Lewis, R(ichard) W(arrington) B(aldwin) 1917-
LEWIS, R(ichard) W(arrington) B(aldwin) 1917-
PERSONAL: Born November 1, 1917, in Chicago, IL; son of Leicester Crosby and Beatrix Elizabeth (Baldwin) Lewis; married Nancy Lindau, June 28, 1950; children: Nathaniel Lindau, Sophia Baldwin. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1939; University of Chicago, M.A., 1941, Ph.D., 1953.
CAREER: Bennington College, Bennington, VT, teacher, 1948-50; Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, dean, 1950-51; Smith College, Northampton, MA, visiting lecturer in English, 1951-52; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Hodder fellow in the humanities, 1952-53, resident fellow in creative writing, 1953-54; Rutgers University, Newark College, Newark, NJ, began as associate professor, became professor of English, 1954-59; Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor of English and American studies, 1960—, currently professor emeritus. Kenyon fellow in criticism, Florence, Italy, 1954-55; University of Munich, Fulbright lecturer in American literature, 1957-58; Indiana University, School of Letters, fellow, 1957-64, senior fellow, 1964—, and chair of English Institute, 1965; Calhoun College, fellow, 1960; American Council of Learned Societies, fellow, 1962-63; Universal Pictures, literary consultant, 1966—. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942-46; became major.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1958; Litt.D. from Wesleyan University, 1961; Pulitzer Prize, Friends of Literature award, National Book Critics Circle award, and Bancroft Prize, all 1976, all for Edith Wharton: A Biography.
The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1955.
The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1959.
Trials of the Word: Essays in American Literature and the Humanistic Tradition, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1965.
The Jameses: A Family Narrative, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.
Literary Reflections: A Shoring of Images, Northeastern University Press (Boston, MA), 1993.
The City of Florence: Historical Vistas and Personal Sightings, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
(With John Updike) A Century of Arts and Letters: The History of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters as Told, Decade by Decade, by Eleven Members, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1998.
(With wife, Nancy Lewis) American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1999.
Dante, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Herman Melville, Dell (New York, NY), 1962.
(And author of introduction) Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1963.
(And author of introduction) Herman Melville, The Confidence Man, New American Library (New York, NY), 1964.
(And author of introduction) Malraux: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1964.
(And author of introduction) Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, Scribner (New York, NY), 1968.
(And author of introduction) Edith Wharton, The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, Scribner (New York, NY), 1968, reprinted, 1987-89.
(And author of introduction, with Peter J. Conn) Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, Viking (New York, NY), 1970.
(With Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren) American Literature: The Makers and the Making, two volumes, St. Martins (New York, NY), 1973.
(With Nancy Lewis) Edith Wharton, The Letters of Edith Wharton, Scribner (New York, NY), 1988.
(And author of introduction) Edith Wharton, The Selected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.
Also coeditor of Major Writers of America, 1962.
Contributor to The Young Rebel in American Literature, Praeger (New York, NY), 1959; Learners and Discerners: A Newer Criticism, University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, VA), 1964; Seven Contemporary Authors: Essays on Cozzens, Miller, West, Golding, Heller, Albee and Powers, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1966; Reading America, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987. Contributor of reviews and essays to a number of journals and periodicals, including Massachusetts Review, Yale Review, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction.
SIDELIGHTS: "Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1975 biography of Edith Wharton, R. W. B. Lewis established himself first in the field of literary criticism," declared Mark Royden Winchell in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Martin Adams specified that Lewis is a literary critic with "formidable talents as historian of ideas and textual exegete." Lewis is equally known for his literary biographies—of Wharton and the celebrated James family—and his criticism, which puts emphasis on the "biographical and historical context from which literary narratives emerge," according to Winchell. A distinguished professor at Yale University, Lewis has approached American literature from a thematic viewpoint, examining the works of various writers in terms of larger cultural patterns. Yet he is, as Sheridan Baker observed in the Kenyon Review, "a close reader" who seeks transcendent meaning in literature, but also examines "details, analogies, and techniques." Lewis explained his purpose in the prologue to his first book,The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century: "I am interested . . . in the history of ideas and, especially, in the representative imagery and anecdote that crystallized whole clusters of ideas."
"Since its original publication in 1955," wrote Winchell, "The American Adam . . . has become acknowledged as one of the major contributions to American literary studies. Coming at a time when many in the academic community were tiring of the aesthetic formalism of the New Criticism, The American Adam helped to launch a new era of interdisciplinary cultural analysis. The book's important ramifications have been discovered anew by each succeeding generation of scholars." In the prologue to The American Adam, Lewis declared that the book "has to do with the beginnings and the first tentative outlines of a native American mythology." Winchell stated: "Firmly rooted in the history of ideas, The American Adam approaches literary myth not as some arcane branch of folklore or depth psychology but as the storytelling impulse through which a culture strives for self-definition."
