The Centenarian Scholar

M. H. Abrams, one of the 20th century's great literary critics, turns 100.

July 20, 2012

Cornell University's M.H. Abrams has had the sort of career that scholars (and their institutions) dream of.

He is the founding editor of the Norton Anthology of Literature, which has been the cornerstone of English classes across the country for 50 years now (and which went through seven editions with Abrams at the helm). Two of his books -- The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953) and Natural Supernaturalism (1971) -- are widely considered to be among the greatest works of literary theory of the 20th century; the former also landed at number 25 on the Modern Library's 1998 list of the 100 best nonfiction books (on any subject) of the preceding 100 years. Abrams's Glossary of Literary Terms (1957) has been assigned to generations of students.

And on the eve of his 100th birthday -- which is this coming Monday -- Abrams is not only alive but quite well. (W.W. Norton will soon be releasing his latest book, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem: and Other Essays.) Little wonder, then, that Cornell sees reason to celebrate.

Researcher, Scholar and Teacher

Meyer Howard Abrams (known to many as Mike) was born in Long Branch, N.J., in 1912. His parents were Eastern European immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish. (Those interested in Abrams's Jewish background -- unusual at the time he entered literary studies -- and his perspective on religion are encouraged to read Adam Kirsch's recent piece in Tablet magazine.) He earned his bachelor's degree at Harvard University, then spent a year on fellowship at the University of Cambridge before returning to Harvard for his master's and doctorate. (Abrams has said that he decided to study English because "there weren't jobs in any other profession [either], so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn't enjoy.")

After completing his Ph.D., during World War II, Abrams worked in Harvard's Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, where he helped to develop the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet known as Able Baker, which is still in use today. In 1945, he took a job as an assistant professor at Cornell University, where he chose to remain for the duration of his academic career. Abrams became professor emeritus in 1983, but has continued to publish and lecture in the years since. (He has also elected to stay in Ithaca: Abrams professes a great love for the natural world, and said that his loyalty to Cornell is due in part to its location "in the middle of a wonderful countryside.")

At Cornell, Abrams is highly esteemed for his teaching as well as his scholarship. On a message board on the university's website, former students from many decades back have written, "Your classes were among my happiest memories at Cornell"; "You showed a kindness I remember to this day"; " I... was forever entranced by your lectures"; "I was privileged to learn to love and savor poetry from Professor Abrams"; and many similar sentiments. (Reporter's note: My own undergraduate thesis adviser, Robert Knapp -- who is Reginald Arragon Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College -- studied under Abrams as a graduate student, and describes him as "probably the kindest, and certainly the most courtly [in the good, witty, and socially canny sense] academic I've ever known.")

Abrams's former students include literary elites like Thomas Pynchon and Harold Bloom, but in interviews he has repeatedly declined to discuss any particular standouts. As he told Inside Higher Ed, "I've been fortunate in having so many good students who've done so many good things, and I certainly wouldn't want to single any one -- or two, or three -- out."

He also refrained from naming any contemporary scholars whose work he admires -- because "anybody I mention, there are others... equally deserving" -- though he did say that "there are certainly scholars today that are as good as any scholars in the past."

This generally optimistic outlook extends to his view of the field as a whole, assorted higher education crises notwithstanding. "I think literary studies are healthy," he said. "They'll continue to survive in great shape."

And while Abrams believes that students should be aware of the possible "economic consequences" of pursuing the study of literature, he would not warn anyone away from the field. "If you're the right sort of person," he said, it "gives you a great deal of enjoyment, and a sense that you're with things that are happening that are important."

Abrams has gotten all that and more from his own career, which he regards with both pride and gratitude. Asked about the enduring status of The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism, he replied, "Well, nobody's more surprised by that than I am!"

"Presumably," he added, "it's because they say things that some people find valuable, worth reading, and durable... What that is, I'm not sure myself. I didn't write them to endure for perpetuity -- I just wrote them because I had something to say. And it's nice to find that they keep a readership as time goes on."

Indeed, the two books not only "keep a readership," but have been greatly influential in their field -- particularly The Mirror and the Lamp, which describes a shift, in the Romantic period, from an understanding of art and literature as mimesis (i.e., as a more-or-less realistic depiction of the world -- a "mirror") to a model in which they are interpreted as individual self-expression (as Kirsch explains in his Tablet article, "Romantic and modern literature is a lamp, shining forth from the soul of the artist").

In Natural Supernaturalism, slightly less famed than its predecessor (though Abrams has said in several interviews that he prefers it), Abrams shows how, during the Romantic period -- in an increasingly secular world -- traditional theological ideas were not abandoned, but rather  transfigured into "new" Romantic themes. Natural Supernaturalism is known for its sustained engagement with philosophy as well as literature and literary theory, and Abrams told Inside Higher Ed that he views the relationship between literature and philosophy as "intimate."

"All these cultural matters are never distinct from each other, never autonomous," he added. The literature-philosophy relationship "may not be happy, but it's inevitable, ineluctable, inescapable."

"It’s a recurring theme in any cultural period to have a lament that things have never been quite as bad or as confusing or as irrelevant as they are now, and I think literary studies are healthy. They’ll continue to survive in great shape.... Despite anything anyone can say that I would disagree with, I think the status of the cultural phenomenon of literature, what people say about literature, literary criticism, is vital still and will continue to be so. I may object to this or that that’s going on – in fact a lot of my writings have been objections to claims made about literature – but it’s all part of the vitality of the field. Only a dead field is a field without contestation." --M.H. Abrams

Putting Up With the Fuss

On the phone, at least, Abrams might easily be taken for a much younger man. While he is somewhat hard of hearing, he speaks clearly and thoughtfully, with evident good humor. But there is, too, a note of tolerance -- Abrams is, after all, 100 years old, and he has been interviewed many, many times over the exceptional length of his career. The questions get repetitive.

"I've been asked about everything I can possibly think of," he acknowledged. "There's no question... that hasn't been put to me already. Including by you."

This Saturday and Sunday, Cornell's English department will be hosting a number of events (which are free and open to the public, and which include, on Sunday, a full lecture by Abrams) in honor of his birthday. Abrams anticipates the weekend with that same mixture of humor and slightly weary acceptance: "I look forward to a gathering of old friends," he said, "and I hope my energies suffice to carry me through to the end of it."

If all the attention is a bit much at his age, Abrams knows he can hardly complain. "It's much better than the alternative -- that is, to be ignored."



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