Marjorie Hope Nicolson

views updated May 11 2018

Marjorie Hope Nicolson

Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894-1981), a pioneer investigator of the relationship between literature and science, helped shape the contemporary study of English and the humanities in American higher education as teacher, scholar, and administrator. She was the first woman president of Phi Beta Kappa and later served as president of the Modern Language Association.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson was born February 18, 1894, in Yonkers, New York, and died in White Plains, New York, on March 9, 1981. Her father, Charles Butler Nicolson, was the editor-in-chief of the Detroit Free Press during World War I and later became the paper's Washington correspondent. Her mother's maiden name was Lissie Hope Morris.

Nicolson took her B.A. at the University of Michigan in 1914 and her M.A. there in 1918. In 1920 she got her Ph.D. from Yale and did additional graduate work at Johns Hopkins from 1923 to 1926. She worked briefly for her father's paper, first as a drama critic, then in the Washington office during the early 1920s. While her father was sick for three months she ran the office by herself. The need to write compact, coherent copy for general audiences under deadline pressures helped shape her readable scholarly style as well as her direct and compelling classroom manner. Frederick Hard, President of Scripps College, remarked that Nicolson belonged "to that rare company of scholars who speak as lucidly, as readily, and as eloquently as they write…."

Her teaching career began in the public schools of Michigan. It was said that at one point she developed the art of wiggling her ears to keep the attention of her high school students. For college and graduate students of English she lectured without notes in syntactically complicated sentences and elaborately organized paragraphs, producing well-shaped oral essays. She cited large portions of text, poetry, and prose from memory. She could hold audiences spellbound with a mixture of erudition, clear delivery, and a sense of the human interest inherent in her subject. Her book John Milton: A Reader's Guide to His Poetry provides a good sense of her classroom manner, reading almost like a transcript of actual lectures.

She began her college teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1920, moving to Goucher College in 1923. In 1927 she joined the Smith College faculty, becoming professor of English in 1928 and dean in 1929. In 1941 she left to assume a professorship in Columbia University's graduate Department of English and Comparative Literature, the first woman to do so. She remained at Columbia until her retirement in 1962, becoming chairwoman of the department in 1954.

Nicolson had begun her scholarly career early, with a Guggenheim fellowship in 1926 and 1927, working in libraries abroad. Her early articles and books covered a wide range of subjects, including a student text of 19th century poets and one in The Art of Description. She also published articles and essays on detective fiction, Shakespeare, and college teaching and scholarship.

Her works examining the relationships among science, philosophy, imagination, and literature, however, constitute her most famous body of studies. A selection of her books in this area comprise a virtual outline of the subject: The Microscope and English Imagination (1935); A World in the Moon (1936); Newton Demands the Muse (1946), which received a prize from the British Academy; Voyages to the Moon (1948); The Breaking of the Circle (1950); Science and Imagination (1956); and Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959). She also wrote and lectured on the conflict between humanists and scientists in the 17th and 18th centuries as well as in the 20th century.

Recognition of her contributions to teaching, administration, and critical scholarship was abundant. She received 18 honorary degrees from such prestigious institutions as Princeton, Columbia, University of Michigan, Mt. Holyoke, Yale, Goucher, Rutgers, and Smith College. The American Council of Learned Societies and the American Association of University Women honored her. From 1930 to 1937 she was a member of the Guggenheim Foundation awards committee, and she remained a consultant until 1962.

At various times she was a visiting scholar or professor at Johns Hopkins and Princeton universities, Claremont Graduate School, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She served on the editorial boards of The American Scholar and of the Journal of the History of Ideas and was a consultant to the publications of the Modern Language Association and to Studies in Philology.

In 1940 she was elected president of Phi Beta Kappa, the first woman to hold that post and the only person to serve two terms. In 1963 she served as president of the Modern Language Association.

While she influenced the course of study for women while dean at Smith College, her period of greatest influence was at Columbia University, where she became a virtual legend.

Further Reading

Further biographical and bibliographical details may be found in the Directory of American Scholars and in Contemporary Authors. An extended essay on her time at Columbia may be found in Morris Freedman's "Marjorie Hope Nicolson," The American Scholar, 50 (Winter 1980-1981). □

Nicolson, Marjorie Hope

views updated May 09 2018

NICOLSON, Marjorie Hope

Born 18 February 1894, Yonkers, New York; died March 1981

Daughter of Charles B. and Lissie Morris Nicolson

The daughter of a newspaper editor, Marjorie Hope Nicolson spent most of her adult life in an academic environment, studying at Michigan, Yale, and Johns Hopkins, and teaching at Minnesota, Goucher, Smith, Columbia, and Claremont. She was a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton from 1963 to 1968. Nicolson earned many honors during her long and distinguished career and blazed many new trails for academic women. As the first woman president of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa (1940), she explained that most academic women had not been able to distinguish themselves because it was hard to be "both scholars and ladies," in that women scholars "have no wives to look after social contacts and to perform the drudgery for them." She was the first woman to be elected president of the Modern Language Association, the first woman to receive Yale's John Addison Porter Prize for original work, and the first woman to hold a full professorship on Columbia University's graduate faculty.

Nicolson was fascinated with the impact on the literary imagination made by science and philosophy, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. As early as 1935, Nicolson's lifelong interest surfaced in a study of The Microscope and English Imagination, in which she describes how the invention of the microscope had stimulated both serious and satiric themes in literature, even influencing the remarkable technique of Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Several of her best volumes focus on the way scientific advances alter aesthetic judgments and hence modify literary treatments. For instance, A World in the Moon (1937) describes the changing attitudes toward the moon brought about by the telescope; Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959) describes humanity's shift from abhorrence of mountains as reflecting sin's disruption to attraction to mountains as symbols of the infinite; and Breaking of the Circle (1950) describes the dislocating insecurity caused by the Copernican Revolution as reflected in the works of John Donne and his contemporaries. Although this latter was her most influential book, it also caused considerable scholarly controversy because many argued that Nicolson had overestimated the importance of scientific theory to people who were accustomed to finding their security not in science but in religion. Newton Demands the Muse (1946), a study of how Newtonian optics affected 18th-century poets, merited the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize of the British Academy.

It is not surprising that a woman so interested in science and literature should turn her attention to John Milton, who was similarly attracted to the advanced scientific thought of his day. Accordingly, Nicolson edited a volume of Milton's major poems and published A Reader's Guide to Milton (1963), which has proved popular on many campuses.

This Long Disease, My Life: Alexander Pope and the Sciences (1968), written with G. S. Rousseau, after Nicolson's retirement, includes a detailed medical history of the poet, a study of five medical themes or episodes in his work, an extensive section on Pope and astronomy, and a concluding section on Pope's interest in the other sciences of his day, especially geology.

In addition to her books, Nicolson was a frequent contributor to periodicals. She edited American Scholar from 1940 to 1944 and served on the editorial board of the Journal of the History of Ideas for many years. Her work is never academic in the "dry-as-dust" sense; it pulsates with the fascination, wry wit, and human involvement she feels toward her subject. It is Nicolson's flair for making her point memorably that ensures her a continuing influence among lovers of literature.

Other Works:

The Art of Deception (1926). Conway Letters (1930). Voyages to the Moon (1948). Science and Imagination (1956). Pepys' Diary and the New Science (1965).


CA (1964). CB (1940).