Adams noted that The American Adam is "a bold study in American ideas of innocence, tragedy and tradition," focusing on the basic theme of innocence versus experience in the work of such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James. From these nineteenth-century writings emerged what Lewis calls the Adamic myth. The hero of this myth is "an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources." Like Adam before the Fall, "his moral position was prior to experience, and in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent."
As Lewis traces it, the Adamic myth arose from a "dialogue" among America's "chief intellectual spokesmen" of the nineteenth century who shared "the invigorating feeling that a new culture was in the making....The American myth saw life as just beginning. It described the world as starting up again under fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race, after the first chance had been so disastrously fumbled in the darkening Old World.... America, it was said insistently from the 1820's onward, was not the end-product of a long historical process . . . ; it was something entirely new."
There were, on the one hand, figures like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman who saw this beginning with great hope and defined America in terms only of its present and future. On the other hand, there were also thinkers who, looking to an inescapable past, saw humankind's sinfulness and corruption as particularly rife in the New World. But Lewis defined as well a third group, writers with a sense of irony and "tragic optimism," who established an enduring pattern for American fiction by recognizing "the tragedy inherent in . . . innocence and newness." As illustrated in the works of Hawthorne and Melville, the relation between the past and the present, rather than the distinction, became a recurring theme.
"In the years since The American Adam," declared Winchell, "Lewis has written [and edited other] . . . books [which] have made ground-breaking contributions to literary study, as is the case with The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction, a collection of essays by Lewis. What is obvious from the outset is that The Picaresque Saint is more contemporary and less provincial than The American Adam."In The Picaresque Saint, Lewis examines a similarly archetypal hero in the works of six modern novelists: Moravia, Silone, Camus, Graham Greene, Faulkner, and Malraux. The book's title, he explains in a prefatory note, "refers to a number of things: to the paradoxical hero I see emerging from the works selected, implicit in some of them and explicit in others—a person who is something of a saint, in the contemporary manner of sainthood, but who is also something of a rogue; . . . and it refers to the kind or the genre of fiction—the old-fashioned picaresque novel, the episodic account of the rogue on his journeys—which has been revived and greatly modified for contemporary narrative purposes."
While the nineteenth-century American artist had to confront innocence and a new beginning, the twentieth-century artist, Lewis maintains, must confront death and absurdity. "Constantly seeking ways to confound death," he says, the writer must find grounds for living. In contrast to the earlier Proust, Mann, and Joyce, whom he labeled "artistic," Lewis sees the second generation of modern novelists as essentially "human," for whom human companionship becomes the new basis for living. Thus, embedded in an episodic plot, the new hero is one who shares with his fellow humans suffering and pain.
"Lewis's next book, [Trials of the Word: Essays in American Literature and the Humanistic Tradition], is unified by his interest in the religious dimensions of literature. That Lewis would explicitly declare such an interest came as no surprise to those who saw religion as the not-so-hidden agenda behind both The American Adam and The Picaresque Saint," remarked Winchell. "However," the critic continued, "Lewis stakes out a position different from that of the more doctrinaire literary theologians. He urges readers to see the metaphorical value of Christian elements in the work of secular writers."
Prior to his study of Wharton, the closest Lewis came to writing a literary biography was his 1967 publication, The Poetry of Hart Crane: A Critical Study. With that book, Lewis focused his attention on the work of a single writer. J. A. Bryant, Jr., in the Sewanee Review, called the study "probably the most consistently useful explication of Crane's work that has appeared in two decades." Winchell wrote: "What makes this study more than just an exercise in textual analysis is Lewis's judicious use of information about Crane's life and literary influences." Once again, Lewis was concerned with "the tormentingly problematical relation between a subjective vision and an external historical reality," declared Bryant. The critic further explained that by illuminating phrases, lines, and extended passages in Crane's major works and by discerning the pattern of Crane's development, Lewis placed the author of The Bridge within the history of American literature—as part of a stream that began with Emerson and Whitman and continues through the present.
"Lewis's biographical forays are more a matter of argumentative necessity than of critical method," stated Winchell. "Where others see an urge for self-punishment in Crane's alcoholism and compulsive homosexuality, Lewis finds a hedonistic zest for life. Where others see Crane's drowning at sea as a clear act of suicide, Lewis leaves open the possibility of accidental death. The typical approach to Crane is to allow certain preconceptions about his life to shape the interpretation of his poetry. Lewis uses Crane's poetry to present a revisionist view of his life."
