Joel Elias Spingarn was born in New York City, the son of an immigrant Austrian merchant. He graduated from Columbia College in 1895. His doctoral thesis, “A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance” (1899), was widely acclaimed by scholars. He grew committed to the importance of the study of comparative literature as a discipline distinct from the study of English or any other language-based literary studies.
Spingarn became a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University at age 24 and taught there from 1899 to 1911. His academic publishing established him as one of America’s foremost comparativists. It included two editions of A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance in 1899 and 1908, as well as edited works like Critical Essays of the Seventeenth-Century in three volumes, which established him as a leading exponent of the “New Criticism.” He summarized his philosophy in
The New Criticism: A Lecture Delivered at Columbia University (March 9, 1910). There he argued against the constraints of such traditional categories as genre, theme, and historical setting in favor of viewing each work of art afresh and on its own terms.
From 1904, his role in academic politics marked him as an independent spirit – too independent for the university’s autocratic president Nicholas Murray Butler. His differences with the administration ranged from personality conflicts to educational philosophy. Things came to a head in 1910, when he offered a resolution at a university faculty meeting in support of Harry Thurston Peck, a Columbia professor who had been summarily dismissed by Butler because of a public scandal involving a breach-of-promise suit. That precipitated Spingarn’s dismissal just five weeks later. He became part of a distinguished series of prominent academics who resigned or were dismissed during Butler’s tenure as president, including George Edward Woodberry, Charles Beard, and James Harvey Robinson. Although he continued to publish literary criticism, such as The New Criticism (1911), Creative Criticism (1917), and Scholarship and Criticism in the United States (1922), Spingarn never returned to academic work.
Politics was one of his lifetime passions. In 1908, as a Republican he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1912 and 1916, he was a delegate to the national convention of the Progressive Party. At the first of those conventions, he failed in his attempts to add a statement condemning racial discrimination to the party platform.
The fight for racial justice became his life’s work, believing that white Americans would rectify injustices if they were aware of them. His awareness was heightened after he read a report in 1910 about a Black tenant farmer in Arkansas who killed his white landlord in self-defense and was subsequently threatened with mob violence and tortured by police in an effort to coerce a confession. He was inspired by the story to contribute to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The NAACP’s white leaders hoped to convince Spingarn to join the organization. As horrified as he was over the violence directed at Blacks, Spingarn said he was more upset by “the contempt with which cultivated men of the Negro race were treated by the whole body of white citizens.” According to Lori Harrison-Kahan, he was drawn to the NAACP by the involvement of W.E.B. Du Bois, “the epitome of the ‘cultivated’ Black man.” For his part, she says, Du Bois and others viewed Jewish liberals “not as simply aiding African Americans but also as empathetically identifying with them, due to firsthand knowledge of bigotry and exclusion.”
Spingarn helped realize the concept of a unified Black movement after joining the NAACP. He became one of the first Jewish leaders of the organization, serving as chairman of its board (1913-1919), treasurer (1919-1930), and its second president (1930-1939).
In the association, he served as a bridge between the integrationists and the Black nationalists, led by Bois, editor of the NAACP’s magazine Crisis. Although ideologically Spingarn was an integrationist, his friendship with and admiration for Du Bois allowed him to work with the editor until Du Bois resigned in 1934.
In its early years, the organization was dominated by white liberals like Spingarn. In 1913, he became chairman of the board and established the Spingarn Medal, awarded annually by the NAACP for outstanding achievement by an African American. He also recruited Jewish leaders such as Jacob Schiff, Jacob Billikopf, and Rabbi Stephen Wise as board members.
In 1916, Spingarn enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a major during World War I. He also was instrumental in seeing that a segregated training camp for Negro officers was established and about 1,000 Negro officers commissioned. He also donated uniforms for one hundred Howard University students who enlisted.
His efforts were criticized by the NAACP and the Black community, but Professor B. Joyce Ross observed that Blacks would have otherwise been excluded from participating in the war. Harrison-Kahan noted Spingarn believed this “was a necessary step in advancement toward full integration” even if it required segregation.
In 1919, on his return from service in France, he helped to establish the publishing firm of Harcourt, Brace and Howe, whose editorial consultant he remained until 1932.
Following the war, Spingarn served as treasurer of the NAACP and strengthened the organization’s financial position and hired more Black employees. He subsequently became president. When he died in 1939, he was replaced by Louis Wright, the first Black to occupy that office.
Always interested in gardening, he amassed the world’s largest collection of clematis – 250 species – and published the results of his research on the early history of landscape gardening and horticulture in Dutchess County, New York. He served as a member of the Board of Managers for the New York Botanical Garden.
He lived with his wife, Amy Einstein Spingarn, in Manhattan and at their country estate which later became the Troutbeck Inn and Conference Center in Amenia, New York. They had two sons and two daughters.
He died after a long illness on July 26, 1939. His will included a bequest to fund the Spingarn Medal in perpetuity.
In 2009, Spingarn was among 12 civil rights leaders honored with images appearing on six American postage stamps issued to mark the centenary of the NAACP. In Washington, D.C., the Spingarn Senior High School is named after him.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1943 that W. E. B. Du Bois, “the bitterest opponent of the white race that America has ever known, loved Joel Spingarn and was certainly loved in turn by him. The thing doesn’t make sense. It just makes beauty.”
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
“Joel Elias Spingarn,” Wikipedia;
“J. E. Spingarn and the Rise of the NAACP, 1911–1939 by B. Joyce Ross Review by: James E. Haney,” New York History, Vol. 55, No. 1 (January 1974), pp. 112-115;
Lori Harrison-Kahan, “W. E. B. Du Bois, J. E. Spingarn, and the NAACP,” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Fall 2011), pp. 63-87;
Howard Sachar, A History of the Jews in America, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 803;
James E. Haney, “J. E. Spingarn and the Rise of the NAACP, 1911–1939 by B. Joyce Ross,” New York History, Vol. 55, No. 1 (January 1974), pp. 112-115;
Zora Neale Hurston, “The ‘Pet Negro’ system,” American Mercury, (May 1943).
Photo: Public Domain.