Obituary: Edward Wagenknecht

Article excerpt

Scholar bookman of Victorian productivity

EDWARD WAGENKNECHT was the last surviving great scholar bookman to be born at the end of the Victorian era. He wrote two seminal works on the English and American novel, and a long line of critical literary biographies from 1929 to 1994. As a regular filmgoer from the earliest days of the cinema, he was also a prominent champion of American silent movies.

His grandparents emigrated in 1868 from Germany to Chicago, building a large redbrick family house in California Street where Edward was born in 1900. He decided to become a writer at the age of six after reading L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, which always remained one of his favourite books and the subject of his early monograph Utopia Americana (1929). He observed: "Someday we may have better American fairy tales, but that will not be until America is a better place."

He attended the High School in Oak Farm, Illinois, where Ernest Hemingway was a classmate, and in 1917 became one of the future novelist's first literary characters as a famous baseball player, in the classbook number of the school's Tabula magazine, an ironic observation satirising Wagenknecht's utter indifference to all sports and games.

Wagenknecht graduated from Chicago University with an MA in 1924, and received his PhD while teaching at the University of Washington eight years later. He later taught at Illinois Institute of Technology and at Boston University, where he became Professor of English in 1947, elevated to Professor Emeritus on his extended "retirement" in 1965.

He began reviewing books regularly in the Atlantic Monthly and the Yale Review in his early twenties. Two important early works were Values in Literature (1928), intended for college sophomores, and A Guide to Bernard Shaw (1929).

Under the influence of Gamaliel Bradford, Wagenknecht developed the "psychography" method, the style of biography organised topically rather than chronologically, concentrating throughout on the subject's character and personality. His first major biography, The Man Charles Dickens: a Victorian portrait (1929), was introduced by Bradford. Two years later Wagenknecht successfully persuaded Arthur Rackham to illustrate Dickens's Christmas tale The Chimes for the Limited Editions Club.

His next biography, Jenny Lind (1931), was inspired by a family tradition from the time his grandmother first heard the "Swedish Nightingale" sing in Germany. Among his many more similarly crafted biographies were studies of Mark Twain (Mark Twain: the man and his work, 1935), Nathaniel Hawthorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne: man and writer, 1961), Washington Irving (Washington Irving: moderation displayed, 1962), Edgar Allan Poe (Edgar Allan Poe: the man behind the legend, 1963), Harriet Beecher Stowe (Harriet Beecher Stowe: the known and the unknown, 1965), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: portrait of a humanist, 1966), John Greenleaf Whittier (John Greenleaf Whittier: a portrait in paradox, 1967), William Dean Howells (William Dean Howells: the friendly eye, 1968), Ralph Waldo Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson: portrait of a balanced soul, 1974), three works on Henry James, and a further series exploring the "personality" of writers, Chaucer (1968), Milton (1970) and Shakespeare (1972). …