Yale Bulletin and Calendar

June 28, 2002Volume 30, Number 32Four-Week Issue

R.W.B. Lewis

R.W.B. Lewis: Pulitzer Prize-winning
literary scholar and critic

Renowned literary scholar and critic R.W.B. Lewis, whose biography of Edith Wharton won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, died on June 13 at his home in Bethany, Connecticut, at the age of 84.

A member of the Yale faculty from 1959 until his retirement in 1988, Professor Lewis held joint appointments in the Departments of English and American Studies. A popular teacher on campus, he served as master of Calhoun College from 1966 to 1972.

Professor Lewis was also an authority on the development of the novel in the 19th and 20th centuries. His first book, "The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the 19th Century" (1955), was credited with reorienting the study of American literary texts.

His other works include a book of criticism called "The Picaresque Saint"; "Trials of the World," a book of essays that won the Van Wyck Brooks Award for Belles Lettres; "The Poetry of Hart Crane"; "The Jameses: A Family Narrative," which was a finalist for the National Book Award; "The City of Florence: Historical Vistas and Personal Sightings," about the Italian city where he spent a significant amount of time; and his most recent, "Dante," a short biography of the poet. With his wife, Nancy Lewis, he wrote "American Characters," a book in which paintings, photographs and drawings from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., are paired with commentary from the couple. The book was a result of Professor Lewis' tenure as a commissioner at the gallery in the late 1980s.

Professor Lewis won the greatest acclaim for his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Edith Wharton: A Biography," which also won the Bancroft Prize for American history and the first National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. The New York Times called the book "a beautifully wrought, rounded portrait of the whole woman, including the part of her that remained in shade during her life ..." and said the "expansive, elegant biography ... can stand as literature, if nothing else. ... "

In a statement, President Richard C. Levin said of the Yale scholar: "Dick Lewis bridged the academic world and wider realm of letters. Though he wrote master- works of criticism, he was also a literary figure who brought his sense of literature and literary biography to the classrooms of New Haven. As master of Calhoun College during the '60s he and Nancy shared their taste for art and letters with undergraduates who were dazzled by their guests, their storytelling and their cuisine. Yale mourns the passing of a member of its family who linked New Haven with an American world stretching westward and an old world across the ocean."

Yale College Dean Richard H. Brodhead, who was one of Professor Lewis' doctoral students at Yale, commented, "Through his many books and his eloquent presence in the classroom, R.W.B. Lewis did as much as anyone in his generation to create the modern study of American literature. A person of unbounded curiosity, his interests ranged from the classic to the contemporary and from the most canonical authors to the writers he introduced to serious study: Edith Wharton, Hart Crane and many more. As a teacher, he was a model of generosity, quick to appreciate the gifts of others and ready with his support. A man of letters, he loved the world of letters, and he created that love in many others."

Richard Warrington Baldwin Lewis was born on Nov. 1, 1917, in Chicago, Illinois, and was the son of Episcopal minister Leicester Crosby Lewis and Beatrix Baldwin Lewis. After preparing at Episcopal Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy, Mr. Lewis earned his B.A. in 1939 at Harvard University and his M.A. in 1941 at the University of Chicago, where he also received a Ph.D. degree in 1954.

During World War II, Mr. Lewis enlisted as a private in the U.S. Air Force and became a second lieutenant, serving in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. He commanded a unit in Italy and received the Legion of Merit Award in 1944 for service behind enemy lines. After the war, he continued as a commanding officer of the Northern Italy War Crimes Investigation Team and was discharged from service in 1946 with the rank of major.

Professor Lewis taught at Bennington College 1948-1950 and was dean of studies at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria 1950-1951. He was a visiting lecturer at Smith College 1951-1952 and a resident fellow at Princeton University 1952-1954, then joined the faculty at Rutgers University as a professor of English. He served there until his Yale appointment in 1959.

At Yale, he served a number of times as director of graduate studies in American studies and also chaired the department. Appointed the Neil Gray Professor in 1977, Lewis' joint appointment in English and American studies reflected his abiding interest both in American literature and in American cultural life.

"Dick Lewis' scholarly and critical life revealed at every point his love of America in all of its paradoxes and difficulties, of its lore both folk and literary, of its popular music, and of its representation in the work of its major novelists and poets," says his former colleague John Hollander, Sterling Professor of English. "Having fought during World War II in Italy, he had come to know and love that country and its culture as well, and in particular, the city of Florence, about which he wrote so beautifully. He was not only an outstanding, but a wonderfully exemplary, university teacher and writer, both skeptical and exuberant, during a period in which the academic study of literature became an imaginative and intellectually generous field in which to work, reflecting in so many ways his own spirit."

Professor Lewis received numerous honors for his research and contributions, including a grant for literary achievement from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship and honorary degrees from several universities. He was invited to serve on both the National Book Award jury for fiction, on which he was charged with selecting the best novel of 1964, and on the 1977 jury for biography and autobiography. In 1988, he was one of 14 scholars in the nation chosen to advise the National Endowment for the Humanities on the state of American culture.

Professor Lewis is survived by Nancy Lewis, his wife of 52 years; his son, Nathaniel, of Burlington, Vermont; and two daughters, Sophie, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Emma, of Washington, D.C.


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