Wellek, René Maria Eduard

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Wellek, René Maria Eduard

(b. 22 August 1903 in Vienna, Austria; d. 10 November 1995 in Hamden, Connecticut), comparativist scholar, literary theorist, and historian.

Wellek was the oldest of the three children of Bronislav Wellek, a Czech lawyer in the civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Gabriele von Zelewsky, the daughter of a West Prussian nobleman of Polish origin. He grew up in Vienna in a rich aesthetic and linguistic atmosphere—his father an ardent Czech nationalist, opera reviewer, and singer of lieder and his mother a cultured woman who spoke German, French, Italian, and English. Young Wellek read voraciously, not only adventure stories but also encyclopedias and histories of geography, science, warfare, religion, and literature. He started Latin at age ten and Greek at thirteen, but a lingering case of scarlet fever so disrupted his studies that in 1916 he transferred from the classical Gymnasium (secondary school) to the Realgymnasium (nonclassical secondary school), where he was allowed to substitute English for Greek.

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Welleks settled in Prague in early 1919, where the school-boy identified with the new Czechoslovakia. Although this little country with Western sympathies was a cultural cross-roads, no English was taught at the Realgymnasium. Wellek’s passion for learning and literature, however, compelled him to read English literature at home, particularly Shakespeare and the Romantics. In 1922 Wellek entered Charles University (the Czech University of Prague) to study Germanic philology. He enjoyed particularly Vilém Mathesius’s lectures on English literary history. In 1924 and 1925, Wellek spent several weeks in England preparing his first thesis (on the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle) and began as an undergraduate to publish his scholarship in Czech books and periodicals. After earning his doctorate in 1926, he spent several years in America, as a fellow at Princeton University and then as a German instructor, first at Smith College and later at Princeton.

Back at Charles University in the fall of 1930, Wellek completed his second thesis, Immanuel Kant in England: 1793–1838 (1931), a book that revealed the English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge to be less original than eclectic. From 1930 to 1935 Wellek lived in Prague, taught English as a Privatdozent (a lecturer not the regular faculty), joined Mathesius’s famous Prague Linguistic Circle, translated English novels into Czech, and continued to publish in Czech journals. In 1932 he married Olga Brodská, an elementary schoolteacher from Moravia; they had one child.

Critically surveying the Russian formalists, the Czech structuralists, and the Cambridge theorists I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, and William Empson, Wellek further developed his considerable skill in textual analysis, formulation of theory, and reasoned evaluation. Since prospects for a professorship at Prague seemed remote, he taught Czech language and literature from 1935 to 1939 at the University of London. His important early paper “Theory of Literary History” (1936) in Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague argues against merely accumulating facts about literature and advocates concentrating on literary works themselves, on bridging the gap between content and form.

Although many of Wellek’s views coincided with those of Leavis, in 1937 Wellek charged the English critic with theoretical deficiency, which prompted Leavis to counter that Wellek was less an intuitive critic than an abstract philosopher. In England, under the auspices of the Czech Ministry of Education, Wellek not only taught and worked on his survey of English literary history but also gave more than eighty talks in and around London in defense of Czechoslovakia. After Hitler’s troops marched into Prague in the spring of 1939, the Third Reich naturally halted Wellek’s salary. Accepting the invitation of Norman Foerster, the director of the School of Letters at the University of Iowa, to join the English Department as a lecturer on a one-year appointment, Wellek moved into a house in Iowa City with his wife on 1 September 1939—the day World War II broke out in Europe. Debate also broke out in American universities at that time between scholars and critics, between those who favored facts about literature and those who preferred ideas. This entire debate seemed to Wellek a false dilemma, as his Rise of English Literary History (1941), rich in historical facts and literary ideas, clearly showed. Sensing the limitations of both the old positivism and the new humanism, Wellek sided with the American “New Critics” William K. Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren while he maintained his broader European perspectives. With one of his colleagues at Iowa, Austin Warren, Wellek decided to write a book stressing the nature, function, form, and content of literature as well as its relationship to neighboring but distinct disciplines.

As director of the Language and Area Program in Czech from 1943 to 1944, Wellek turned out interpreters for the U.S. Army. After the war he and his wife considered returning to Prague with their infant son, but instead Wellek became a naturalized American citizen in the spring of 1946 and professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Yale in the fall. Although Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature (1949) was not conceived as a textbook, this work showing the interdependency of literature generally and of theory, history, and criticism particularly became a vade mecum for graduate students at home and abroad and an academic best-seller in more than a score of translations. Whatever their social and political convictions, students and teachers of literature the world over came to understand more fully 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.”

Wellek spent most of the next forty-six years of his scholarly life writing (and publishing between 1955 and 1992) his monumental History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950, an eight-volume survey of French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Eastern European, and American critical argument. In 1952 he became Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale, and in 1960 he was named chairman of the Department of Comparative Literature. For his sixtieth birthday, the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in America published his key Czech writings in English, Essays on Czech Literature (1963). His essays in Concepts of Criticism (1963) define problems of method and periodization, set ideals, and measure results. His essays in Confrontations (1965) on the intellectual and literary relations among Germany, England, and the United States prompted the Harvard literary scholar-critic Howard Mumford Jones to remark, “Wellek is the most erudite man in America.”

Following the 1967 death of his first wife, in 1968 Wellek married Nonna D. Shaw, a Russian émigré and professor of comparative literature. Like his other books, his fourth collection of essays, Discriminations (1970), is indispensable reading for students of literature. During this time, Wellek continued his duties at Yale as a teacher and administrator, an editor and board member of literary journals, an officer in national and international conferences, a visiting professor at major universities in America and Europe, and a recipient of sixteen honorary degrees from such universities as Oxford, Harvard, Rome, and Munich. Retiring from Yale in 1972 at age sixty-nine, Wellek trusted that the diversity of students who had passed through his department had at least two things in common: “devotion to scholarship and complete freedom to follow their own bent.” While still at work on his massive History of Criticism, Wellek published Four Critics (1981)—his lectures on Benedetto Croce, Paul Valéry, György Lukács, and Roman Ingarden—and The Attack on Literature and Other Writings (1982), his rapier-like defense of the Western aesthetic and literary tradition against postmodern deconstruction. He spent his last years dictating the final volumes of his History in a retirement home in Hamden, Connecticut, where he died of natural causes at age ninety-two. He is buried in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery.

Recognized even by his detractors as the most eminent and learned exponent of comparative literature in the world, the fair-minded and gentlemanly Wellek inspired a generation of literary scholars.

Wellek’s personal library is at the University of California, Irvine. Bibliographies of his copious books, articles, and reviews are in his Concepts of Criticism (1963), Discriminations (1970), and The Attack on Literature and Other Writings (1982). His memoir, “My Early Life,” appears in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, 7 (1975): 205-226. Martin Bucco, René Wellek (1981), is a full-length critical biography. Journal articles include Thomas G. Winner and John P. Kasik, “René Wellek’s Contribution to American Literary Scholarship,” Forum 2 (1977): 21-31; Martin Bucco, “Profile of a Contemporary: René Wellek,” Wordsworth Circle, 9 (1978), 269-274; Sarah Lawall, “René Wellek and Modern Literary Criticism,” Comparative Literature, 40 (1988): 3-28; Peter Demetz, “Third Conversation with René Wellek,” Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture 11 (1992): 79-92. Joseph P. Strelka edited the two-volume Literary Theory and Criticism: Festschrift in Honor of René Wellek (1948). An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Feb. 1995).

Martin Bucco