By approaching Crane's opus chronologically, Lewis uncovers thematic patterns. From these emerges a view of the poet as, in John Unterecker's words, "American to the core": a man "fundamentally a product of the great 'ideas' that the English Romantics shared with the dominant thinkers and writers of nineteenth-century America, a man of 'visionary' nature who, without benefit of religious institutions, approached life in a 'religious' mood." Refuting the critical dismissal of Crane as "a death-haunted author of death-conscious poetry," Lewis upheld him rather as "the religious poet par excellence in his generation."
Lewis similarly revises the standard view of Edith Wharton in his prize-winning biography of the American novelist. Expanding upon the earlier portraits of a lady thoroughly, though perhaps uncomfortably, ensconced among the social elite, Lewis portrays a woman whose ultimate sense of self derived from her art. "It was finally," he writes, "her writing that constituted the life she most truly and deeply lived." He defines her old image as "too much of the grande dame, the aloof and fashionable woman of the world." In its place he offers what Robert F. Moss in the Saturday Review called "a new Edith Wharton": more than the proper if artistic matron of the upper class, she was "a connoisseur of friendship, struggling to create a 'republic of the spirit' among those she was most attracted to." Rather than "a sexually repressed Puritan," she was, as Lewis reveals, a woman with a libido. By disclosing the facts of her one great love affair and by publishing as an appendix an uncovered piece of pornography, Lewis dispels what Leon Edel defined in the American Scholar as "the 'society' image created by American criticism of a novelist who wrote in ladylike fashion about the adulteries and divorces of the rich." And in publishing this image, Winchell deemed that it is to Lewis's credit "that he does not use these sensational revelations to manufacture an opposite legend."
In writing his Edith Wharton, Lewis made use of material never before available. For twenty years after her death, many of Wharton's papers, by her own request, had remained sequestered at Yale University. To these, as well as to the open collections and the papers in the possession of her heirs, Lewis was granted exclusive access. "Lewis and his staff of research assistants have pursued that 'paper' trail with enormous energy and professionalism," reported Winchell. And, further enriched by interviews with nearly all those still living who remembered her, the resultant volume is, as Millicent Bell acknowledged in the New Republic, "a work of inescapable importance."
As respected as his earlier criticism had been, the Wharton biography earned for Lewis much broader acclaim. Peter Heinegg, in the Nation, wrote that Lewis's "monumental book on Edith Wharton now marks him as . . . a master of the rigorous, monkish art of literary history....Inthenextfewdecades many readers who have never heard of Lewis's book will be reading Edith Wharton because of it." However, according to Winchell, the book is not faultless: "The wealth of information at Lewis's disposal sometimes prompted him to clutter Wharton's story with unnecessary detail. Some reviewers were also dismayed that Lewis devoted only 130 pages to Wharton's first forty years and nearly 400 to her last thirty-five. Moreover, the book's documentation is too general to allow readers to check many assertions that are presented as fact." Finally, Winchell concluded, "in his devotion to telling the story of Wharton's life, Lewis seems constantly to be resisting the tendency to do what he does best—engage in literary criticism. The problem is not that the book lacks literary analysis but that the analysis too often gets lost in minutiae about, for example, what Wharton ate and wore, rather than what she wrote."
Nevertheless, Winchell asserted, "Even if one can quibble about the specific emphases and general readability of Edith Wharton: A Biography, the importance of the book is unquestionable." It is "one of the very best we have of an American writer," lauded Quentin Anderson in the New York Times Book Review. Robert F. Moss concluded: "Exhaustive in its scholarship, discerning in its literary judgments, sensible in its theorizing, it merits the adjective all biographies aspire to: definitive."
In 1991 Lewis released another monumental literary biography, ten years in the making. The Jameses: A Family Narrative covers the James family from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, paying special attention to Alice, William, and Henry James, the three siblings who each made seminal contributions to American literature. The book emphasizes the ways in which the Jameses inspired each other, often by contradicting, belittling, or irritating. New York Times contributor Richard Bernstein observed that the work "shows the brothers and sister admiring each other, but capable of engaging in petty acts of jealousy or resentment, sometimes disguised in a joke." A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the multi-generational narrative "exceptionally smoothly blended," concluding that the biography is "cleverly infused with quotes from and insights into [the Jameses'] letters and books." Library Journal correspondent Richard Kuczkowski also commended the book as a "very full and fascinating account of one of America's major families."
Lewis's fascination with the city of Florence has led to two well-received works: The City of Florence: Historical Vistas and Personal Sightings and Dante. The City of Florence is a travel memoir, in which Lewis blends history, quotations, and personal anecdotes to describe the splendors of Florence, Italy. No mere occasional visitor to Florence, Lewis has lived there for extended periods of time with his wife and family. Raleigh Trevelyan commended Lewis in the New York Times Book Review for the "warmhearted enthusiasm" that is displayed in his descriptions of the locale. Trevelyan concluded that the book is "a charming and learned cicerone to one of the loveliest cities in Europe."
