Brownell, Baker, 1887-1965
- Existence: 1887-1965
Baker Brownell enjoyed a rich and varied career as a soldier, newspaper man, popular teacher and lecturer, prolific writer and minor power, and scholar concerned with the dynamics of both the “small community” and the larger “human community” of which it formed an important component. During his lifetime, much of which was spent as a member of the faculty at Northwestern, Brownell achieved a national reputation based upon both his recognized abilities as a lecturer and teacher and his distinctive philosophical views which were articulated through a literary outpouring that included several books and countless articles.
He became particularly identified with an impassioned concern for the preservation of a rapidly vanishing “grass roots” America together with all of its attendant values. In connection with his teaching duties, literary projects, and “small community” field investigations, he had occasion to correspond widely and frequently with a wide variety of individuals, many of whom were quite prominent in their respective areas of expertise.
He was born in St. Charles, Illinois on December 12, 1887, the fifth of six children of Eugene A. Brownell and Esther Burr Baker Brownell. He married Helena Maxwell in 1916, whom he later divorced, and married Adelaide Howard in 1933. He had one son, Eugene Howard Brownell, who was born on September 9, 1939.
Brownell grew up in St. Charles, Illinois, where he graduated from St. Charles High School. He later attended five universities - the University of Washington (1906-1907); Northwestern University (1907-1909); Harvard University (1909-1913); Tuebingen University (1912-1913) and Cambridge University, England (1913). While at Harvard Brownell took classes with Josiah Royce and George Santayana, and met William James, who had already retired from Harvard. He received a B.A. in philosophy from Northwestern in 1910, after completing his last year of undergraduate work at Harvard. He received a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard in 1911. In 1912-1913 as a recipient of the James Walker Traveling Fellow in Philosophy (awarded by Harvard), he attended Tuebingen University in Germany and Cambridge University, where he became acquainted with Bertrand Russell.
Upon his return from Europe in 1913 Brownell worked as a cub reporter for the Chicago Tribune. From 1914-1917 he lived in Emporia, Kansas where he was an instructor in English at the Kansas State Normal College and edited journal Teaching. He served as an enlisted man and officer, first in the United States Army, then the U.S. Navy and then the National Guard between 1916 and 1926. He served both in the Mexican Border Campaign and World War I. He began writing poetry during this period, which was published in such magazines as Poetry, The Dial and The New Republic. From 1919-1920 Brownell was an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Idaho. Returning to Chicago in 1920, he worked until 1921 as an editorial writer for the Chicago Daily News.
In 1921 Brownell joined the Northwestern University faculty as a lecturer in editorial writing. From 1922-1925 he served first as associate professor, then Professor of Journalism. Brownell held an appointment as Professor of Contemporary Thought in the School of Journalism from 1925-1934, and in the College of Liberal Arts, 1934-1947. He served as chairman of the Department of Contemporary Thought from 1927-1937. He held an appointment as Professor of Philosophy from 1947-1953 when he became Emeritus Professor of Philosophy.
Brownell’s course in Contemporary Thought, one of the first of its kind in the United States, was intended to help students organize fragments of their educational experience into an intelligible whole. It consisted of weekly lectures by prominent individuals with expertise in natural sciences, biology, psychology, sociology, history, economics, art, religion and philosophy. Brownell believed that the “human community” was breaking down in part because students and others did not understand that life itself was fragmented. By helping students integrate their educational experiences, Brownell believed he was helping to mitigate the demise of the small community. In 1926 Brownell published The New Universe, which enumerated his beliefs, and in 1929 he edited a twelve volume series entitled Man and His World, which included 60 lectures that had been given in his Contemporary Thought course.
During the 1930's Brownell became acquainted with Arthur E. Morgan, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and edited Morgan’s book, The Small Community. From 1936-1939 he served as an agricultural advisor to the United States Department of Agriculture. As a supervising editor for Harper & Brothers during the 1940's, he edited several books that were designed to integrate various fields of specialized knowledge.
In addition to his long and distinguished connection with Northwestern, Brownell was also a visiting lecturer at other universities including the University of Kansas City, the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, and the Garrett Biblical Institute.
Baker Brownell also traveled extensively. Among his trips were a tour of the Galapagos Islands and an expedition to Cocos Island as the guest of his friend Commander E.F.MacDonald, Jr., the Chairman of the Zenith Corporation; a six month sojourn in the interior of Guatemala; a summer in Tahiti; a trip to Isle Royale, Michigan as a member of the Isle Royale Archeological Expedition; and various cruises in the Caribbean.
Brownell resided in Montana from 1944-1947 where he directed a community service project, the Montana Study, which was jointly sponsored by the Humanities Division of the Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Montana, though initially financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Montana Study entailed a program of teaching and field studies in American culture that emphasized the western region of the United States. Brownell's book, The Human Community, published in 1950, is based upon the Montana Study. Brownell, supported by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and Northwestern University, continued his community service work in others areas until 1951.
Brownell also served as the first director of the Division of Area Services at Southern Illinois University from 1952-1954, and organized the Department of Community Development at Southern Illinois, which was initiated to help revitalize many communities in southern Illinois. In 1958 Brownell published The Other Illinois, which was based upon his work at Southern Illinois University.
Brownell retired from academic and administrative work in 1954, but continued writing. He spent the remaining years of his life in Fairhope, Alabama, where he died on April 5, 1965.