February 11, 2009
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v2.1 Reference

Robert B. Heilman

His Life in Letters

Robert Bechtold Heilman was a great literary figure of the twentieth century. This collection of his correspondence includes over 600 exchanges with more than 100 correspondents, among them Saul Bellow, Kenneth Burke, Malcolm Cowley, Richard Eberhart, Charles Johnson, Bernard Malamud, and William Carlos Williams. The letters follow Heilman's career from the time he was a thirty-six-year-old member of Louisiana State University's English Department, through his tenure at the University of Washington from 1948 to 1975, until a few years before his death in 2004. Two of his appointees who spent their entire careers at the University of Washington, Edward Alexander and Richard Dunn, have edited the letters with Paul Jaussen.

The rich representation of letters to as well as from Heilman gives the reader access to decades-long conversations between him and Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Joseph Epstein, Theodore Roethke, and many others. They provide a sense of Heilman's character, personality, and achievements in the context of American letters. They also afford an inside history of the changes that took place over sixty years, for better and worse, in American universities, literary criticism, and the politics of literature.

In the 1940s, Heilman not only defended the New Criticism against its many enemies, but in his own writing extended its imperial reach to the tragedies of Shakespeare. By the fifties, the focus of his letters shifted to the University of Washington's Department of English, and his flair for efficient, energetic, and imaginative administration resonates through them. The first time University of Washington President Raymond Allen read a letter by Heilman, he scribbled a note to his provost: "I like this man's philosophy very much . . . would he not make an excellent Dean of Arts and Sciences?" Heilman had been at the university less than four months.

He soon transformed the department, making Washington a national center for poetry. He exhibited courage and ingenuity in defending academic freedom from yahooism and McCarthyism, nurtured and protected an ailing and unpredictable Roethke (a letter about Roethke is one of the wisest and most eloquent letters ever written by a university administrator), and struggled with demands for the appointment of black faculty as well as with the volatile campus politics of the sixties.

Heilman's major correspondents - especially his Washington colleagues Solomon Katz and Andrew Hilen - were learned and articulate masters of the epistolary art. To read his letters and theirs is to understand that Samuel Johnson's famous observation "we shall receive no letters in the grave" was not a sigh of expected relief from nuisance and obligation but an anticipatory lament over the loss of a supreme pleasure.

About the Authors

Edward Alexander is professor emeritus of English and author of numerous books on Victorian literature and Jewish subjects. Richard J. Dunn is professor emeritus of English and author or editor of eleven books about Victorian novelists. Paul Jaussen is completing his Ph.D. in English. All are at the University of Washington.


"The book makes a valuable record of the intellectual ferment of the New Criticism, demonstrating its national dimensions and offering important insights on the nature of academic vocation from a man who was truly at the center."—Bryan A. Giemza, The Journal of Southern History, August 2011

"Reading these letters makes one eager to go back to Robert Heilman's books and articles, but it also arouses the suspicion that it may be his letters even more than his critical works, fine as they are, that have the most lasting interest..The editors can be proud of their work in assembling this monument to the humanity, integrity, and hard-earned wisdom of one of the foremost of those New Critics whose humanistic legacy has for decades been too often either neglected or distorted."—Weekly Standard

"Any letter of Heilman's has an astonishing measures of wit and wisdom. This book of letters constitutes the prototype of what a book of letters written to and from a great correspondent can be. I salute Heilman and his editors."—Sewanee Review

"Reading [these letters] reminds us that once letter writing was an art form and that through them great minds used it to seek out kindred spirits with whom to commune about the great issues of the times. The book is a feast for the intellect and literary sensibility."—The Key Reporter, Phi Beta Kappa

"This collection offers . . . a glimpse behind the curtain of how poets often are made famous (in part by patient and laborious handholding of fellow academics and supportive institutions), and it offers literature scholars a firsthand look at the New Criticism as it was founded and subsequently flourished."—Choice

"The six-hundred-plus letters selected . . . represent letter writing (almost a lost art in today's world of electronic communication) at its finest, not merely because of the articulation and use of language, but more so because of the educational issues they address and the ethical and gentlemanly manner in which Heilman responded to them."—Academic Questions


"What a valuable mind Heilman was, and through these letters still is. Who is left today who would (or could) write such letters in defense of foreign language requirements, of precision of language, of conscience and work, of poetry as a fountainhead of civilization, or in disgust at the malodorous orthodoxies of political correctness? May Robert Heilman be blessed in Gan Eydn."—Cynthia Ozick, author of Heir to the Glimmering World and The Din in the Head: Essays

"These selected letters are an extraordinary illustration of epistolary art at its finest, providing some 'inside' information about what went on in literary criticism in the mid-twentieth century and insights into the mind of a teacher / scholar / administrator worthy of emulation."—James A. Grimshaw, Jr., author of Understanding Robert Penn Warren

University of Washington Press

9780295988665 : robert-b-heilman-alexander-dunn-jaussen
808 Pages
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