From the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, George Santayana was a highly esteemed and widely read writer of philosophy, poetry, essays, memoirs, and even a best-selling novel, The Last Puritan. After a period of relative neglect, interest in his work has revived. A complete edited edition of his works is in progress and he has become the object of renewed scholarly activity. Contributing significantly to the renewal was John McCormick's 1987 biography, the first full-scale volume to treat an elusive figure's life and thought in the detail they deserve.
Santayana's life was rich in its interior and outer associations. There was his birth and early childhood in Spain followed by a move to Boston, where he came under the influence of William James at Harvard. This led to his career at Harvard as a professor, where Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Walter Lippmann were among his devoted students. We see Santayana in correspondence and conversation with Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Ezra Pound, and Robert Lowell.
Predominant in Santayana's life was his philosophical work. Hostile to the dominant empiricism of Anglo-American philosophy, he left the academy and remained detached from both the political and ideological movements of early decades of the twentieth century. McCormick relates his skepticism and materialism to a form of idealism deriving from his classical education in Plato and Aristotle, together with his readings in Descartes and Spinoza. He presents Santayana as a supreme stylist in English, who lived a long life always consistent with his stoic epicureanism.