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Honan, Park 1928-

Honan, Park 1928-

PERSONAL: Born September 17, 1928, in Utica, NY; son of William Francis (a thoracic surgeon) and Annette (a journalist) Honan; married Jeanette Colin, December 22, 1952; children: Corinna, Matthew, Natasha. Education: University of Chicago, M.A., 1951; University of London, Ph.D., 1959. Hobbies and other interests: Walking, films, theater, inspecting nature, herpetology, art galleries and museums, travel, letter writing.

ADDRESSES: Home—Leeds, England. E-mail—park. [email protected]

CAREER: Educator and author. Connecticut College, New London, instructor, 1959-61, assistant professor of English, 1961-62; Brown University, Providence, RI, assistant professor, 1962-65, associate professor of English, 1965-68; University of Birmingham, Birmingham, England, lecturer, 1968-72, senior lecturer, 1968-76, reader in English, 1976-83; University of Leeds, Leeds, England, professor of English and American literature, 1984-93, became emeritus professor.

MEMBER: Marlowe Society (vice president), Jane Austen London Group (cosponsor).

AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1962-63 and 1973-74; Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


Browning’s Characters: A Study in Poetic Techniques, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1961.

(Coeditor) Shelley, Dell (New York, NY), 1962.

(Coeditor) The Complete Works of Robert Browning, 4 volumes, 1969-1973, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH).

(With William Irvine) The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: A Biography of Robert Browning, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1974.

Matthew Arnold: A Life, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1981.

Jane Austen: Her Life, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 1988, 3rd updated edition, Max Press (London, England) 2007.

Authors’ Lives: On Literary Biography and the Arts of Language, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 1990.

Shakespeare: A Life, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2005.

Author of introduction to Falkland, Cassell (London, England), 1967. Contributor to books, including Matthew Arnold in His Time and Ours: Centenary Essays, edited by Clinton Machann and Forrest D. Burt; and Laurence Sterne: Riddles and Mysteries, edited by Valerie Grosvenor Myer. Contributor to literary journals. British editor, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 1968-1975.

SIDELIGHTS: Literary biographer Park Honan seeks to produce the definitive work on each of his subjects, “that is, to create biographies that will be the standard references in their fields,” Kirk H. Beetz explained in an essay for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. In Beetz’s opinion, Honan has, for the most part, met this goal. “Honan combines a multitude of previously unpublished facts about the personal lives and careers of his subjects with a narrative style that presents details in a coherent and fluid manner, thus pleasing general as well as scholarly readers,” Beetz observed. “In so doing he has become a significant theorist about the function of literary biography and has reshaped modern views about the personalities of his subjects.” Among Honan’s works are biographies of British authors Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, Christopher Marlowe, and the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.

Honan’s first biographical book was a completion of a work begun by William Irvine. When Irvine died in 1964, he left an unfinished biography of nineteenth-century English poet Robert Browning. In the early 1960s, Honan, who was also preparing a biography of Browning, had met Irvine in London; Irvine’s widow asked Honan to complete her husband’s work. Honan wrote the last six of the twenty-seven chapters of The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: A Biography of Robert Browning, significantly rewrote two, and edited the whole volume. About 40 percent of the book focuses on Browning’s marriage to poet Elizabeth Barrett. Beetz noted that the marriage occupied only fifteen years of Browning’s seventy-seven-year life, but the space devoted to it is justified because “the short marriage profoundly affected Browning’s life and work and is part of one of the world’s most interesting love stories.” Barrett’s death devastated Browning and “cast a pall” over the rest of his life, Beetz related. He went on: “It fell to Honan to deal with what in some ways was the hardest part of Browning’s life. Critics in general believed that Browning’s poetry after the death of his wife was inferior to his earlier writings, so they tended to neglect studying the poet’s last twenty-eight years. Further, the critics were put off by the overly sentimental adulation Browning received in his later years.” Honan was up to this challenge, according to Beetz: “Honan’s research into Browning’s active and complicated last years is exhaustive. The organization, which Honan says is the major part of a biographer’s presentation, is straightforward and clear, emphasizing reactions to Browning and his poetic response to his new fame.”

Honan followed the Browning book with Matthew Arnold: A Life. “At the beginning of [an] excellent new critical biography, Park Honan nails his colors to the mast: an understanding of Arnold, he writes, ‘is more useful to us than an understanding of any other Englishman of the last century,’” Robert Bernard Martin stated in a Washington Post Book World review. Honan’s study of one of Victorian England’s most celebrated poet/ critics resulted from ten years of research, and its scope was praised by several critics as the most complete biography of Arnold since Lionel Trilling’s Matthew Arnold, published in 1939.