Life in Florence may have inspired Lewis to write yet another literary biography. Dante, Lewis's contribution to the Penguin Lives series, is shorter than his other works but no less illuminating on its subject and his times. Dante Alighieri is the famous poet whose Commedia has endured as a work of art for six centuries. Exiled from his home city of Florence for political reasons, Dante composed his masterwork partly as an answer to his persecutors. Literary scholars have spent their entire careers seeking to illuminate Dante's life by searching for clues in his poetry. Lewis has joined those ranks of scholars to high critical acclaim. New York Times Book Review correspondent Robert Pinsky wrote: "As the scholar R. W. B. Lewis demonstrates in this brief, loving and unassumingly learned biography, Dante wrote the story of his own life, presenting not the enigma of silence but the greater mystery that grows from knowledge of a life." In World and I, Robert Gingher praised Lewis's attempts to give Dante's life journey "lucid allegorical and autobiographical dimension." The critic added: "While a biography, Lewis' book is also an eye-opener to the literary, historical, economic, and political context of Dante's times. It would be impossible to extract some distinct, yet genuine, sense of Dante's personality from his works and complex period. But Lewis' delving reveals the spirit of the times and the impulses behind Dante's creations in a way that history alone cannot." Pinsky concluded: "In the book business, the words 'a life' mean a biography, but the phrase has a deeper, more universal meaning, reflected on a trivial level by the catch phrase of a few years ago that admonished a person to get one. What is a life? What is our journey? Lewis's engaging, subtle life of Dante reminds us that the 'Divine Comedy' is the supreme work imagining that question."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Borklund, Elmer, Contemporary Literary Critics, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1977.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 111: American Literary Biographers, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Lewis, R. W. B., The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1955.
Lewis, R. W. B., The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1959.
Lewis, R. W. B., The Poetry of Hart Crane: A Critical Study, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1967.
Lewis, R. W. B., Edith Wharton: A Biography, Harper (New York, NY), 1975, reprinted, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1985.
Tate, Cecil F., The Search for a Method in American Studies, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1973.
American Scholar, winter, 1975-76.
American Spectator, December, 1993, Kenneth S. Lynn, review of Edith Wharton: A Biography, p. 52.
Booklist, May 15, 2001, Bryce Christensen, review of Dante, p. 1723.
Harper's, July, 1968.
Hudson Review, winter, 1992, William H. Pritchard, "Family Ties," p. 683.
Journal of American History, March, 1993, Daniel H. Borus, review of The Jameses: A Family Narrative, p. 1625.
Kenyon Review, June, 1966; November, 1967.
Library Journal, August, 1991, Richard Kuczkowski, review of The Jameses: A Family Narrative, p. 101.
Nation, November 22, 1975; July 8, 1991, Alexandra Johnson, review of The Selected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, p. 59.
New England Quarterly, September, 1992, John Patrick Diggins, review of The Jameses: A Family Narrative, p. 516.
New Republic, September 27, 1975.
Newsweek, September 22, 1975; August 26, 1991, David Gates, "Alice Still Lives Here," p. 55.
New York Review of Books, November 19, 1967; October 10, 1991, Stuart Hampshire, "What the Jameses Knew," p. 3; November 15, 2001, Bernard Knox, review of Dante, p. 14.
New York Times, July 30, 1991, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Jameses: A Family Narrative, p. B2; August 7, 1991, Richard Bernstein, "Weaving a Tapestry of the Jameses," p. B2.
New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1965; October 22, 1967; August 31, 1975; August 4, 1991, Sergio Perosa, review of The Jameses: A Family Narrative, p. 1; July 11, 1993, Frank Kermode, "Criticism without Machinery," p. 16; July 2, 1995, Raleigh Trevelyan, "A Tuscan Romance," p. 3; September 12, 1999, David Walton, "Faces of the Nation," p. 26; July 29, 2001, Robert Pinsky, "The Personal Was Political," p. 9.
Poetry, May, 1969.
Publishers Weekly, June 21, 1991, review of The Jameses: A Family Narrative, p. 48; February 6, 1995, review of The City of Florence: Historical Vistas and Personal Sightings, p. 71; May 28, 2001, review of Dante, p. 62.
Saturday Review, August 9, 1975.
Sewanee Review, winter, 1969.
Time, July 25, 1988, Paul Gray, review of The Letters of Edith Wharton, p. 80.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1976.
World and I, January, 2002, Robert Gingher, "The Straight Way," p. 235.
Yale Review, spring, 1968.*