*Krutch, Joseph Wood

Joseph Wood Krutch

Joseph Wood Krutch



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Krutch, Joseph Wood

American, 1893–1970
Joseph Wood Krutch was a consummate practitioner of both the formal and informal essay. He published over 750 essays in both scholarly and popular journals between 1920 and 1970. The theater reviews and occasional columns which he wrote during that 50- year period bring the total number of his publications to well over 1000. Most of the 28 books he authored are collections of essays on a wide variety of topics ranging from 17th-century comedy to the geography of Baja California. While the main focus of his
writing during the 1920s and 1930s was on literature and society, during the 1950s and 1960s he also became one of America’s foremost nature essayists.
Krutch’s life as a professional writer commenced in 1920 when he began to publish his essays in several important journals and reviews including Smart Set, the Saturday Review of Literature, and the Nation. Krutch’s tone was skeptical, often cynical, but also always refined and cultivated, much like that of Montaigne and Addison and Steele. His sophisticated readers appreciated his clarity, reasonableness, and eloquence, as well as his courage in boldly addressing some of the most controversial issues of his day: the banality of modern art, the attack on the individual by various psychological and Marxist schools of thought, the joyless existence of many Americans. Krutch’s scholarly, carefully crafted essays in cultural studies brought him to the attention of America’s intelligentsia. At the same time he was quickly recognized as one of the most erudite and perceptive drama critics in New York. He was applauded for both his intellectual acumen and his ability to see beyond the latest theatrical fad. Krutch’s opinion was so respected that even Eugene O’Neill, one of America’s leading playwrights, requested his advice.
One of his most important early critical works, The Modern Temper, was completed in 1929. The essays making up this volume focus on the collapse of the belief in traditional humanistic values, especially free will, caused by social engineering, the influence of the mass media, and technocracy. Krutch characterizes the mood of the 20th century as pessimistic and alienated. His concluding statement seems to sum up the general mood of Western civilization: “Ours is a lost cause and there is no place for us in the natural
universe, but we are not, for all that, sorry to be human. We should rather die as men than live as animals.” While hailed as one of America’s foremost intellectuals, Krutch was nevertheless uneasy with his own negativity and began to search for answers outside the Modernist paradigm.

Joseph Wood Krutch

Joseph Wood Krutch

Over the next four decades Krutch’s writing style evolved with his new interests and an appeal to a more diverse audience. In the 1940s he published biographies of both Samuel Johnson and Henry David Thoreau, two writers who symbolized a spectrum of stylistic virtues to him: Johnson’s polish, wit, and urbane insights on English life; Thoreau’s humor, enthusiasm, and rhapsodic commentary on the American wilderness.
During this same period Krutch had begun to enjoy writing the familiar essay so much that in an article entitled “No Essays, Please!” (1951) he even bemoaned the fact that the audience for this literary form was dwindling. He attributed this loss of interest to the upsurge in writing which was supposed to be spare, succinct, and objective—the language of the reporter. Such writing was meant to negate the individual’s voice, to “exist in an impersonal realm.” In marked contrast to this tendency toward the depersonalization of writing, many of Krutch’s essays took on an intimate tone and began to focus not just on society and art but also on his increasing fascination with the world of nature.
The publication of his first collection of nature essays, The Twelve Seasons (1949), marked a turning point for him. Near the end of his life Krutch reflected on his mood when he began this phase of his writing career: “All of my books had been both serious and rather more solemn than I would have liked them to be. I wanted something lighter and more definitely in the manner of the now generally despised ‘familiar essay’.” The Twelve Seasons was successful enough that Krutch followed up with the publication of his reflections on a year spent in the arid environment of southern Arizona, The Desert Year (1952). This work was lauded as a perceptive analysis of life in the Southwest, a 20th-century version of Thoreau’s Walden. Krutch’s reputation as a disciple of Thoreau grew as he continued to expand his areas of expertise. He began to submit articles to popular journals such as Audubon Magazine, House and Garden, and Desert Magazine as well as continuing to contribute to the more academic journals such as the American Scholar, the Atlantic Monthly, Commentary, Harper’s, and Theater Arts.
The range of Krutch’s interests was astonishing. While he wrote formal essays about such literary luminaries as Shakespeare, Congreve, Eugene O’Neill, Tolstoi, Twain, Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and André Gide, he felt equally comfortable writing familiar essays about the Grand Canyon, coyotes, bats, desert frogs, and cacti. In his autobiography, More Lives Than One (1962), Krutch mused: “I probably know more about plants than any other drama critic and more about the theater than any botanist.”
During the first half of the 20th century Krutch’s academic essays on selfhood, freedom, and individuality were central to the theoretical debates about the humanistic tradition and the nature of civilization itself. Today much of this writing is seen as having value primarily to those interested in the evolution of Modernism. On the other hand, the growth of the environmental movement in America has fostered a renewed interest in Krutch’s informal but discerning writing about the relationship of humanity to the larger community of nature. Krutch believed that the best nature essays were based on “the question of the moral consequences” of our actions (The Best of Two Worlds, 1953).
Ethical concern and stylistic grace made Joseph Wood Krutch one of the most important critical voices of the 20th century.


