Humanist Literature in Perspective, by Arthur Dobrin

I have often asked myself in astonishment whence they could obtain this or that secret knowledge which I acquired by arduous examination of the subject, and I finally came to envy the poet whom I [already] admired.

-Sigmund Freud

“Humanist literature” is an ambiguous term.  Does it refer to that which has been written by Humanists about Humanism; does it include protohumanist work; what, after all, do we mean by Humanist; and, what is literature?  My focus here is to consider as the operative term the word literature.  In this way, my concern is with Humanism not in its sectarian and philosophical form as much as Humanism as it is understood as related to the humanities.  I take literature to mean the production of writing, especially that of imaginative verse and prose.  It is my contention that without fiction and poetry i.e. imaginative literature, a Humanist is only half-literate.

I suppose the reason why I had been asked to prepare these remarks is because I am a writer of imaginative literature.  While professionally I define myself as a Humanist minister, subsumed under that definition is that of a writer.  Since childhood I wanted to be a writer.  My brother bought me a typewriter for my 13th birthday and it is on the same green metal machine that I do my creative writing.  Upon graduating from college, the last career on my list of my 1,000 favorite jobs was clergy.

As a college student I majored in history with a minor in literature.  History and fiction seemed to me to be two ways of telling a story, two ways of understanding the human condition.  History was the form of knowledge, while literature was the form of wisdom.  Today history has been captured by cliometricians who interpret events as statistical data rather than as human expression, so I suppose that if I were an undergraduate today I would find myself exclusively within the English Department.  Before graduating from college I had completed two novels (unpublished and now lost), but when I began my work with the Ethical Movement, I found that I hadn’t the inclination to write another.  The period from inception to completion was too long. As a way of finding release for my creative urges, I began to write poetry, three years after my entry into professional leadership.

My writing wasn’t secret and neither was it sectarian.  I wasn’t writing for liturgical purposes, but I did consider it to be a legitimate part of my professional role.  Of course, not everyone saw it that way and many still see it as a divergence, like playing cards or exercising-good things to do if you like it, but not religious leadership.  Soon after my first book of poetry was published, a former member of the society, now living out-of-state, wrote a letter to one of the members expressing her delight that a poet headed the society.  She also expressed doubt that I would stay very long. Members, she thought, wouldn’t tolerate a poet as leader. What they wanted, she thought, was a philosopher or social activist.  Her prediction regarding my longevity at the society has proven wrong, but her assessment about the lack of understanding regarding the relationship between Humanism and the humanities was probably correct.  It struck me as strange then and it still does today that a Humanist leader committed to the humanities is viewed as an anomaly.