René Wellek, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale,died on November 10, 1995, after a long illness. He was 92 years old.



Ren   Wellek's association with Comparative Literature began even before the appearance of its first issue. He was a member of the group within the Modern Language Association that worked to create an American journal in our field. He subsequently became one of the five members of the original Editorial Board appointed by the president of the University of Oregon in 1948; at his request, his name remained on our masthead after the accident in 1986 that left him bedridden and unable to participate actively in the work of evaluating manuscripts that he had done faithfully for so many years. His central role in shaping the new journal is revealed in his extensive correspondence with its first editor, Chandler Beall. He was especially pleased that a former student, whose dissertation he had directed, succeeded Chandler Beall as Editor on the latter's retirement.


Sarah Lawall's "Ren   Wellek and Modern Literary Criticism," CL 40 (1988), 3-24, is an excellent introduction to his conception of literary scholarship, which gives equal attention to criticism, theory and history. His greatest achievement is his monumental History of Modern Criticism, which was completed after the publication of Professor Lawall's essay.


In 1955, when the first two volumes of the History appeared, Wellek planned to bring his account down to the present in two further volumes. The two additional volumes eventually became six; the last appeared in March 1993, only a few months before the author's 90th birthday. The work was completed in extremely difficult conditions while he was confined to bed in a nursing home and forced to dictate the text which he then revised in typescript.


The great virtue of the History is Wellek's insistence on examining all the writings of each critic he studies, on confronting them with the literary works they discuss, and  on setting forth his own reactions to both as

clearly and fairly as possible. His later writings are more personal than his earlier ones, perhaps because, as he notes in a retrospective glance at his History, he had become that criticism deals with what the philosopher W B Gallie calls "essentially contested concepts." One can say of the History, as Wellek's friend Erich Auerbach said of his own Mimesis, that it is "ganz bewusst en Buch, das  ein bestimmter Mensch, in einer bestimmten

Lage...geschrieben hat."




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Comparative Literature, Winter 1996

©Thomas R Hart





Academic year 2008/2009
© a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López
© Katrin Blatt
Universitat de Valčncia Press