Chapter One of  Rene Wellek by Martin Burro, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1981




Europe and America


In the fall of 1978, the distinguished American literary theorist, critical historian, and comparatist scholar René Wellek spoke at the Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, on the occasion of an exhibition of his publications for the celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday. After outlining the main tasks ahead of him, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature looked back on his writing life over the past fifty-four years and noted that his books reflected the many changes in literary scholarship and criti­cism. Still, he hoped that he had preserved his own integrity and a core of convictions. Wellek, whose impulse has always been to help clarify the methodological Tower of Babel, once explained: “My views and aspirations are best expounded in my books.” Many literary scholars the world over know the convictions and aspirations in Wellek’s books, if not in all of his hundreds of scattered essays and reviews. Appealing also to the student of literature and criticism are the stages of René Wellek’s remarkable development, particu­larly his formative years in Europe and the years preceding his acquiring American citizenship in 1946.


I Vienna


René Wellek was born in Vienna on August 22, 1903, the oldest of three children. In this old Hapsburg capital—cradle of much contemporary thought in psychology, medicine, philosophy, pol­itics, art, music, and literature—Wellek and his younger brother, Albert (1904—1972), spent their boyhoods. The culture of Wellek’s parents influenced his development profoundly. His father, Bron­islav Wellek (1872—1959), then a government lawyer, was a Czech from a petty-bourgeois Catholic family in Prague. Known as a Lied­ersänger, a Wagnerian, and an opera reviewer, Bronislav Wellek also was an ardent Czech nationalist and a biographer of the com­poser Bedrich Smetana and a translator of the poets Jaroslav Vrchlicky and J. S. Machar. René Wellek’s mother, née Gabriele von Zelewsky (1881—1950), came from a different background. Born in Rome, she bloomed into a beauty who spoke German, Italian, French, and English. René Wellek’s maternal grandfather was a West Prussian nobleman of Polish origin; Wellek’s grandmother was a Swiss Protestant from picturesque Schaffhausen. After the noble­man’s death, his widow, son, and daughter traveled on the Conti­nent. In Vienna, Gabriele von Zelewsky met Bronislav Wellek.


In the crowded capital the young couple and their sons moved from apartment to apartment. From 1906 to 1908 Bronislav Wellek served under the Austrian prime minister, Baron von Beck, to whom he gave Czech lessons. In 1912 the Welleks settled in a large house with garden and terrace. At home and in the kaleidoscopic Danubian metropolis, René and Albert grew up in an atmosphere rich in linguistic, aesthetic, political, and religious overtones. Since the Protestantism of their Swiss grandmother prevailed in the family, the Brothers Wellek had been baptized in the Lutheran Church. Even the agnostic Bronislav became a nominal Lutheran.


As a boy René Wellek read voraciously. He and his brother de­veloped “crazes” for all kinds of encyclopedic and historical infor­mation—geography, science, religion, literature, military campaigns. Familiar with Viennese opera, René Wellek also took piano lessons. At school he and his brother spoke German, but often encountered anti-Czech feeling. At home and on vacations in the river valleys and pinewoods of Bohemia, the brothers spoke Czech. A month after he became ten, René Wellek started Latin lessons, and for eight hours a week for eight years he read much of Livy, Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Cicero, Ovid, Vergil, Horace, Catullus, and Tacitus.


During the First World War, René Wellek recalls, food in Vienna grew scarce and cannon boomed in the Carpathians. When he was thirteen he started Greek, and during the next three years he read Xenophon, much Homer, some Plato and Lucian. During his con­valescence from scarlet fever, his father read to him the whole of The Pickwick Papers in German. When he returned finally to the Wahring Gymnasium, he was permitted to substitute English or French for his interrupted Creek studies. Wellek’s choice of English influenced his life decisively. Though he still spent long hours at his Latin, he grew increasingly sceptical of mechanical instruction.


