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Genteel Tradition


The term "genteel tradition" was coined by George Santayana (1863–1952) in 1911 in reference to an attempt by a group of refined New England intellectuals—poets, academics, editors, critics, and publishers—to control literary and moral standards, maintain social hierarchies, and encourage conservative political reform. These well-bred, educated, and decorous Anglo-Saxon men asserted their cultural authority soon after the Civil War, claiming that they were the only ones capable of defining and maintaining American high culture. They criticized popular culture and censored what they considered "bad" literature, particularly literary realism. Rigidly conforming to Victorian standards of taste, they argued that "good" literature had only two functions: to transport readers from the real world to one of ideal truth and beauty and to teach "proper" manners to members of the middle and upper classes. Because the defenders of the genteel could control most of the literature written, edited, reviewed, and published at this time, they were often the only authoritative secular voice America heard on the subjects of personal conduct, intellectual thought, and artistic taste.

As noted by John Tomsich in A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age (1971), prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, most Americans admired the genteel elite and aspired to join their ranks. Many conformed to cultural conventions because they had not yet escaped their Old-World dependence on an aristocratic class, which they expected would provide the young nation social stability and cultural nobility. However, the pretentious proponents of the genteel tradition soon lost their influence because they were out of touch with American democratic individualism and cultural diversity. They were idealists and elitists who refused to adapt to a changing society or address the realities of America's industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and democratic frontier spirit. "Genteel" became a derogatory word, used to criticize the smug elite's Old-World social hierarchies and intellectually stale literature. An increased awareness of the nobility of the individual and the inherent instability of the modern world resulted in a new, anti-genteel era of innovative and realistic fiction.


The driving force behind America's genteel tradition from 1870 to 1910 consisted of the most influential and popular figures in intellectual and literary circles. The most important magazines, publishing houses, social clubs, literary academies, and eastern universities subscribed to, or at least did not dare contradict, the standards of taste and manners propounded by the defenders of the genteel tradition. The most significant genteel poets included George Henry Boker (1823–1890), Richard Henry Stoddard (1825–1903), Bayard Taylor (1825–1878), Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908), and the Harvard School of George Cabot Lodge (1873–1909), William Vaughn Moody (1869–1910), George Santayana, and Trumbull Stickney (1874–1904). Other genteel intellectuals included Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907), novelist and editor of the Atlantic Monthly from 1881 to 1890; George William Curtis (1824–1892), political editor of Harper's Weekly from 1863 to 1892; Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909), editor of Century Magazine between 1881 and 1909; and Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908), a Harvard professor from 1875 to 1898 and co-founder of The Nation in 1865.

The Harvard poets and New England academics worried about protecting high culture from the materialism and democratizing effects of industrialization and urbanization. They recognized that the rash of depressions and strikes in the 1880s and 1890s, as well as the rapid increase in immigration and urban slums, made social and cultural evolution, if not revolution, an immediate threat to the social hierarchy and the elite's cultural authority. These fears made the genteel intellectuals extremely conservative, causing them to advocate paternalistic, centralized government and anti-union legislation. They assumed the middle and upper classes needed their intellectual and moral direction, and they considered the masses irrelevant. According to F. Brett Cox in the essay "'What Need, Then, for Poetry?': The Genteel Tradition and the Continuity of American Literature" (1994), Boker, Taylor, and Stoddard "argued for a literature of pure and noble thoughts produced by a clerisy of artists who were apart from and above the common horde" (p. 215). As the self-proclaimed custodians of high culture and proper behavior, these poets, academics, and editors relied upon their own European roots of Calvinist hierarchical authority and Romantic metaphysical idealism to lift American literature and its reader out of the "ugly," practical world of commercial and political affairs.

The genteel poets despised American provincialism and looked to their European forefathers and contemporaries for sophistication, elegance, and "proper" behavior. Like the English Romantic and Victorian poets, the erudite Harvard poets chose a "pure and noble" language so they could sing sentimentally about high-minded ideals. They produced well-crafted lyrics that followed conventional forms, and they emphasized subject matter that was polite, abstract, earnest, morally uplifting, and uncontroversial. Aldrich defended this position in his "Ponkapog Papers" (1907): "A man is known by the company his mind keeps. To live continually with noble books, with 'high-erected thoughts seated in the heart of courtesy,' teaches the soul good manners" (Aldrich, p. 31). An example of these high-erected thoughts is Santayana's polished, sentimental "Sonnet III (O World, thou choosest not the better part!)" (1894), which employs traditional meter and rhyme and relies on hackneyed Romantic images and ideals. It concludes:

Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is lead
Unto the thinking of the thoughts divine.