Born 25 November 1893 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Studied at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1911–15, B.A., 1915; Columbia University, New York, M.A. in English, 1916, Ph.D., 1923. Served in the U.S. Army medical corps, 1917–18. Associate professor, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, 1920–23. Married Marcelle Leguia, 1923.
Drama critic, 1924–32 and 1937–52, regular contributor, until the 1930s, associate editor, 1924–32, and member of the editorial board, 1932–37, the Nation. Taught part-time at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1924–25, Columbia University, 1925–31, and the New School for Social Research, New York, 1932–35; professor of English, Columbia University, 1937–52. Moved to Tucson, Arizona, 1952.
Awards: several, including the Burroughs Medal, for nature writing, 1954; National Book Award, for The Measure of Man, 1955; Rockefeller Institute Ettinger Award, for science writing, 1964; Emerson-Thoreau Medal, 1967; honorary degrees from four universities; member, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Died in Tucson, 22 May 1970.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
The Modern Temper: A Study and a Confession, 1929
Five Masters, 1930
Experience and Art, 1932
Was Europe a Success?, 1934
The Twelve Seasons, 1949
The Desert Year, 1952
The Best of Two Worlds, 1953
“Modernism” in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate (lectures), 1953
The Measure of Man, 1954
The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist’s Interpretation, 1955
The Great Chain of Life, 1956
Grand Canyon: Today and All Its Yesterdays, 1958
Human Nature and Human Condition, 1959
The Forgotten Peninsula: A Naturalist in Baja California, 1961
If You Don’t Mind My Saying So…Essays on Man and Nature, 1964
And Even if You Do: Essays on Man, Manners, and Machines, 1967
The Best Nature Writing, 1969
A Krutch Omnibus: Forty Years of Social and Literary Criticism, 1970

Other writings: the autobiography More Lives Than One (1962), studies of Edgar Allan Poe (1926), Samuel Johnson (1944), and Thoreau (1948), and works on literature, social criticism, and nature.

Lehman, Anthony L., “Joseph Wood Krutch: A Selected Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources,” Bulletin of Bibliography 41 (June 1984):74–80

Further Reading
Abbey, Edward, “On Nature, the Modern Temper and the Southwest: An Interview with Joseph Wood Krutch,” Sage 2 (1968):13–21
Dubos, Rene, “The Despairing Optimist,” American Scholar 40 (1971):16–20
Gorman, John, “Joseph Wood Krutch: A Cactus Walden,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 7 (Winter 1984):93–101
Kilgo, James, “Krutch’s Sonoran Pastoral: The Aesthetic Integrity of The Desert Year,” Southwestern American Literature 7 (1981): 9–21
Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Desert Passages, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985:127–48
McClintock, James, Nature’s Kindred Spirits: Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994
Margolis, John D., Joseph Wood Krutch: A Writer’s Life, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980
Pavich, Paul N., Joseph Wood Krutch, Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1989
Powell, Lawrence Clark, “Southwest Classics Reread: Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Desert Year,” Westways (June 1971):14–16, 66–67
Rowley, Robert, “Joseph Wood Krutch: The Forgotten Voice of the Desert,” American Scholar 64 (1995):438–43
Slater, Peter Gregg, “The Negative Secularism of the Modern Temper,” American Quarterly 33 (1981):185–205
Van Lann, Thomas F., “The Death-of-Tragedy Myth,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5 (1991):5–31
Wild, Peter, Pioneer Conservationists of Western America, Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press, 1979:131–39
Wild, Peter, “Ash Heap for Bright Ruderals: Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Modern Temper” North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1989): 14–22

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