II Prague


With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the Welleks (and infant Elizabeth) moved to the ancient cathedral city of Prague, that picturesque settlement at the entrance to Eastern Europe. “Czechoslovakia after the war,” Wellek notes, “more than ever, stood at the crossroads of all cultural influences, in conse­quence of her geographical position, her Slavonic language and her Western sympathies.” Like his father—high in government office— the schoolboy René Wellek identified with the new Czechoslovakia. “The outcome of the great war, which for the Czechs meant the fulfillment of a centuries-old desire, was a surprise and shock for the Germans in Bohemia and Moravia.” Still, the first president of the Republic, Thomas Masaryk, hoped that Czechoslovakia might become the Switzerland of Central Europe.


No English, however, was taught at Wellek’s Realgymnasium. Nevertheless, he continued to read English literature at home, par­ticularly Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. In school he studied botany, history, geography, and three literatures—Latin, German, and Czech. He read a good deal of Reformation history and became familiar with the German classics. After reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, he puzzled over his mother’s sentimental piety.


In 1922, Wellek entered Charles University (the Czech University of Prague). Though he viewed his father’s legal profession as boring, he himself would become a masterful judge of evidence, of critical defense and prosecution. Wellek prevailed upon his father to allow him to study Germanic philology. Academe promised intellectual adventure and social responsibility, art and learning, passion and judgment. At Charles University, German historical scholarship still held sway, but often it collaborated with criticism. Joseph Janko lectured on Gothic vocalism and consonantism, Arnost Kraus on the Minnesänger, Otokar Fischer on the life and poetry of Heine, F. X. Salda on Symbolism, and Václav Tille on comparative folklore. From each Wellek learned, but from each he withheld total alle­giance. Fascinated by the judgmental boldness of Friedrich Gun­dolf ‘s Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (1911) and Goethe (1916), Wellek in 1923 visited Heidelberg to hear Gundolf lecture; after calling on him, however, Wellek was repelled by Gundolf ‘s adoring cult of Stefan George.


At Charles University, Wellek enjoyed the lectures on English literary history given by the highly regarded Czech scholar and teacher Vilém Mathesius (1882—1945). The noble and polite Ma­thesius, Wellek later wrote, was “the type of the Czech scholar who grew up under Austria in the tradition of Czech Protestantism, with Masaryk as a model in mind, who devoted himself to the building of the nation between the wars.” During Mathesius’s sudden loss of sight, Wellek (who then cared only for Shakespeare and the Romantic and Victorian poets) read portions of The Fairie Queene to him and observed that often Mathesius’s responses to Spenser went beyond the conventions of nineteenth-century positivistic phil­ology. Mathesius, in fact, encouraged his students to free themselves from fanatic German factualism and to write Czech exposition in the simple, clear style of the English. Though Mathesius seemed to Wellek insufficiently concerned with the problem of evil and trag­edy, with irrationality and the interior life Mathesius instilled in him “a sane respect for order, tradition, common sense, lucidity distrust of the merely new, the pretentious and opaque. . . a concern for genuine discovery, for the frontiers of knowledge.”


III Wandering Scholar


With his father’s financial help, Wellek in 1924 spent two months in England preparing his thesis on “Thomas Carlyle and Romanti­cism” and responding favorably to the Metaphysical revival. The next year he and other Czech students, under the auspices of the British Union of students, visited Cambridge, Birmingham, Liv­erpool, Oxford, Bristol, and London. As an undergraduate Wellek began publishing his efforts in Czech books and periodicals His first essay, in Fischer and Salda’s review Kritika, took to task J. V. Sládek’s Czech translation of Romeo and Juliet. Other early essays are on Byron and Shelley, early reviews on various studies in Czech, English, French, and German. Under Mathesius, Wellek completed his thesis on Carlyle: Wellek argues that Carlyle fought the En­lightenment with weapons from German Romanticism, but re­mained a Puritan. In June 1926, at age twenty-three, Wellek received the degree Doctor of Philology.


