Spingarn, Joel

Spingarn, Joel (Elias)

(1875–1939) literary critic, writer, social reformer, horticulturist; born in New York City. After taking all his degrees (through the Ph.D.) at Columbia University, he stayed on with the faculty (1899–1911) and gained an international reputation for his scholarly studies of literary criticism; his The New Criticism (1911) was among the first American works to draw heavily on the theories of the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. When he got into a dispute with Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia, over what he regarded as an issue of free speech, he was dismissed. A man of independent means, he would continue his literary pursuits pretty much on his own, although he occasionally taught at the New School for Social Research. He bought a newspaper in a small town outside New York City, the Amenia Times, and served as its publisher; in 1919 he would also help found Harcourt, Brace and Company, serving as its literary adviser until 1924. Spingarn had already shown an interest in the world outside the university—in 1908 he had run unsuccessfully as a Republican for the U.S. House of Representatives—and he would serve as a delegate of the Progressive Party at two national conventions. He had also helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (1909) and from 1911 on he was active with the NAACP, eventually serving as its president (1930–39). In 1913 he established the Spingarn Medal, still given annually to the African-American who has shown great achievement. During World War I he volunteered for service in the army and succeeded in setting up a special camp to train black officers. He was a delegate to the convention that established the American Legion. He continued to publish his literary studies, his own poetry, and a major anthology of European literature, but he spent most of his later years at his country estate at Amenia, N.Y., where he concentrated on cultivating flowers, becoming a recognized authority on the clematis.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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Spingarn, Joel. "Criticism in the United States." 1921.