(Complete Poems, p. 92)

Santayana also emulated the Victorian style in his earnest, elegiac, formal "Ode II." Although the poem begins by addressing a contemporary socioeconomic issue: "My heart rebels against my generation, / That talks of freedom and is slave to riches" (Complete Poems, p. 140), it quickly turns to abstract idealism and sentimentalism. Santayana acts as a "philosopher-poet," who asks his muse, Mother Nature, to help his readers escape the material world and find Beauty and Truth in the eternal realm.

The genteel intellectuals suppressed any literature they deemed inappropriate for the refinement and uplift of American readers. Stedman criticized literary realism, stating in Victorian Poets (1876) that it was "not well that repulsive or petty facts should always be recorded; only the high, essential truths demand a poet's illumination" (pp. 304–305). Stedman privileged authors of the genteel tradition in Poets of America (1885), a book of literary criticism, and A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (1888–1890), a popular and critically acclaimed eleven-volume anthology that he edited with E. M. Hutchinson. The latter book completely ignored the work of Herman Melville (1819–1891) and only superficially considered the work of Walt Whitman (1819–1892), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). In the opinion of Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury in From Puritanism to Postmodernism, Stedman and Hutchinson's anthology presented a version of American letters that could be interpreted as "a branch of English literature" (Ruland, p. xii).

Naturalist authors also had trouble publishing their manuscripts. Many editors and publishers, adhering to genteel values, rejected the work of Stephen Crane (1871–1900), including Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York) (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895). Richard Watson Gilder rejected both manuscripts on behalf of Century Magazine, telling Crane that Maggie was "cruel" and "too honest" (Crane, p. 60). Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) also had trouble publishing Sister Carrie (1900) because it challenged genteel politeness and delicacy and forced readers to face and deal with the pain and ugliness of real life.

The Harvard School of genteel poets followed the conventions of past European and American masters, but their poetry lacked those authors' originality, imagination, and philosophical depth. Therefore, popular authors like Aldrich and Curtis quickly disappeared from the canon. Their subject, message, and style quickly became obsolete, especially after Ezra Pound (1885–1972) and H. D. (the penname of Hilda Doolittle, 1886–1961) introduced imagism to American poetics.


Jorge Agustin Nicolas de (George) Santayana was of Spanish American ancestry and was educated at Harvard; he joined the faculty in 1889, teaching philosophy alongside William James (1842–1910). Santayana was an important member of the Harvard School of genteel poets, but he blamed his failure as a poet on the oppressive, uniform, and monotonous intellectual atmosphere of the genteel tradition. Therefore, when he decided to leave Harvard and the United States in 1911, he publicly criticized America's genteel tradition in a lecture he gave at the University of California at Berkeley entitled "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy." According to F. O. Matthiessen in Theodore Dreiser (1951), "Santayana coined the phrase 'the genteel tradition' to describe what he considered the most dangerous defect in American thought" (p. 62). This defect was an inability of the American intellect, symbolized in Santayana's lecture by the colonial mansion, to escape from the social hierarchies and cultural conventions of America's European heritage. Santayana warned that a continued reliance on Victorian ideals and standards would emasculate the American will, symbolized by the skyscraper. Santayana stated that the genteel tradition had already split the American psyche, causing a dual mentality: "one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generations" (Genteel Tradition, p. 39). Santayana argued that American intellect and American will had become alienated from each other, resulting in a disconnection between the nation's passive, backward-looking academic and cultural self-identity and its aggressive, forward-looking commercial and political self-identity.