Supported by the Czech Ministry of Education, Wellek once more visited England, this time to prepare a monograph on Andrew Mar­vell in relation to Baroque and Latin poetry. But at Oxford, where he met Mario Praz, Wellek was surprised to learn that the French scholar Pierre Legouis was preparing a large book on Marvell. With recommendations from Oxford Wellek applied to the Institute of International Education, and in the fall of 1927 he went to Princeton as a Procter Fellow of English. He spent a busy year in the regular graduate seminars of Thomas M. Parrott, Robert K. Root, Charles C. Osgood, and Morris W. Croll. Unfortunately, Wellek’s seminar assignments were much like those of his early years in Germanic philology. At the time, Princeton offered no modern or American literature. Wellek, however, managed to read H. L. Mencken, Van Wyck Brooks, and the New Humanists.


Since there was no opening for him at Prague, Wellek remained in the United States and taught German the next year at Smith College. The following year he returned to Princeton to teach Ger­man. Having avoided at Prague the professors of positivistic phi­losophy, at Princeton he attended Ledger Wood’s seminar on Hegel’s Logic. Wellek’s thesis on Carlyle had led him to Coleridge, and Coleridge led him to Kant and Schelling. During this period, Wellek decided that the topic of his second thesis (Habilitation) would be the influence of Kant on English thought. Wellek then voyaged home by way of England. At the British Museum he scru­tinized Coleridge’s manuscript “Logic,” amazed to see the fair and unfair use Coleridge made of Kant.


IV Privatdozent


Back at Charles University by the fall of 1930, Wellek completed Immanuel Kant in England: 1793—1838. Though Mathesius had re­servations about the subject of the Habilitation, he advised Wellek to enhance his chances of securing a professorship by writing a paper on the Middle English poem The Pearl. Wellek passed his Docen­tura, basing his inaugural lecture (“The Two Englands: Empiricism and Idealism in English Literature”) on an entry in Coleridge’s notebooks. Writes Wellek: “I developed the contrast between the two traditions with an unconcealed preference for the Platonic ideal­istic poetic tradition.” Still, Mathesius selected Wellek as his eventual successor as Professor of the History of English Literature.


From 1930 to 1935 Wellek lived in Prague. He became an active junior member of the famous Prague Linguistic Circle, translated Joseph Conrad’s Chance and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers into Czech, taught English as a Privatdozent, and wrote in Czech, English and German for a variety of Czech journals. In 1932 Wellek married Olga Brodská, an elementary-school teacher from Moravia. Wellek early surveyed the work of the Cambridge critics—I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, and William Empson— and contributed articles and reviews to Slovo a slovesnost, journal of the Prague Lin­guistic Circle. He further developed his

considerable skill in textual analysis, formulation of theory, and reasoned evaluation. Believing that history can be written only from a sense of direction, Wellek as early as 1932 sought in his paper on “Wordsworth’s and Coler­idge’s Theories of Poetic Diction” for anticipations of the views of the Russian Formalists and the Czech Structuralists. Of great in­terest to Wellek at this time were the theories of Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Jan Mukarovsky, and Roman Ingarden.


V London


Since prospects for a professorship at Prague seemed remote, Wellek from 1935 to 1939 was Lecturer in Czech Language and Literature at the School of Slavonic Studies of the University of London. Sponsored there by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Edu­cation, Wellek also gave six public lectures a year on Czech culture. During these London years, he contributed his important “Theory of Literary History” to the sixth volume of Travaux du Cercle Lin­gulstique de Prague (1936, pp. 173—81). Wellek notes that this essay for the first time in English discusses Russian Formalism and Ingarden’s phenomenology. Wellek argues against merely accumu­lating facts about literature, against reducing literature to historical information. He advocates concentrating on the actual works of art themselves, on bridging the gulf between content and form.


In Cambridge in the summer of 1936, Wellek for the first time met F. R. Leavis. Though Wellek’s views in many areas coincided with those of the Cambridge group, his famous or notorious letter in Scrutiny in 1937 charged Leavis in his Revaluation (1936) with an inadequate appreciation of idealism as it descends from Plato, with underrating the coherence and comprehensibility of the Ro­mantic view of the world. Leavis wrongly countercharged that Wellek was an abstract philosopher with an inadequate appreciation of sensitive concrete criticism. Wellek replied that he had intended only to show that literary criticism directed against the soundness of thought is invalid.


