J.E. Spingarn

By: Devin McKinney
May 17, 2014


J.E. SPINGARN (1875–1939), professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, was, save H.L. Mencken, the most pugnacious literary critic of the interregnum between the Gilded Age and the Lost Generation. Even the Sage of Baltimore admired his chutzpah: “He tackles all the antagonistic groups of orthodox critics seriatim, and knocks them about unanimously… One and all, they take their places upon his operating table, and one and all they are stripped and anatomized.” Rejecting all moral and formal prerequisites (God and Aristotle were of equally marginal interest), directing rhetorical raspberries at the professorial Puritans, deflating the impressionistic excesses of Walter Pater and the Decadents, he held the line against ideology and dogma long enough for World War I to come along and finish the job. See Creative Criticism: Essays on the Unity of Genius and Taste (1917).

But Spingarn was also a soldier (he served in the war, rising to a colonel’s rank); a politician (he ran for the House as a liberal Republican, and was later a Progressive delegate); a renowned botanist (he imported the clematis to the US from England); a fearless proponent of academic freedom (he was dismissed by Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler for defending a fired colleague); and a civil-rights activist. Joining the NAACP upon its formation in 1909, he served the organization in numerous administrative capacities, and ended his life as its second president. The Spingarn Medal, an annual honor for “the highest or noblest achievement by an American Negro during the preceding year,” was first awarded in 1914; funded by a bequest in Spingarn’s will, it is still given today.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Erik Satie, Maureen O’Sullivan, Michel de Certau.

READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874–1883).


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