185.3 Notes, college: moved to Biographical series.
  4. HUG 1185.4 Notes, graduate study: moved to Biographical series.
  5. HUG 1185.5 Letters to, financial records: moved to Correspondence series and Biographical series.
  6. HUG 1185.6 Clippings about, by, reviews of books: moved to Biographical series, Writings series, and Lectures series.
  7. HUG 1185.7 Notes and miscellaneous fragments: moved to Research Notes series.
  8. HUG 1185.8 Manuscript of Dhammapada: moved to Writings and Lectures series.
  9. HUG 1185.9 Pamphlets annotated by Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  10. HUG 1185.10 Babbitt and More correspondence: moved to Correspondence series.
  11. HUG 1185.10 Babbitt student folder: moved to Biographical series.
  12. HUG 1185.10.1 Babbitt and More correspondence: moved to Correspondence series.
  13. HUG 1185.12 Miscellaneous correspondence and other papers: moved to Correspondence series, Biographical series, and Writings series.
  14. HUG 1185.15 Humanism and Creation: moved to Biographical series.
  15. HUG 1185.17 Typewritten sketch of life of Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  16. HUG 1185.20 He searched the past: moved to Biographical series.
  17. HUG 1185.24 The Humanism of Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  18. HUG 1185.26 Minute on the life and service of Professor Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  19. HUG 1185.49 Irving Babbitt and the Teaching of Literature: moved to Biographical series.
  20. HUG 1185.52 Reminiscences of Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  21. HUG 1185.53 Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  22. HUG 1185.54 Irving Babbitt and the contemporary world: moved to Biographical series.
  23. HUG 1185.55 Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  24. HUG 1185.56 A note on Mr. Babbitt's psychology: moved to Biographical series.
  25. HUG 1185.57 Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  26. HUH 1185.60 Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  27. HUG 1185.80 Commemorative tribute to Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  28. HUG 1185.81 Walking with Irving Babbitt: moved to Biographical series.
  29. HUG 1185.92 Irving Babbitt. Portrait and Meditation: moved to Biographical series.

Custodial History

A great deal of the material in this collection was inspected and labeled by Dora Babbitt prior to its transfer to the Archives.

Acquisition Information

  1. Accession number: 09707; 1983 April 18.
  2. Accession number: 09714; 1983 May 2.
  3. Accession number: 10593; 1985 October 18.
  4. Accession number: 11004; 1987 January 16.
  5. 1933 Minute on the Life of Irving Babbitt, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  6. 1935 Reprint from the April number of Sewanee Review, donated by D. MacCampbell.
  7. 1938 A note on Mr. Babbitt's psychology; an essay in cooperation, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  8. 1938 Commemorative tribute to Irving Babbitt, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  9. 1938 Irving Babbitt, cutting from Harvard Graduate Magazine, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  10. 1938 Irving Babbitt, cutting from The Criterion, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  11. 1938 Irving Babbitt, Portrait and Meditation, by Dora Babbitt.
  12. 1938 Irving Babbitt, cutting from The University of Toronto Quarterly, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  13. 1938 Irving Babbitt and the contemporary world, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  14. 1938 He searched the past, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  15. 1938 Notes and papers, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  16. 1938 Reminiscences of Irving Babbitt, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  17. 1938 Walking with Irving Babbitt, donated by Dora Babbitt.
  18. 1946 Humanism and Creation, from the estate of E.K. Rand.
  19. 1951 The Humanism of Irving Babbitt, from Mrs. Theodore Spencer.
  20. 1960 Irving Babbitt and the Teaching of Literature, given by H. Levine.

Related Material

Irving Babbitt Project. National Humanities Institute. Washington, D.C.The National Humanities Institute serves as a repository for works by, about, or influenced by Irving Babbitt.

Search HOLLIS (Harvard's online library system) for works by and about Irving Babbitt.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 November 9.

Processing Note

Re-processed June 2004 by Dominic P. Grandinetti.

Re-processing included the consolidation of materials cataloged under twenty-eight separate call numbers, re-housing materials in the appropriate containers, establishment of series and subseries hierarchy, and the creation of this finding aid. The archivist placed the documents into acid-free folders, re-housed the materials into archival document boxes, and examined the folder contents to establish the date of the material. Call numbers were consolidated. A list of obsolete call numbers > appears at the end of the finding aid.

Materials that the University Archives does not generally collect such as medical reports, income tax forms, and Harvard College grade lists were weeded and discarded.

News clippings in this collection were photocopied onto acid-free paper. However, many of the clippings were broken and only fragments of the originals could be saved.

Details about the re-processing and arrangement of each series are noted below.

Babbitt, Irving, 1865-1933. Papersof Irving Babbitt : an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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