As Bronislav Wellek before World War I had transmitted Czech culture to Austria, so René Wellek before World War II transmitted Czech culture to England. Several of Wellek’s thoughtful, factual accounts of Czech history and the Czech situation stem from this period. In London and environs, in speech and print, he sought help for his threatened homeland by acquainting the English with venerable Anglo-Czech relations, with Czech writers and values. Still, Neville Chamberlain, to Wellek’s utter dismay, let the little country go. After Hitler’s troops marched into Prague in the spring of 1939, the Third Reich halted Wellek’s salary.


VI Iowa


American scholars came to Wellek’s aid. Thomas Parrott informed Norman Foerster of Wellek’s plight. Foerster, as Director of the School of Letters at the State University of Iowa, invited Wellek to join the English Department as a lecturer on a one-year appoint­ment. Having ascertained the exact location of Iowa City on a map in the British Museum, Wellek and his wife gratefully sailed for America in June. Before the trip to Iowa, Wellek worked at Yale for six weeks on the manuscript of his Rise of English Literary History. The Welleks moved into a newly rented house in Iowa City on September 1, 1939—the day World War II broke out in Europe.


At Iowa, Wellek at first taught courses in the Humanities and the European novel. There he met several stimulating colleagues, among them Austin Warren. Reappointed, Wellek soon taught a seminar in German-English literary and intellectual relations. In the stormy debate in American universities between scholars and critics (history versus values, facts versus ideas), Wellek naturally supported Foerster’s Neohumanist reforms. Like England, America lacked theoretical awareness. Its scholarship was antiquarian, its criticism impressionistic. To the collective volume Literary Schol­arship: Its Aims and Methods (1941) Wellek contributed a revised version of his “Theory of Literary History.” That same year the University of North Carolina also published his Rise of English Literary History. Wellek became an associate professor at Iowa and associate editor of Philological Quarterly (1941—46).


At meetings of the newly founded English Institute in the early 1940s, Wellek met William K. Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate. Robert Penn Warren twice taught at Iowa as a visiting pro­fessor. Though Continental and American perceptions naturally dif­fered, Wellek was impressed with these “New Critics.” Sensing the limitations of New Humanism, Wellek and Austin Warren decided to write Theory of Literature, a book stressing the nature, function, form, and content of literature as well as its relation to neighboring but distinct disciplines. The needed book, surveying literary theory, practice, scholarship, history, and pedagogy, would bring together Wellek’s insights into Slavic Formalism/Structuralism and Warren’s into American New Criticism. To expedite the collaboration, Wellek enlarged the scope of his reading in American scholarship while Warren read more European studies.


Meanwhile, Wellek accepted Louis Wright’s invitation to work as a Fellow at the Huntington Library during the summer of 1942— on what Wellek imagined would be the second installment of his Rise of English Literary History (since Thomas Warton to the pres­ent). In the spring of 1943 Wellek’s son Ivan was born. Because of the war Wellek naturally lost touch with the Prague Circle; never­theless, he intensified his theoretical interests. At the center of his convictions were the autonomy of the aesthetic experience, the human meaning of art, the necessity for responsible interpretation, the interdependence of theory and experience, and the intercon­nection of analysis, interpretation, and evaluation.


As Director of the Language and Area Program in Czech (1943—44), René Wellek’s function was to produce oral interpreters for the United States Army. He was promoted to full professor in 1944, but his grinding stint as language director had retarded prog­ress on Theory of Literature. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, however, Wellek and Warren spent the war-concluding summer of 1945 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enthusiastically the Czech and the American wrote, exchanged, discussed, and revised chapters. Of Austin Warren as writer and teacher, Wellek observes: “Working with him was a course in style, in the art of exposition, in the clarity of formulation.”


VII New Haven


In the fall they returned to Iowa, but Wellek, having learned Mathesius had died shortly before the liberation, considered re­turning to Prague. Yale University, however, offered him a post, and Wellek became a naturalized American citizen in May 1946. That same year Yale presented him with an honorary Master of Arts degree, and he joined the editorial board (1946—50) of the Modern Language Association.


