The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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More, Paul Elmer
E. Christian Kopff - 04/19/11
Lifespan: (1864–1937)

Paul Elmer More edited the Nation, wrote the largest body of literary criticism composed by an American, and was cofounder of the New Humanism, an important and controversial conservative intellectual movement of the 1920s. His ideas influenced writers such as T. S. Eliot and Russell Kirk.

More was born December 12, 1864 in St. Louis, Missouri, the child of Enoch Anson More and Katherine Hays More (nee Elmer). He was graduated cum laude from Washington University of St. Louis in 1887 and earned his M.A. there in 1891. He studied classical and oriental languages at Harvard, where he met his best friend and the greatest influence on his intellectual development, Irving Babbitt. After receiving his M.A. from Harvard in 1895 he taught Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin at Bryn Mawr for two years. He then retired to little Shelburne, New Hampshire, for two years (1897–99) to meditate, read, and write for literary journals such as the Atlantic Monthly and the New World.

In 1900, he married Henrietta Beck of St. Louis and moved to East Orange, New Jersey. For the first decade of the twentieth century he worked as literary editor for the Independent, New York Evening Post, and Nation. In 1909 he was appointed editor of the Nation, which he maintained as America’s premier literary journal. In 1914, More resigned and moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lectured on Greek and patristic philosophy at Princeton University. In 1926 he moved to the classics department, which was more in sympathy with his historical researches. He died in Princeton on March 9, 1937.

In 1904 he published his first volume of literary criticism, Shelburne Essays, the eleventh volume or “series” of which appeared in 1921. From 1921 to 1931 the four volumes of The Greek Tradition and a complementary volume on The Catholic Faith (1931) were published. Platonism, which More republished twice as introduction and complement to the series, had been published in 1917. Three volumes of New Shelburne Essays appeared from 1928 to 1936.

The volumes are a remarkable record of a highly cultured mind developing as it confronts great literature. More’s style was dignified, even highfalutin. His views began as a conventional romantic agnosticism. But by Shelburne Essays volume 9, titled Aristocracy and Justice (1915), he had developed a hard-headed but ethical Burkean critique of American progressivism. His favorite targets included Theodore Roosevelt and the academic culture of the “German Ph.D.” When More began working on the Platonic tradition, he was a deist who saw dualism as the heart of both Platonism and Christianity. By the late 1920s he had become a communing Episcopalian, although his committed dualism kept him from accepting the doctrine of the Trinity. His intellectual journey is recounted in The Sceptical Approach to Religion (1934), volume 2 of New Shelburne Essays,.

During the 1920s More collaborated with his old friend, Irving Babbitt of Harvard, to popularize their views as the New Humanism. The movement was widely noticed, attracting negative responses from George Santayana, H. L. Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis and sympathetic criticism from T. S. Eliot. More combined high literary standards with an ethical and religious commitment that still influences the Burkean tradition in America today.

Further Reading
  • Foerster, Norman, ed. Humanism and America. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1930.
  • Davies, Robert M. The Humanism of Paul Elmer More. New York: Bookman Associates, 1958.
  • Duggan, Francis X. Paul Elmer More. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966.
  • Shafer, Robert. Paul Elmer More and American Criticism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1935.
  • Young, Malcolm. Paul Elmer More: A Bibliography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941.
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