The Philosophy of Creative Writing

By Joseph DardaFebruary 25, 2019

The Philosophy of Creative Writing

IN 1930, Sinclair Lewis sailed to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. In Stockholm, where he received the gold medal and a check for $46,000 from King Gustaf V, Lewis thanked the Swedish Academy and then devoted the next hour to condemning American literature and criticism. Most Americans, he told his European audience, “are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.” He railed against the jingoism and anti-intellectualism of American universities and colleges, lamenting that they excluded creative writers from their lecterns because professors liked their literature “cold and pure and very dead.” Lewis saved his harshest words for new humanism, a philosophical movement that promoted a restoration of moral teaching in the liberal arts and opposed deterministic theories of human nature, which he mocked as an “astonishing circus” and a “nebulous cult.” Elitist, moralizing, nostalgic for an imagined past — new humanism, he argued, epitomized the worst of American culture. Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, titled his lecture “The American Fear of Literature.” He received a standing ovation in Stockholm and severe criticism in the United States.

Perhaps some of Lewis’s reproach sunk in. Not 10 years later, universities began hiring novelists and poets as professors not of literature but of the new discipline of creative writing, first at the University of Iowa and then at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and Denver. A wave of program-building followed the passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or the GI Bill, and another came after the Higher Education Act of 1965. Professionals of all kinds found a place on the postwar campus, including, as Lewis hoped, professional writers, who moved in down the hall from the practitioners of the cold and pure and very dead. But the administrators who hired them did not want their new professors of the craft trumpeting the big social novels Lewis admired but to perpetuate the philosophical movement he hated, to teach the circus of new humanism. Students, the discipline’s founders believed, should write what they know rather than what they think, show what they see rather than say what they learn, represent an authentic self rather than show how it formed or say what it means. New humanism is the philosophy of creative writing. It is a philosophy of disciplined individualism, of crafted authenticity.

Writers love to hate creative writing programs, graduates of them most of all. In 2009, literature scholar Mark McGurl published The Program Era, in which he declared the rise of creative writing “the most important event in postwar American literary history.” For an academic book full of graphs and terms like “technomodernism,” it reached a wide audience, prompting reviews and editorials from publications like The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. While McGurl steered clear of either celebrating or condemning the creative writing program — seeking “historical interpretation,” not valuation, he emphasized — his reviewers did not. Charles McGrath, the former editor of the NYTBR, called creative writing a Ponzi scheme. Chad Harbach, a founding editor of n+1, suggested that the MFA program had transformed books from things to be bought and read into mere “credentials” for professors of creative writing. Literature scholar Eric Bennett wrote that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his alma mater, discouraged all writing that wasn’t either minimalist, conversational and tenderhearted, or magical realist. Junot Díaz, a Cornell alum, argued that the creative writing workshop secured the whiteness of American literature. And the attacks keep coming, not that they have slowed applications. Some 20,000 aspiring writers apply to MFA programs every year, and the numbers continue to rise.

The range of writers who come out of graduate programs in creative writing make it difficult to argue that the MFA has somehow flattened literature, that T. C. Boyle, Sandra Cisneros, and Denis Johnson all write with something called “Iowa style.” The world of creative writing isn’t homogeneous, and for a lot of writers it offers time rather than instruction, two years to complete a book-in-progress rather than two years to mimic their advisor’s prose or verse. But creative writing also didn’t come out of nowhere. It emerged from a long-since-forgotten philosophical movement that instituted creative writing as a discipline for learning about yourself rather than the wider world.

New humanism arose in the first decade of the 20th century as a response to the progressive education movement. Irving Babbitt, a Harvard professor of French literature, and Paul Elmer More, a journalist and former student of Babbitt’s, popularized the conservative philosophy, Babbitt through his mentorship of privileged young men in Cambridge, including T. S. Eliot, and More through his editorship of The Nation. Babbitt and More, in their mid-30s at the turn of the century, announced themselves as that rare thing universities have a knack for producing: young curmudgeons. New humanism opposed more ideas than it promoted. Babbitt and More resented all forms of collectivism, all philosophies that put the group or the nation before the individual. The humanist, Babbitt argued in his 1908 jeremiad, Literature and the American College, “is interested in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole.” Those who called for social change, whether scientists, political reformers, or authors who tackled social problems, needed to look in the mirror, Babbitt and his disciples believed. The onus for social betterment fell on the individual, they argued, not on the institution or the state. The liberal arts should serve the perfection of the individual, and Babbitt and More, a literature professor and a book critic, insisted that literature should help the individual achieve that perfection through self-knowledge and self-discipline.