Still working on Theory of Literature, Wellek in the fall of 1946 became Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Yale. There was no chair, no program, no department then, but Wellek sensed that the time was growing ripe for expansion. Soon there would be 125 undergraduates in his Survey of the Russian Novel. Wellek rightly insisted that one cannot study a single literature in isolation. All literature is interdependent, particularly the literature descending from Greece and Rome. Ideas, forms, genres, themes, motifs, techniques, metrics, stock characters, and much more cross all language barriers. Professors of literature in whatever language or languages must recognize as an ideal the supernational history of literature.


Warren visited Wellek in New Haven the next two summers, but the illness and subsequent death of Warren’s wife necessitated that Wellek write chapters originally assigned to Warren. Though Theory of Literature bears a 1949 publication date, most of the book was written between 1945—47, and it incorporates earlier papers, including Wellek’s well-known chapter “The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art,” first published in the Southern Review in 1942. In the summer of 1947 WeIlek lectured on literary theory at the University of Minnesota, and the next summer on the history of criticism at Columbia University, returning to Yale in the fall as chairman of his department. Meanwhile, Warren left Iowa for the University of Michigan.


Though not conceived as a textbook, Theory of Literature caught on in American graduate schools. In a short time, it became a vade mecum. Today it is an academic best-seller, in twenty-two translations. Though the book often is associated with New Criticism, Wellek objects to being called a New Critic. Thanks to the fusion of the German-Slavic and Anglo-American critical traditions in Theory of Literature, students and professors of literature the world over have become cognizant of essential distinctions and of the cardinal idea that “a literary work of art is not a simple object but rather a highly complex organization of a stratified character with multiple meanings and relationships.”


To the first issue of Comparative Literature, on whose editorial board he is still a member, Wellek contributed his well-known refutation of Arthur 0. Lovejoy’s argument in 1924 against the unity of Western Romanticism. In the summer of 1949, Wellek joined John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Yvor Winters as a Fellow at the Kenyon School. Following the publication of Theory of Literature, Wellek put his greatest labors after teaching and administration into his monumental A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, a projected five (now projected six) volume magnum opus of mod­ern critical developments, primarily in France, England, Germany, Italy, Russia, and America. The work would support or correct Theory of Literature.


VIII Profession of Criticism


Since mid-century a flow of publications has issued from Wellek’s pen—books, essays, surveys, reviews, notes, letters—on European and American philosophy, aesthetics, and history of ideas; on literary theory, history, and criticism; on periods, developments, and move­ments; on style, methodology, and pedagogy; on critics, scholars, and—himself. His many reviews on American, English, German, Czech, Polish, Russian, French, and Italian criticism are crisp and balanced. His letters and comments in learned journals contribute to critical inquiry, to a sense of intellectual community.


In 1955, Yale University Press released the first two volumes of the History—The Later Eighteenth Century and The Romantic Age. “There is no other history like it,” declared David Daiches, “none which combines its scope with its sense of contemporary relevance.” For Wellek’s sixtieth birthday, in 1963, the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in America honored him with Essays on Czech Literature, nine of his key Czech writings in English, with a bibliography of more than a hundred Wellek writings in Czech and on Czech/Slavic topics. That same year Yale published Wellek’s more unified collection, Concepts of Criticism. These fifteen influ­ential papers, dating from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, define problems of method and periodization, set conceptual ideals, and measure results against literature itself. To Emerson R. Marks, “No available alternative to the structuralism which he propounds bears so well the test of literature itself.” Exclusive of about sixty items in Czech, the bibliography covers all of Wellek’s writings to the end of 1962.