Santayana posited that "the mediocrity of the genteel tradition" (Genteel Tradition, p. 44) had corrupted American literature and intellectual thought, stating, "what has happened is that the heredity philosophy has grown stale, and that the academic philosophy afterwards developed has caught the stale odor from it" (Genteel Tradition, p. 39). He argued that American thought and literature must reject the obsolete Calvinist and transcendental attitudes and embrace the practical, commercial, empirical, and modern nature of American life. Otherwise, Santayana complained, the idealism of the genteel tradition would prevent Americans from writing serious poetry and fully understanding themselves because it "forbids people to confess that they are unhappy" (Genteel Tradition, p. 51). He asserted that if Americans did not escape the genteel tradition, they could not grow as individuals or develop a national literature and culture.

Unlike others of the Harvard School, Santayana had not become completely pessimistic about the future of American taste and manners. He encouraged the young nation to challenge the cultural elite and its reliance on European tradition. Santayana applauded Whitman's vital, modern, native verse, stating that he was perhaps the only "American writer who has left the genteel tradition entirely behind" (Genteel Tradition, p. 52). However, Santayana explained that contemporary intellectual circles would not allow Whitman's democratic, Bohemian, and original poetry to represent American culture because "the genteel Anglo-Saxon convention" (Genteel Tradition, p. 52) was too deeply ingrained. For this same reason, Santayana claimed that Mark Twain (1835–1910) and other regional humorists could only half escape from the genteel tradition. Their successful parodies of the tradition proved its pervasiveness in the American consciousness, as did their inability to replace it with anything concrete.

Santayana recognized, however, that the next generation of realist and naturalist authors and philosophers had begun to destroy the authority and influence of the genteel tradition. Santayana stated that Henry James (1843–1916) "has overcome the genteel tradition in the classic way, by understanding it" (Genteel Tradition, p. 54). Daisy Miller (1878), The Bostonians (1886), and The Ambassadors (1903) exposed the rigid, absolutist rules and its stale idealism of the old order. Furthermore, William James overpowered the genteel tradition and "enticed faith in a new direction" (Genteel Tradition, p. 60) through his pragmatic, empiricist philosophy and his uniquely American spontaneity and vitality. Santayana praised his colleague's open mind and sympathetic attitude to the wisdom of the non-elite:

William James became the friend and helper of those groping, nervous, half-educated, spiritually disinherited, emotionally hungry individuals of which America is full. He became, at the same time, their spokesman and representative before the learned world; and he made it a chief part of his vocation to recast what the learned world has to offer, so that as far as possible it might serve the needs and interests of these people. (Genteel Tradition, p. 55)

For all of Santayana's criticism of the genteel tradition, he concluded his lecture by defending its motto: "Let us be content to live in the mind" (Genteel Tradition, p. 64), and then he expatriated to Victorian Europe. He did, however, inspire Van Wyck Brooks (1886–1963) to follow up his critical analysis of American culture. Brooks analyzed the divide between "Highbrow" and "Lowbrow" in America's Coming-of-Age (1915), and he sharply criticized the genteel mind in America. He called for a cultural awakening and the development of a new literature that was natural, realistic, energetic, and nationalistic.


Even before Santayana's lecture and Brooks's book, a number of authors and critics had already suggested that the genteel tradition and its powerful supporters were stifling literary innovation and disrupting the establishment of a truly American literary voice and cultural identity. Whitman, Twain, William Dean Howells (1837–1920), and Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) challenged convention and injected vitality and the American spirit into literature. They rejected the idealism of the genteel tradition and created an innovative new genre, literary realism, in order to connect readers directly to contemporary American experiences and America's oral tradition. Realism represented and celebrated everything that the genteel poets and editors resisted: democratic values, commercial activities, the immigrant and poor urbanite experience, the commonplace and the physical, raw human emotions, psychological pain and frustration, use of the vernacular, and original and non-formal modes of writing.

Whitman, who broke nearly every stylistic and thematic convention the genteel poets held dear, stated derisively in his essay "Democratic Vistas" (1871): "Do you call those genteel little creatures American poets? Do you term that perpetual, pistareen, paste-pot work, American art, American drama, taste, verse? I think I hear, echoed as from some mountain-top afar in the west, the scornful laugh of the Genius of these States" (pp. 388–389). Whitman argued that in order to find a truly American poetic voice and cultural presence authors must reject the elegant, complacent "parcel of dandies and ennuyees [sic]" (p. 408) as their models. Robinson satirized the genteel poets in "Sonnet"(1897), calling them "little sonnet men" who write "Songs without souls, that flicker for a day / To vanish in irrevocable night" (p. 93). Robinson's poem "Richard Cory" (1897) uses realism and the search for psychological truth to directly challenge the hypocrisy of the genteel tradition in modern American life. Richard is a wealthy and genteel gentleman, but his loneliness and spiritual emptiness cause him to "put a bullet through his head" (p. 82).