Arnold, born in 1822 to Rugby School’s famous headmaster Thomas Arnold, “turns out to be a character somewhat less delightful than his poetry and criticism,” according to Herbert Mitgang in the New York Times. Indeed, the Victorian figure was often criticized as a fop or a dandy and was given to overindulgence in food and drink—Arnold died in 1888, his heart attack no doubt fueled by his 238-pound weight. But at the same time, the poet could be a compassionate champion of social reform; as a school inspector, Arnold was committed to improving education throughout England. In his prose writings, particularly his “pieces on education …, [Arnold] exhorted the ascendant middle class, his Philistines, to augment economic power with love of thought and beauty,” Laurie Stone remarked in the Village Voice, adding that while “not always savvy about the uses of dissent and revolution, Arnold was forever the optimist, the smart voice speaking plainly and from the inside out, and his life is beautifully delineated in [Honan’s] loving and intelligent biography.”

The author, Stone continued, “is especially lucid on the modern element in Arnold. The poetry of [Alfred, Lord] Tennyson and [Robert] Browning seems callow beside Arnold’s grown-up verse. He was the first to describe how decorum breeds estrangement and self-deception and blocks feelings.” Jean Strouse noted in a review of Matthew Arnold in Newsweek that Honan “traces the influences of Epictetus, Spinoza and Goethe on Arnold’s thought as he follows the rebellious young man from Rugby to Oxford.”

Honan makes a bold statement in Matthew Arnold: he reveals that the mysterious “Marguerite” of Arnold’s love poems is Mary Claude, “a French Protestant exile born in the Freidrichstadt district of Berlin, who summered in the Lake District [where Arnold lived] and became close to the Clough family, Arnold’s best friends,” as Mitgang related. “He was 25, she two years older; neither was married when they began a series of heavy-breathing, star-gazing, moonlight walks.” They arranged a romantic rendezvous in the Alps, but when Arnold arrived he found that Mary had returned to England. “Professor Honan speculates that [the poet] may have been ‘half-relieved’ by the unconsummated tryst,” reported Mitgang.

Arnold went on to marry Frances Lucy Wightman. His biographer, Strouse felt, “is at his best telling the moving story of the couple’s growing love and understanding of each other as they struggle with poverty, the deaths of three of their six children, Arnold’s exhausting travels as an inspector of schools and his complex transformation from poet to social critic. Though Arnold changed hats, his lofty concerns remained the same: he looked directly at the spiritual isolation of modern man and strove incessantly to articulate an adequate response, to find a sense of wholeness in culture … to see life steadily and see it whole.” “It is not apropos of Arnold the poet that … Honan sees and shows most,” remarked New York Times Book Review critic Christopher Ricks. “He is conventional and laudatory here, and never directly confronts the challenge that Arnold’s prose offers to Arnold’s poetry—the challenge that wit, irony, energy, surprise, incisive knowledge of life as it is lived must make to a poetry of sensitive enervation, a poetry which even at the time was thought of as a ‘melodious whine.’ Mr. Honan wants to be able to think equally highly of the poetry and the prose. This sounds splendidly catholic, but it isn’t possible, since the strength and rhythmical felicity of the prose constitute a critique—explicit and implicit—of the debility of so much of the poetry. No, where [the author] is himself strong is not in relating Arnold’s poetry to Arnold’s living but in relating Arnold to his life.” Beetz contended that while Matthew Arnold is “the most difficult to read of Honan’s books,” its subject “emerges as a fully believable, complete human being as well as a mythic figure who ‘is the Victorian who matters most.’”

In Jane Austen: Her Life, Honan attempts to lift the veil on the woman Beetz described as “one of literature’s most enigmatic figures.”Austen, the author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and other enduringly popular novels, had long been characterized as a reserved, repressed woman who led a quiet life. Actually, however, little was known of her life, a situation Honan set out to change. He unearthed new information about Austen’s private life as well as “her methods of literary composition—literally finding manuscripts in American and British attics, as well as having materials sent to him from other sources,” according to Beetz. The biographer’s work makes Austen “come alive as a full personality… [and portrays her as] a tough-minded woman who coped successfully with harsh realities such as unfair debts, cruel social restrictions, and deadly illness,” Beetz reported. Honan contends that Austen employed in life the sardonic sense of humor that enlivens her writings and that she received important moral support from her brothers. Beetz concluded: “Honan fulfills his objective to absorb, deconstruct, and reassemble a life with a ‘better understanding of reality’ than he had before, in the process reconstructing a life so that it is full, well rounded, and believable.”