The new humanist movement peaked in 1930, the year Lewis condemned it in Stockholm, and all but disappeared a few years later. Babbitt died in 1933, and the Depression made his bootstrapping individualism a hard sell. But new humanism lived on in institutional form. In 1930, the new humanist philosopher Norman Foerster, who studied under Babbitt at Harvard, moved to Iowa City to direct the new School of Letters at the University of Iowa. There, he founded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first and most prestigious creative writing program in the United States, and directed the graduate work of Paul Engle, the future director of the workshop, and Wallace Stegner, the founding director of the Stanford creative writing program. No two people did more to establish the discipline of creative writing than Engle and Stegner, and they followed the model set by their new humanist graduate advisor, who gave them and gave creative writing a philosophy that has endured ever since.


In 1894, Irving Babbitt, 29 years old and ambitious, took his first teaching position at Harvard. Charles Eliot, the university’s longest serving president and an educational reformer, had transformed Harvard by the time Babbitt arrived on campus by putting a premium on scientific research and broadening the curriculum through the introduction of electives. Eliot had turned Harvard into Harvard, and Babbitt despised him for it. In Cambridge, Babbitt met Paul Elmer More, then working toward a master’s degree in Sanskrit, and for the next 40 years the two men set about defending the individual from the encroachment of “humanitarianism,” a banner under which they included empirical scientists (“scientific humanitarians”) and philosophical naturalists (“sentimental humanitarians”). For Babbitt, all evil descended from two men: Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of Romanticism. Empiricism and Romanticism conspired under the idea of progress. The future of civilization, Babbitt believed, depended on the restoration of the “truths of the inner life” above the “progress of humanity” as the first principle of modern life. When the Swedish Academy awarded Lewis the Nobel Prize in Literature, they singled out his 1922 novel Babbitt, a satirical novel about a small-minded conservative businessman named George Babbitt. Although Lewis later denied that he had based the character on Irving Babbitt, the Harvard professor had the misfortune of seeing his surname enter dictionaries as a new word for bourgeois conformism.

More introduced Babbitt’s ideas to a wider public through his prolific writings for The Atlantic, The Independent, The New York Evening Post, and The Nation. From 1904 to 1921, he published an incredible 11 volumes of his Shelburne Essays, which he named for his writing retreat in Shelburne, New Hampshire. More dug into the American past to find evidence of a long-standing new humanist tradition, and where he couldn’t find evidence he invented it. He discovered that, with some pressure and selective reading, he could turn almost any writer into an evangelist for his movement. He praised the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, for example, as “the last efflorescence of a tradition handed down to them unbroken from the early Colonialist days, and that tradition was the voice of a stern and indomitable moral character.” Poe, who died drunk while being carted from precinct to precinct to cast one ballot after another in a corrupt Baltimore congressional election, contributed much to American letters, but no one thought him a beacon of moral character, least of all Edgar Allan Poe.

Near the end of his life, Babbitt declared that “the battle that is to determine the fate of American civilization will be fought out first of all in the field of education.” But Babbitt, who had a talent for making enemies in the Harvard administration, never could implement his ideas. He left the fighting to his disciple Norman Foerster. The unofficial publicist of the new humanist movement, Foerster specialized in the manifesto. In 1929, he published American Scholar, in which he argued that literature should not serve to inspire, as Emerson had it, but as a record of “the strivings of Mankind to know and express itself.” The next year, he edited the volume Humanism and America, which featured contributions from Babbitt, More, and T. S. Eliot and prompted Lewis’s condemnation in Stockholm. When Foerster arrived at Iowa to direct the School of Letters that fall, he set about putting his ideas into practice. In American Scholar, he proposed a plan for bringing creative writing into the college classroom and building a master’s program for fiction writers and poets. He believed that “an inner comprehension of art” could revitalize American literature as a path to self-knowledge. In Iowa, Foerster implemented his plan, adding courses in “imaginative writing” to the undergraduate curriculum and founding the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New humanism disappeared with Babbitt’s death and the onset of the Depression, but it found new life in the first creative writing program and the hundreds of programs it inspired.

In 1944, Foerster resigned his directorship under mounting administrative opposition. His former graduate students Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner carried on his new humanist teachings under the mantle of craft. Engle earned his master’s, one of the first awarded in creative writing, under Foerster in 1932. He took over the Writers’ Workshop in 1941 and directed it for the next 25 years, transforming Iowa into a premier destination for writers, aspiring and accomplished. After Foerster’s resignation, Engle wrote him a letter, acknowledging, “I would not be here without the position you more or less created for me, and I appreciate that.” But Foerster gave him more than a job. He gave him a philosophy to teach by. The workshop functioned, Engle believed, to teach the student writer about herself, to guide the formation not just of a manuscript but of “the personality who wrote it.” With bombast that would have made his advisor proud, he celebrated the success of his program by declaring, “Art may turn out to be the last refuge of the individual in our time.”

