Louise Pound, New Humanist: What is authorship?

I’d long been vaguely familiar with the name “Louise Pound,” not only as the place where the Louise-catcher takes the stray Louises, but as an American scholar of English grammar and folklore who long taught at the University of Nebraska. Professor Pound (1872-1958) was also the first woman to serve as president of the Modern Language Association, having previously led the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Folklore Society. Pound’s personal life may also be of interest to some; a champion in several sports, she was the first woman inducted into the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame. She had an intense emotional, and perhaps sexual, relationship with novelist Willa Cather. Also, her brother Roscoe Pound was Dean of Harvard Law School for 20 years. A biography was published in 2009 under the title Louise Pound: Scholar, Athlete, Feminist Pioneer.

What I had not known was that Louise Pound was, for a little while early in her career, a member of the New Humanist school led by Irving Babbitt. I had known that there was a group of New Humanists at the University of Nebraska. The only names from that group that had come to my notice were Sherlock Bronson Gass and Prosser Hall Frye. In 1989, I read all of Gass’ books, with profit. I tried to read Frye’s 1929 Visions and Chimeras, only to find that his style was fully the equal of any of the notoriously bad academic writing of the 1980s. I also knew that Frye was the editor-in-chief of the Nebraska New Humanists’ journal, The Mid-West Quarterly; assuming that his style was reflected in the standards of the journal, I had no interest in reading it. But just a few days ago, looking for something quite different, I found a book called The New Humanists in Nebraska: A Study of the Mid-West Quarterly, 1913-1918 by R. D. Stock (University of Nebraska, 1979.) There is a section in there about Louise Pound’s contributions to the journal.

Those articles make up an inquiry into the nature of authorship. The first of them, “The Literary Interregnum,” surveys the prose and poetry being produced in the English speaking world as of 1913 and finds that it is all pretty dire. Pound expresses optimism that a livelier period will soon follow:

The “centre” to which Babbitt and Pound refer is a moral center, an intuition about right conduct that Babbitt claims can be found in the literary and religious traditions most esteemed in each of the world’s major civilizations. The goal of authorship is therefore a moral goal. Moreover, while this moral goal involves some work that can be done only by individuals in the privacy of their thoughts, it is work that begins with the formation of the individual as a member of society and that leads to the merger of the most intimate parts of the individual’s mind into a stream of thought that flows, not only through society as a whole, but throughout the entire history of humankind. On this account, the proper goal of every author is that which Babbitt found in the early Buddhist texts he studied and translated.

Pound concludes “The Literary Interregnum” with several paragraphs expressing the hope that the restoration of a truly humanistic imagination, and with it a restoration of true authorship, will not come too soon. Such a restoration, she says, would be a development of a sort which in previous ages has come only after wrenching social upheavals have forced people to discard comfortable old illusions and to face unforgiving realities so clearly and for so long that they have had no choice but to adopt an entirely new, and chillingly realistic, set of ideas. It would be callous to hope for such a time of hardship to come any sooner than necessary. Besides, if the time of trial is postponed long enough, perhaps the USA will have time to catch up with the rest of the world, and “an American literature, worthy in originality and magnitude of the land and the people, embodying the national life, and finding its inspiration in the national ideals, may yet take its place among the classic literatures of the world.”

Pound’s second contribution, “Emerson as a Romanticist,” appeared in the January 1915 edition. By that time, the First World War had been underway for some months, though it was not yet clear how well it would match Pound’s description of the all-consuming disaster that can bring one epoch to a close and force its inhabitants to grope their way through the darkness into another. In Emerson and Whitman, she finds very much what one would expect a follower of Babbitt to find, an exaggerated individualism, descended from Rousseau and leading nowhere. Emerson’s “self-reliance” and Whitman’s “myself” both posit individuals as self-contained units, neither as products of society nor as pathways to the dharma.

Stock describes Pound’s final two contributions to The Mid-West Quarterly, New World Analogues of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads,” published in April 1916, and “Ballads and the Illiterate,” published later (but not available online,) Pound applies sophisticated philological analysis to cowboy ballads, minstrel songs, Civil War marching songs, and other folkloristic materials, which many critics of the period had claimed to have arisen spontaneously from social interaction among illiterate populations. Pound finds a long list of reasons to believe that the only works in these genres that were not the result of the concentrated effort of authors who had substantial training were the works which were least highly regarded, both by learned outsiders who wished to exalt them as proof that education was unnecessary for artistry, and even more so by the audiences for which they were originally intended.

In these essays, Pound continues to uphold the idea of authorship as something that begins in the formation of the individual by a specific social milieu and that leads to a joining of that milieu with a continuity that transcends it. She brings her scholarship to bear on the stages in between, on the parts of the process in which individuals do matter. She is able to identify by name the authors of many of the poems which had been alleged to be spontaneous productions of the unlettered masses; in one particularly devastating passage, she finds that a piece which John A. Lomax had claimed to have sprung unbidden from the lips of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War was in fact originally written for and published in a newspaper. Making matters worse for Lomax, it was a pro-Union newspaper, and the poem appeared there as a satire of secessionist attitudes. I should add that Pound does not say that poetic training must use written materials; her arguments could all be adapted to apply to expert bards working in an oral tradition.

Exasperated with the indefinite quality of her opponents’ arguments, Pound concludes “New World Analogues”:

This closing reference to “the cultivated world in the days of humanism” may be the only unmistakable reference to the school of Babbitt in this essay, but the whole does suggest a conception of authorship that Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and the rest of them would happily have recognized. While the author’s individual attainments and right governance in the private empire of her thoughts are not an end in themselves for these thinkers, they are nonetheless an indispensable prerequisite for the creation of literature that will serve its proper purpose. This would seem to be Pound’s view as well.