Two years after the publication of Concepts, Princeton University Press, having put its imprimatur in 1931 on the printing in Czechoslovakia of Kant in England, appropriately published Wellek’s third collection, six essays under the unambiguous title Confrontations: Studies in the Intellectual and Literary Relations Between Germany, England, and the United States during the Nineteenth Century. Howard Mumford Jones pronounced René Wellek “the most erudite man in America.“ When Yale in 1965 released the eagerly awaited third and fourth volumes of Wellek’s critical History—The Age of Transition and The Later Nineteenth Century—it was welcomed as “the most comprehensive and balanced account of the history of criticism in the modern age.“ In 1970, Yale published Wellek’s fourth essay collection (and bibliography from 1963 through 1969) Discriminations: More Concepts of Criticism. Among many others, R. Cordon Cox pointed up Wellek’s “vast range of reference” and “encyclopedic knowledge of critical writing.“


Like most flourishing scholar-critics, Wellek constructs his books largely from his essays. Often these are lectures-turned-essays, one reason for their directness and clarity. Nearly all forty-two Wellek pieces that constitute Essays on Czech Literature, Concepts of Crit­icism, Confrontations, and Discriminations were culled from aca­demic quarterlies and scholarly books. One runs across his essays and reviews in the whole gamut of learned journals—from American Literature to Zeitschrlft der Savigny—Stiftung. One finds first or second versions, whole or partial reprints, or translations of his essays in a host of collections, annuals, festschrifts, editions, and reference works.


Over his long career, Wellek has reviewed more than a hundred scholarly books written in various Germanic, Romance, and Slavic languages. His reviews display the range of his essays and books. Venturously, he has assessed a scholarly book on Old Korean poetry for Comparative Literature, and even an issue of Yale Literary Magazine for Yale Daily News. Most of his reviews, of course, treat works in English on modern Western literature and literary study. Wellek’s reviews crop up in dozens of journals, many in Comparative Literature and Philological Quarterly. Wellek’s ingenuity in car­rying ideas from one book to the next, in constructing books from essays and reviews, and in informing these shorter forms, in turn, with arresting passages from his books (particularly Theory of Lit­erature and History of Criticism) makes for organic unity, for co­herence and continuity.


Though the gusto of the great nineteenth-century critical historian George Saintsbury is more intrusive than that of his twentieth-cen­tury counterpart, Wellek’s work also has a definite critical person­ality. The personality reflects habitual diligence, patience and tact. There is erudition and introspection, system and vision, openness and independence, reason and enthusiasm. Judicious, subtle, and sober, the persona at times is dryly humorous—as when Adam Muller seems to celebrate “sentimental pan-sexuality” when addressing lady audiences, or when Friedrich Hebbel notes down his and his wife’s dreams “with the pedantry of a confirmed Freudian,” or when the few today who want to burn with Pater’s gemlike flame “are usually very young indeed,” or when Paul Valery simply cannot compare period terms to bottle labels—”Pabst Blue Ribbon or Liebfrauenmilch”—or when the word critique gives “a somewhat superior air to a humble book review,” or when “it may be reas­suring” to know that statistically nonconformists are more aesthetic than conformists, or when one fails to find the word classicismo in such obvious sources as ”Milizia, Cicognara, Ennio Quirino, Vis­conti. . . Canova,“ or when Wellek, having counted the phrase “Widerspiegelung der Wirklichkeit” (“reflection of reality”) 1,032 times in Volume One of Georg Lukács’s Aesthetik, concludes, “I was too lazy or bored to count it in Volume Two.”


Wellek’s distinguished writings have gained him distinguished honors. Particularly satisfying to the academic man of letters is the honorary degree bestowed upon him by a jury of his fellow aca­demics. Esteemed at home, Wellek the American comparatist is particularly hailed among the international community of scholars. In 1958, Lawrence College granted Wellek his first honorary doc­torate; in 1975, the University of East Anglia, his twelfth. Between, Wellek had received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Oxford, Rome, Maryland, Boston College, Columbia, Montreal, Louvain, Michigan, and Munich.


