- R. W. B. Lewis
Richard Warrington Baldwin Lewis (
November 4 1917- June 13 2002) was an American literary scholar and critic. He gained a wider reputation when he won a 1976 Pulitzer Prizefor biography, the first National Book Critics Circle Awardfor nonfiction, and a Bancroft Prizefor his biography of Edith Wharton. 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. ... "
He was the Niel Gray Professor of English and American Studies at
Yale University, where he taught from 1959 until his retirement in 1988. From 1954 to 1959 he taught at Rutgers-Newark. In 1988 Lewis received a Litt.D. from Bates College. A member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Lewis received its Gold Medal for Biography in 2000.
Lewis is generally considered one of the founders of the academic field of American Studies, and was regarded as one of the finest Americanists of his generation. His interests ranged from criticism of American and European writers, to biography and even artistic criticism.
Lewis' career as critic involved him in the lives of many influential American and European thinkers and writers. Lewis received his doctoral degree from the
University of Chicago, where he studied under Norman Maclean, author of "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories". He and his wife and sometime co-author, Nancy, later became close friends with the Southern writer Robert Penn Warren.
Lewis' first major work, "The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century" (1955), explored
De Crèvecoeur's idea of the American as a "new man" - an innocent Adam in a bright new world dissociating himself from the historic past. Lewis portrayed this preoccupation as a pervasive, transforming ingredient of the American mind that shaped the consciousness of lesser thinkers as fully as it shaped the giants of the age.
The book traces the Adamic theme in the writings of Emerson,
Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, and others, and in an Epilogue, Lewis exposes its continuing spirit in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, J. D. Salinger, and Saul Bellow.
Lewis was a descendant of several generations of Christian clergy, but embraced academia after returning from serving in Word War II. Lewis developed a life-long fascination and love for Italy after visiting as a child, and later serving in
Tuscanyduring the war, including a harrowing stint behind enemy lines. He and his wife visited there regularly for much of their lives, and Lewis later wrote a short book on the city of Florence.
While teaching at Yale, Lewis lived in a house in
Bethany, Connecticut. He worked in an octagonally-shaped writing studio situated in a ravine about 30 feet from his house. A railed walkway connected the house to the studio, which was built by Nancy Lewis' brother-in-law, Isham McConnell, who studied under American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Lewis continued to write his books on a typewriter into his later years.
Bookshelves lined the walls of Lewis' office, with each section containing works from Lewis' various areas of research: the James' family, Edith Wharton, Dante and Italy, American literature, etc.
In 2006, the Yale College Writing Center was endowed with a directorship in Lewis' name.
"This position in Dick Lewis’ name will serve as a permanent tribute to a writer who made every subject he engaged in memorable and to a memorable teacher who made every student mindful of great writing,” said Yale President Richard C. Levin in a University press release.
* "The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century" (1955)
* "The Picaresque Saint. Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction" (1959)
* "Herman Melville" (1962)
* "Trials of the Word: Essays in American Literature and the Humanistic Tradition" (1965)
* "The Poetry of
Hart Crane: A Critical Study" (1967)
* "American Literature: The Makers and the Making: Book C / 1861 to 1914" (1974, with
Cleanth Brooksand Robert Penn Warren)
* "Edith Wharton" (1975)
* "The Jameses: A Family Narrative" (1991)
* "Literary Reflections : A Shoring of Images 1960-1993" (1993)
* "The City of Florence: Historical Vistas and Personal Sightings" (1995)
* "American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits" (1999, with Nancy Lewis)
* "Dante" (2001)
* "Presence of Walt Whitman" (1962)
* "Malraux: A Collection of Critical Essays" (1964)
* "The Letters of Edith Wharton" (1989, with Nancy Lewis)
* "The Selected Short Stories of Edith Wharton" (1991)
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