Howells, Twain, and Henry James presented common, American characters living normal, everyday life in their novels. Although some modernist authors and critics linked the realists, particularly Howells, with the genteel tradition, the realists were never popular with the genteel authors and editors. Hamilton Wright Mabie (1845–1916), an apologist for the genteel tradition, was extremely critical of Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885). According to John Tomsich in A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age (1971), Mabie and other intellectual elites considered Howells too commonplace, Twain too colloquial and racy, and James too depressing. Thomas Bailey Aldrich often criticized literary realism and stated in his "Ponkapog Papers" that "in nine cases out of ten an exact reproduction of real life would prove tedious. Facts are not necessarily valuable, and frequently they add nothing to fiction" (Aldrich, p. 32). He refused to accept realism as art, arguing: "Art should create nothing but what is beautiful . . . and leave real life to do the rest" (Tomsich, p. 145).

However, the realists would not be deterred. Twain, as Santayana indicated, wrote about and for the masses, challenging genteel social and literary values directly. He compared idealism and respectability to individualism, practical competence, and common sense in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). In these novels, Tom learns to be a responsible member of middle-class society, whereas Huck challenges society's genteel norms and adopts a personal sense of morality and manners. Huck's individualism and frontier spirit shows that America need not define itself or its tastes by the standards of the educated, refined elite of New England. Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) also satirizes the battle between the genteel tradition and the vernacular tradition, arguing that Americans must fight the cultural dictatorship of the genteel intellectuals.

The naturalists stepped even farther away from the genteel tradition. In the opinion of F. O. Matthiessen, the raw, harsh reality presented by authors like Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser exploded the genteel tradition's "idealized picture of civilized refinement" (Matthiessen, p. 62). These authors refused to obey the genteel elite's belief in social hierarchy and standards of literary taste. Instead they alerted readers to the effects environment and heredity have on a human being's life, especially the sordid life of someone living in the slums.

Turn-of-the-century realist, naturalist, and modernist authors, as well as a forward-thinking new group of critics and publishers, effectively challenged the narrow standards of the genteel tradition and soon broke its authoritative stranglehold. Santayana proclaimed in 1911: "No one need be brow-beaten any longer into accepting it" (Genteel Tradition, p. 60). Unable to change the direction the country was headed, the genteel poets and academics became pessimistic and alienated, withdrawing to their ivory towers and eventually disappearing from the canon of American literature.

See alsoAestheticism; Art and Architecture; Philosophy


Primary Works

Aldrich, Thomas Bailey. "Ponkapog Papers." In The Writings of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, vol. 9, Ponkapog Papers, A Sea Turn, and Other Papers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1907.

Brooks, Van Wyck. America's Coming-of-Age. 1915. New York: Octagon Books, 1975.

Crane, Stephen. Stephen Crane: Letters. Edited by R. W. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes. New York: New York University Press, 1960.

Hollander, John, ed. American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century. Vol. 2. New York: Library of America, 1993.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

Santayana, George. The Complete Poems of George Santayana: A Critical Edition. Edited by William G. Holzberger. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Santayana, George. "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy." 1911. In The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays, edited by Douglas L. Wilson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence. Victorian Poets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896.

Whitman, Walt. "Democratic Vistas." 1871. In Prose Works 1892, vol. 2, Collect and Other Prose. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

Secondary Works

Cox, F. Brett. "'What Need, Then, for Poetry?': The Genteel Tradition and the Continuity of American Literature." The New England Quarterly 67, no. 2 (1994): 212–233.

Dawidoff, Robert. The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage: High Culture vs. Democracy in Adams, James, and Santayana. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Matthiessen, F. O. Theodore Dreiser. New York: Dell, 1951.

Ruland, Richard, and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. New York: Viking, 1991.

Tomsich, John. A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971.

Tuttleton, James W. "William Dean Howells & the Practice of Criticism." The New Criterion 10, no. 10 (1992): 28–37.

Matthew Teorey

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