Barnes, Harry Elmer

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Barnes, Harry Elmer


Harry Elmer Barnes, publicist, cultural historian, and sociologist, was born in Auburn, New York, in 1889. He received his a.b. degree summa cum laude in 1913 and his a.m. degree in 1914, both from Syracuse University, and his ph.d. in 1918 from Columbia. In the academic year 1916/1917 he studied at Harvard on a fellowship. As a student, he centered his interest mainly on history, but at Syracuse, stimulated by Philip Parsons, he prepared a history of pre-Comtean sociological literature, and at Harvard, an extensive history of sociological contributions to political theory. Both studies furnished material for later works on historiography and the political, economic, and cultural aspects of Western thought and civilization, which are his chief claims to distinction.

Barnes taught in a number of colleges and universities across the country, usually in sociology departments; his longest tenure was at Smith College, 1922–1929. He was special commentator on social issues for the Scripps-Howard newspapers, 1929–1940, and during that time also lectured widely on penology, criminology, education, and other social issues and wrote numerous articles and book reviews and several of his most important works.

Most of his major contributions were made in the field of cultural history. He was well equipped for this work because of his tireless energy, prodigious memory, and strong ego drive as well as his excellent training. He had studied under outstanding scholars in history, sociology, political science, and anthropology, including, at Columbia, the founders of the New History, James H. Robinson, James T. Shotwell, and William R. Shepherd, the political scientist William A. Dunning, and the anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser, and at Harvard, the historian Edwin F. Gay, the physiologist Lawrence J. Henderson, and the anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton.

Barnes became, especially through his book The New History and the Social Studies (1925), an outstanding advocate of the New History, which was seeking a deeper understanding of the origin and development of Western culture. Contending that traditional history, with its emphasis on wars, dynasties, diplomacy, politics, and spectacular deeds, was “mostly bunk” because it threw little light on the basic causal factors and processes of historical trends, he argued that the “newer dynamic and synthetic history” should utilize the advances of all the sciences relating to man, from human geography through biology and psychology to the social studies, in search of a deeper and more socially meaningful understanding of the genesis and evolution of civilization. He saw in such history the cultivation of the informed intelligence in public affairs needed to undermine outworn myths, false assumptions, and illusory doctrines that retard cultural advancement. Noting also that social problems can be well understood only in the light of their historical background, he advocated the integration and cross-fertilization of history and the social sciences.

His other contribution to historiography, first published in the Encyclopedia Americana, was revised and expanded into his History of Historical Writing (1937b). Widely recognized as a monument of learning, it was universally praised both at home and abroad as meeting a long-felt need and as henceforth indispensable for all advanced students of history.

In the broad area of intellectual and institutional history, which was his forte, both the volume and the scope of Barnes’s writings were immense. Designed as compendia of a vast literature, they were in no sense detailed historical researches; they necessarily relied largely on secondary sources. Clearly written and instructively organized, they showed keen discrimination in the selection of matter presented. Taken together, they condensed the intellectual output of Western civilization relating to its economic, political, religious, and other social institutions and problems from primitive to modern social organizations. They thus supplied for a large body of students and instructors essential orientation material, otherwise either inaccessible or unduly time-consuming.

In the area of intellectual and institutional his-tory also belongs The Twilight of Christianity (1929), a controversial book that aroused wide interest, was highly esteemed by intellectuals and not a few liberal Protestant clergymen, but was roundly denounced by religious conservatives. It found Christian beliefs and theology to be based largely on myths and quite irreconcilable with higher criticism of the Biblical records, Near East history, and advancing knowledge of man and his universe, especially the universe of universes of modern astronomy.

His lifelong interest in penology and criminology began with a history of penal institutions in New Jersey (1918), which was followed by a similar history of Pennsylvania penology (1927). He was a sharp critic of the jury system as giving a basic judicial function to untrained and inexpert citizens. He strongly favored the indeterminate sentence, the wider extension of the probation system, reduction in the use of prisons except for incorrigibles, the extended use of specially trained psychiatrists for diagnosis and individualization of treatment, and the use of sterilization as a eugenic measure.

Writing in a period of rapid and revolutionary social changes, Barnes has often been engaged in public controversy over his statements of both fact and interpretation. This is due in part to his reformist urge, his polemical zeal, and his slight regard for the popular “eternal verities” of tradition or for their sponsors. It is due mainly, however, to the vigor of his language, his pointed comparisons, often having a personal reference, his use of adjectives that seem to label his opponents as prejudiced, incompetent, dishonest, or otherwise disqualified, and the dogmatic assurance, the doubtful validity, and sweeping nature of some of his generalizations on moot issues. His academic career was deeply affected by the fact that he alienated a considerable number of professional historians by his debunking efforts in behalf of the new historical approach and especially by his spirited espousal of revisionism after both world wars.

Some critics have charged that Barnes tried to cover too wide a range of literature, both in time and subject matter; that his works lacked any interpretative, theoretical framework; and that they were prolix in style and repetitious in substance. In general, however, his major works have been judged commendable both in reliability and scope, though some of them would have profited by judicious pruning. He was admittedly neither philosopher nor statistician. In treating numerous social problems in his college texts, he tended to present an array of the current solutions, often merely logical Utopias, with too little analysis of their cultural feasibility. No doubt much of his writing represents a combination of the publicist–reformer with the conscientious scholar, but of his unflinching courage and his devotion to historic truth there cannot be the slightest doubt.

Frank H. Hankins


1918 A History of the Penal, Reformatory and Correctional Institutions of the State of New Jersey. Trenton, N.J.: MacCrellish & Quigley.

1924 Sociology and Political Theory: A Consideration of the Sociological Basis of Politics. New York: Knopf.

1925 The New History and the Social Studies. New York: Century.

1926 History and Social Intelligence. New York: Knopf.

1927 The Evolution of Penology in Pennsylvania. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

1928 In Quest of Truth and Justice: Debunking the War Guilt Myth. Chicago: National Historical Society.

1928 Knight, Melvin M.; Barnes, Harry E.; and FlÜgel, Felix. Economic History of Europe in Modern Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

(1929) 1931 The Twilight of Christianity. New York: Vanguard.

1930 World Politics in Modern Civilization: The Contributions of Nationalism, Capitalism, Imperialism and Militarism to Human Culture and International Anarchy. New York: Knopf.

1935 Barnes, Harry E.; and David, Henry. A History of Western Civilization. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt.

1937a An Economic History of the Western World. New York: Harcourt.

(1937b) 1962 History of Historical Writing. 2d rev. ed. New York: Dover. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Dover.

(1937c) 1961 Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World. 3d rev. ed., 3 vols. New York: Reynal-Hitchcock. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Dover.

1938 Barnes, Harry E.; and Becker, Howard. Social Thought From Lore to Science. 2 vols. Boston: Heath. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Dover.

(1939) 1952 Society in Transition: Problems of a Changing Age. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → A comprehensive social-problems text.

1940 Barnes, Harry E.; Becker, Howard; and Becker, F. B. (editors). Contemporary Social Theory. New York: Appleton-Century.

1942 Social Institutions in an Era of World Upheaval. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → Our cultural inheritance under the impact of the scientific and technological revolutions.

(1943) 1959 Barnes, Harry E.; and Teeters, Negley K. New Horizons in Criminology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

1948 Barnes, Harry E. (editor). An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1953 Barnes, Harry E. (editor) Perpetual War for PerpetualPeace; A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath. Caldwell, Idaho: Caldwell Printers. → Summary of World War ii revisionism.

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