Down with non-partisan writers!
—V.I. Lenin

At the time of his suicide in 1950, the Harvard professor F. O. Matthiessen was one of the most influential figures in the development of the academic criticism of American literature. Others—like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, William Empson and R. P. Blackmur, F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling—had greater critical authority and commanded a larger audience of intelligent and cultivated readers. But they were part of a wider cultural world. Matthiessen was pre-eminently a man of the university. Even so, his literary influence radiated from his own classroom and writing into the lectures and seminars of others, and from there to generations of students of American literature. Why is he worth remembering?

After the impressionistic study Sarah Orne Jewett in 1929 and Eliotic reflections on...


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