Of course, an academic writer whose erudition is as gargantuan as Wellek’s needs financial as well as moral support, large blocks of time for reading, thinking, discoursing, and writing. Foundations and agencies have heeded Wellek’s call. To receive a Guggenheim Fellowship is a great distinction: Wellek has received three. In 1951—52, he worked on his History, first in New Haven and later in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. His 1956—57 Guggenheim en­abled him again to work without interruption in New Haven and later to visit Czechoslovakia. On his third, 1966—67, Wellek returned to Italy, mainly to Rome and Sicily. Before, between, and after the Guggenheims, however, others backed Wellek’s critical labors. In 1958 the Distinguished Service Award came from the American Council of Learned Societies. The next year he was Fulbright Re­search Scholar in Italy, in Florence and Rome. Grants from the Rockefeller and Bollingen Foundations allowed Wellek to take an­other leave from academic duties in 1963—64. In 1972 he was Senior Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


An inevitable outcome of outstanding scholarship, professorial charm, and administrative dexterity seems to be election to various professional committees and offices. Active in comparative literature sections of the Modern Language Association, René Wellek was also on the editorial board (1953—54) and the executive council (1959—60). At the time he was MLA vice president (1964), he was also president of three other associations: the International Comparative Literature Association (1961—64), the American Comparative Literature As­sociation (1962—65), and the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sci­ences in America (1962—66). Except for the first ICLA Congress in Venice, Wellek has lectured at every Congress. Besides reading papers regularly at ACLA meetings, he organized the 1970 meeting at Yale.


Such repute brought invitations to lecture and to teach. And highly successful lecturing and teaching begat more invitations. Long before his retirement from Yale in 1972, Wellek from time to time had accepted temporary teaching assignments elsewhere. In 1950, he taught a weekly seminar in the Enlightenment at Harvard, gave nine guest lectures as part of the Gauss Seminar in Literary Criticism at Princeton, and became a Fellow of the Indiana School of Letters. (Still chairman of Yale’s Slavic Department, he became Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature in 1952.) The next year, he made a return engagement as a visiting professor at Har­vard. In 1961, a year after he became chairman of Yale’s outstanding Department of Comparative Literature, he was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii; in 1963, at the University of California, Berkeley; and in the summer of 1969, Fulbright Distinguished Lec­turer in Germany.


IX Wandering Scholar Emeritus


After the death of his first wife in 1967, René Wellek married Nonna Dolodarenko Shaw, a Russian émigré, herself then a pro­fessor of Russian literature at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1972, at age sixty-nine, Wellek retired from Yale. As director of the grad­uate program in comparative literature since 1947, he had directed over fifty Doctor of Philosophy dissertations, many now published. Wellek once wrote: “I trust the company who have come from the department have, whatever the variety of conviction they hold and interests they pursue, at least two things in common: devotion to scholarship and complete freedom to follow their own bent.“ In­debtedness to Wellek has been expressed in the form of anniversary volumes, special issues, dedications, acknowledgments, and ubiq­uitous footnotes.


In spite of academic retirement, René Wellek’s academic vita continues to burgeon. In 1973 he was a Visiting Professor at Princeton, and in 1974 he was Patton Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. In London that year, he became president of the Modern Humanities Research Association. The following spring, under circumstances far happier than those in 1939, René Wellek, as Distinguished Visiting Professor, returned to the University of Iowa. In 1977, as Senior Fellow of the Society of the Humanities, he conducted a seminar at Cornell University. In 1979, he taught at the University of California, San Diego. Later that year, at the opening ceremony of the Innsbruck Congress of ICLA, René Wellek received the Verdienstkreuz 1. Klasse für Kunst und Wissenschaft and in the fall was Walker-Ames Professor at the University of Washington.


In America and in Europe the irresistible “critic of critics” still lectures in his rapid, Czech-accented delivery. He continues to serve on committees and editorial boards. His various studies and defenses of literary criticism continue to astonish and inspire. Wel­lek’s memberships in learned societies, it might be well to note here, include the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Bavarian Academy, the British Academy, the Connecticut Academy, the Italian National Academy, the Linguistic Society of America, and the Royal Netherlands Acad­emy. At his 1978 birthday celebration at Yale, René Wellek defined as his central pursuits the completion of the fifth and sixth volumes of his History of Criticism and the revision of his early, still valid, Kant in England. When asked how he likes retirement from aca­demic duties at Yale, the sturdy, indefatigable, white-haired scholar quips, “I enjoy it but miss my vacations.”





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René Wellek Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1981

© Martin BurroTwayne




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