William Shakespeare, for all his fame, is as much of a mystery as is Austen; as Matt Wolf observed in the New York Times, while Shakespeare is “part of the collective imagination,” the facts of his life “seem forever to be unavailable or in dispute.” In Shakespeare: A Life, Ho-nan, determined to avoid speculation, relates what is known about Shakespeare and utilizes new research on the milieu in which he lived to put these facts in historical perspective. He demonstrates how Shakespeare’s early life in Stratford-upon-Avon influenced his work and makes a case that this most famous of playwrights actually liked anonymity: as an actor, he tended to take small roles, and as a writer, he modestly preferred to be considered simply a member of a team that shared responsibility for a play’s success or failure. Honan also deals with several of the questions that have continuously surrounded Shakespeare. Scholars have argued that he was an adherent not of the Church of England but of Roman Catholicism; Honan scrutinizes the evidence but does not come to a definitive conclusion. The cause of the Bard’s death also remains unknown; Honan thinks it may have been typhoid fever. He also rebuts the charges that Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him.

New York Times Book Review contributor Lois Potter had high praise for Shakespeare, calling it “comprehensive, up-to-date and agreeably written… exactly what it was meant to be: a definitive (for the time being) life of Shakespeare.” An Economist reviewer was also enthusiastic, commenting: “We should be grateful to Professor Honan for his wise and judicious treatment of all the accumulated evidence” and appreciating that he is “careful to avoid reductive analysis, and does not try to explain away the mystery of the playwright’s extraordinary creative fecundity as the inevitable product of sociocultural factors.” Paul Dean, writing in New Criterion, thought Honan’s approach had advantages and disadvantages: “Park Honan certainly can’t be accused of sensationalism; he moves at a stately pace through the chronological sequence of events, and is willing to let the record speak for itself, even to the point of being dry.” Times Literary Supplement critic Eric Griffiths had a slightly different take. “Shakespeare … has throughout an admirable caution but also on occasion a less admirable parade of caution masking actual recklessness, as in Honan’s frequent resort to ‘almost’ or its cognates,” Griffiths contended. While Contemporary Review contributor Ralph Berry noted with concern Honan’s critical discussion of several of Shakespeare’s works, and commented that the “authority of the historian-biographer does not extend to the authority of the critic,” he tempered his criticism by adding that Shakespeare “is serious and worthy. Its strength is that it is rooted in the social history of the times, most especially the realities of Stratford-upon-Avon… Mr. Honan’s Shakespeare is built from the ground up.”

As Honan delves into Shakespeare’s works as well as his life, “the one thing that eludes him, as it does every biographer, is the connection between the two,” Potter remarked. Wolf bemoaned that “there’s not a lot of drama” in Shakespeare’s life and that “Shakespeare the man is never as interesting as Shakespeare the poet-dramatist… perhaps inevitably, the direct links between writer and work are what fascinate most.” Dean observed that Honan “combs the life for clues to the works, and vice versa: how that person could have written those plays and poems remains an insoluble enigma.” Wolf concluded: “If Shakespeare’s plays are transcendent, perhaps there exists some essential way in which their author is, too. Or maybe no portrait of a man capable of so much can correspond to the myth surrounding him. For all its scrupulous scholarship, this book leaves no doubt that the quest for the genius at its heart will go on.”