Stegner, who earned his PhD under Foerster’s direction in 1935, founded the Stanford program in 1946 with a similar commitment to new humanist individualism and moral conduct. He championed his student writers, echoing his former advisor, as “young men and women who repudiate both the amoral universe of the naturalists and the various forms of determinism, economic or psychological, which paralyze the will in our time.” Stegner hated the social novel as much as Babbitt had, advising his students that their ideas should live in “the attic” of their writing and show themselves at most “like ghosts flitting past the windows after dark.” The old new humanist principles of self-knowledge (write what you know) and self-discipline (show, don’t tell) found a home in the creative writing workshop and, as Engle’s and Stegner’s students went off to form their own programs, turned into common sense. Most historians point to the progressive education movement as the origin of creative writing, but the philosophy of the discipline grew out of a conservative backlash to progressive education. Engle and Stegner built not toward the future but an imagined past.


Engle and Stegner could not have built their programs if not for the GI Bill, which flooded universities with young men bearing government checks and stories to tell. “Some sort of Stanford writing program was made inevitable when I walked into my first writing class at Stanford in 1945,” Stegner later wrote, “and found myself facing a dozen students, GI and otherwise, of whom at least five were more talented or more finished, or both, than anyone I had ever seen in a classroom.” Engle taught his writing students, more than half of whom had served, in military-surplus Quonset huts. Stegner and Engle embraced the veterans as model students for humanist creative writing instruction, encouraging them to mine their wartime experience for material but restrict themselves to the personal rather than historical ramifications of war. Stegner assigned Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” as an example to his veteran-students, encouraging them to emulate Hemingway’s understated self-reflection. His and Engle’s first classes included few students of color, because the GI Bill, needing the votes of Southern senators and congressmen, accommodated Jim Crow, creating what amounted to a white affirmative action program. The legislation didn’t do much for white women either, for obvious reasons. (Flannery O’Connor, who attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946 and 1947, is a famous exception. Her master’s thesis, which later became the novel Wise Blood, was about a returning soldier.) The white men of the early creative writing program, composing individualist, inner-directed war stories, found an audience with Cold War liberals who shared new humanists’ anti-collectivism but directed their contempt to the Soviet Union rather than the science department. No one spoke of new humanism by the time Engle took over the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stegner founded the Stanford program. But the conservative philosophical movement, dead in name, reemerged to inspire the literature of Cold War America.

In 1966, Stegner published a volume of student stories to celebrate the 20th year of the program he founded. He committed half of the volume to former soldiers writing about war and the trials of homecoming, bookending it with stories by Eugene Burdick, who went on to co-author The Ugly American, and Robert Stone, who later wrote Dog Soldiers. The stories set aside the war itself to plumb the inner lives of soldiers and veterans. We get glimpses of a prisoner of war anticipating the arrival of his rescuers, a group of marines struggling to communicate their experiences to an unlistening correspondent, a soldier speaking with a boy on the road outside his training camp, and a veteran thinking about his former platoon as he drives through a Midwestern wheat field. One story, for example, describes a young man sitting at his writing desk and struggling to write about a beautiful friend who died in the war. The man despairs at how “difficult it was to get even a fragment of such beauty onto the white blankness, to make the words stand out poised to live like a black rabbit in the snow.” The stories transform a world war into a background for a good man’s introspection and restraint. Stegner taught his students that good writing revealed an authentic self and that bad writing confused the self with the social, the inner world with the world. Good war stories were about the individual men who fought, not about colonialism, politics, profits, and the people who live where the battles take place. The first creative writing programs taught their students that they, not the world in which they lived, constituted the stuff of great literature.

In Stockholm, Lewis complained that literature professors recoiled at “the thought that literature could be created by any ordinary human being, still to be seen walking the streets, wearing quite commonplace trousers and coat and looking not so unlike a chauffer or a farmer.” Now the writer can wear her commonplace trousers on campus as a professor of the craft. But the men who built the discipline of creative writing founded it on a philosophy that would discourage her from writing the kind of social novel that Lewis believed would revitalize the academic humanities. The “philosophy” page of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s website still announces a truism that dates back to the new humanism of Babbitt, More, and Foerster: writing can’t be taught, but talent should be encouraged. The writing student can’t be taught, because she arrives as her individual self, and that is all that material she will ever need. The creative writing program should just let her be. This is, of course, not all programs. Philosophies aren’t rules. But they do influence what we think of as good and bad art. The new humanists who founded creative writing valued the personal over the political, the granular over the historical, the authentic over the speculative, the restrained over the weird. The philosophy they instituted forces writers, writers of color and women writers most of all, into a narrow lane in which the personal must be political because there is no space in the workshop for the political political. Perhaps writing can’t be taught, as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop claims, but we know other things can: history, geography, philosophy, sociology, why some have more and some have less, why we live our lives together and apart. In 1930, Lewis worried about an “American fear of literature” — of readers who didn’t want to grapple with social novels and the issues they raised. Ninety years later, we should worry about why we stopped fearing it.


Joseph Darda is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

LARB Contributor

Joseph Darda is an associate professor of English at Michigan State University and the author of three books, including, most recently, The Strange Career of Racial Liberalism (Stanford University Press, 2022).


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