US literary critic, writer, social reformer, and horticulturist. A scholar of international repute, he published literary studies and his own poetry. He also helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, eventually serving as its president 1930–39. During World War I he succeeded in setting up a special camp to train black officers. In his later years he became a recognized authority on the clematis.
He was born in New York City. After taking all his degrees (including his PhD) at Columbia University, he stayed on with the faculty 1899–1911. When he got into a dispute with Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia, over what he regarded as an issue of free speech, he was dismissed. his The New Criticism (1911) was among the first American works to draw heavily on the theories of the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. Other later works include a major anthology of European literature. A man of independent means, he continued his literary pursuits pretty much on his own, although he occasionally taught at the New School for Social Research. In 1908 he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the US House of Representatives – and he served as a delegate of the Progressive Party at two national conventions. He bought a newspaper in a small town outside New York City, the Amenia Times, and served as its publisher; in 1919 he would also help found Harcourt, Brace and Company, serving as its literary adviser until 1924. In 1913 he established the Spingarn Medal, still given annually to a black American who has shown great achievement. He was a delegate to the convention that established the American Legion.