Honan examines the life of another celebrated Elizabethan writer in Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, “a work in which scholarship is matched with bravura,” observed History Today contributor Leanda De Lisle. Marlowe, the author of such acclaimed dramas as Tamburlaine the Great, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus, is believed to have served as a government agent for Queen Elizabeth I, and his death in a tavern brawl may have been connected to his political activities. “In death as in life,” remarked Guardian reviewer Andrew Dickson, “Marlowe has a knack of seeming permanently of the moment, which may explain why biographers and critics can’t leave him alone.” The critic added: “Yet no restorer’s brush, however artfully wielded, can hide the fissures in the documentary record.” According to New York Times Book Review critic Michael Feingold, the author “gives a sumptuously detailed picture of Marlowe’s world, but rarely brings the poet himself into focus. In its unsteady shifts from topic to topic, his work sometimes resembles of of those Renaissance miscellanies in which scholars delight. … But when it comes to Marlowe himself, Honan buries the scant available evidence in a small forest of imagined scenes and unwarranted assumptions.” Though Andrew Duxfield, writing in Early Modern Literary Studies, also noted Honan’s tendency to speculate about Marlowe’s often shadowy history, he wrote: “It would be unfair, however, to overlook the strengths of this book. It is a lively and readable account, which is particularly strong in providing a feel for the historical moment in which Marlowe existed and his works were produced, and Honan’s critical readings of the plays and poems themselves can be original and illuminating.” “This is a splendid book,” remarked London Times critic Charles Nicholl, who added: “Honan reaches beyond the high-octane legend to celebrate this disaffected, courageous, ‘tough minded’ young writer.



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 111: American Literary Biographers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.


Booklist, December 15, 2005, Roy Olson, review of Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, p. 14.

Choice, July-August, 1999, C. Rollyson, review of Shakespeare: A Life, p. 1946; November, 2006, L.L. Bronson, review of Christopher Marlowe, p. 482.

Contemporary Review, May, 1999, Ralph Berry, review of Shakespeare, p. 274; summer, 2006, review of Christopher Marlowe, p. 267.

Early Modern Literary Studies, May, 2006, Andrew Duxfield, review of Christopher Marlowe.

Economist, February 6, 1999, “Good Will Shakespeare,” p. 89.

Guardian (London, England), October 22, 2005, Andrew Dickson, “Man of the Moment.”

History Today, February, 2006, Leanda De Lisle, review of Christopher Marlowe, p. 64.

Hudson Review, winter, 1990, Clara Claiborne Park, review of Jane Austen: Her Life, p. 643.

Library Journal, February 15, 2006, T.L. Cooksey, review of Christopher Marlowe, p. 118.

London Review of Books, December 14, 2006, John Bossy, “Trust the Coroner,” p. 14.

New Criterion, June, 1999, Paul Dean, review of Shakespeare, p. 78; May, 2006, David Propson, “The Devil’s Music,” p. 70.

Newsweek, September 7, 1981, Jean Strouse, review of Matthew Arnold: A Life.

New York Review of Books, December 17, 1981, review of Matthew Arnold; April 6, 2006, Stephen Greenblatt, “Who Killed Christopher Marlowe?” p. 42.

New York Times, July 18, 1981, Herbert Mitgang, review of Matthew Arnold; August 18, 1988, Robert M. Adams, review of Jane Austen, p. 21; March 9, 1999, Matt Wolf, “Shakespeare in Fact (But Alas, No Lovely Viola),” p. E8.

New York Times Book Review, August 9, 1981, Christopher Ricks, “A Great Good Man,” p. 9; February 28, 1999, Lois Potter, “The Glover’s Son,” p. 26; January 29, 2006, Michael Feingold, “Street-Fighting Man,” p. 20.

Publishers Weekly, May 18, 1990, Genevieve Stut-taford, “Author’s Lives: On Literary Biography and the Arts of Language,” p. 72.

Shakespeare Newsletter, March 22, 2006, Maurice Charney, review of Christopher Marlowe, p. 23.

Shakespeare Quarterly, summer, 2000, Roy Flannagan, review of Shakespeare, p. 263.

Sixteenth Century Journal, spring, 2000, Lynne M. Robertson review of Shakespeare p. 263.

Spectator, September 12, 1981, review of Matthew Arnold; October 29, 2005, Raymond Carr, “A Short Life and a Shady One,” p. 44.

Times (London, England), October 16, 2005, Charles Nicholl, “Nothing about Marlowe Is Simple.”

Times Higher Education Supplement, January 5, 2007,“Rhyme and Reason for Deptford Death,” p. 22.

Times Literary Supplement, August 28, 1981, Denis Donoghue, “The General Critic’s Business,” pp.971-972; September 1, 2000, Eric Griffiths, “And That’s True Too: Retrospect, Rhetoric, and Individuation in Shakespeare’s Verse,” pp. 3-4;June 2, 2006, J.P.D. Cooper, “Meet Me at the Tavern,” p. 27.

Village Voice, September 23, 1981, Laurie Stone, review of Matthew Arnold.

Washington Post Book World, August 16, 1981, Bernard Martin, review of Matthew Arnold.


University of Leeds, (September 25, 2007), “Park Honan.”

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