M.H. Abrams, Norton Anthology of Literature Founder, Dead at Age 102

By Italie, Hillel | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), April 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

M.H. Abrams, Norton Anthology of Literature Founder, Dead at Age 102


Italie, Hillel, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


NEW YORK - M.H. Abrams, an esteemed critic, teacher and tastemaker who helped shape the modern literary canon as founding editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and joined the elite himself by writing one of the 20th century's most acclaimed works of criticism, has died. He was 102. Abrams' death was confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday by Cornell University President David J. Skorton, who declined to give details. According to the website of the Ithaca-based university, where he was a longtime member of the English department, Abrams died Tuesday at the retirement community Kendal at Ithaca. No cause of death was given.

While at Cornell in the 1950s, Abrams was asked by publisher W.W. Norton to lead a team of editors compiling excerpts of vital English works. The first edition of the Norton Anthology came out in 1962 and was an immediate success. Abrams stayed on through seven editions, into his 80s, as the book became required reading - or perusing - for millions of college students.

Abrams also wrote several books, notably the 1953 publication "The Mirror and the Lamp, a groundbreaking work of literary theory that celebrated Byron, Keats and other British Romantic poets and popularized a field of study that emphasized how authors' lives and feelings influenced their work. "The Mirror and the Lamp was ranked No. 25 on a Modern Library list of the greatest English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.

In the years before "The Mirror and the Lamp, the Romantics had been effectively denigrated by T.S. Eliot, who found Byron to have a "disorderly mind, and an uninteresting one and believed Keats and Shelley "not nearly such great poets as they are supposed to be. He valued reason and restraint, stating that a poem's meaning should be clear.

But Abrams countered that the Romantics changed and enriched the history of poetry by freeing the emotions and imagination. The Romantics broke from the ideal of capturing the real world (a mirror) and instead composed "lamps, illuminating the poet's personal vision.

"The first test any poem must pass is no longer, Is it true to nature ... ?' Abrams wrote, "but a criterion looking in a different direction; namely, Is it sincere? Is it genuine?'

Abrams' other books included the influential social and political history "Natural Supernaturalism and "The Milk of Paradise. In July 2012, the essay collection "The Fourth Dimension of a Poem was published to mark his 100th birthday. …

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