WHAT WAS SANTAYANA UP TO? George Santayana was a philosopher and poet who taught at Harvard from 1888 to 1912. Helen Vendler quotes Santayana’s explanation in his book THE GENTEEL TRADITION for why he wrote his sonnet: “The experiment is only to make evident how much old finery there is in our literary baggage.” The phrase “Genteel Tradition” was coined by Santayana in 1911 and has been used ever since to characterize an American cultural attitude from Victorian times.
This entry from Encyclopedia.com by Thomson Gale describes the people that Santayana was thinking of when he coined the phrase “Genteel Tradition.”:
“They criticized popular culture and censored what they considered “bad” literature, particularly literary realism. Rigidly conforming to Victorian standards of taste, they argued that “good” literature had only two functions: to transport readers from the real world to one of ideal truth and beauty and to teach “proper” manners to members of the middle and upper classes.”
On the other side of the debate would be all the new writers and poets who favored literary realism and the use of the vernacular and attacked the Genteel Tradition.