James Hart; Wrote Literary ‘Companion’


James D. Hart, university administrator, literary scholar, editor and author of “The Oxford Companion to American Literature,” died of cancer Monday morning at his home in Berkeley. He was 79.

A former vice chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of its Bancroft Library for the last 21 years, Hart was a scholar who pursued a wide range of interests--from contemporary American literature and California history to the study of American reading habits.

Said former Berkeley Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman on learning of Hart’s death:

“He was unique in being an urbane gentleman and serious scholar who at the same time delighted in those offbeat aspects of our state’s history which intrigue so many. . . . His excitement in discovering artifacts of the state’s past marked him as a very special person.”


As with the “Companion,” which lists biographies of American authors and summarizes their major works, Hart sought in his works to reach literary scholars as well as general readers.

Born in San Francisco to a family that had come to California in 1850, James David Hart grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from Stanford University. He obtained his master’s degree and doctorate at Harvard University, returned West in 1936 to teach American literature at UC Berkeley and stayed there more than 50 years.

Hart began compiling his first edition of “The Oxford Companion to American Literature” in the 1930s, a period he later called “the formative years for the academic study of American literature.”

According to his daughter, Carol Hart Field, Hart obtained a publisher for his anthology while still a graduate student. “He was on his way to Europe and was walking in New York when he passed the offices of Oxford University Press,” Field said. “He just walked in and said, ‘I have an idea for a book.’ Then he went back to the Biltmore Hotel, which in those days had a library, and did some sample entries. Then he took them back to the Oxford press the next day, left them there and got on the boat.”


Fifty years after the first anthology appeared, Hart noted in his fifth-edition preface that when he began his effort, American literature attracted “relatively little scholarship and criticism,” and many authors, such as William Faulkner, were “little read or valued.” He was constantly updating the book, adding authors and making revisions. The sixth edition, in fact, will be published next year, Field said.

The anthology has since become a mainstay in the literary world. Typical of the reaction to Hart’s work was that of New York critic Alfred Kazin, who said on Monday:

“ ‘The Oxford Companion to American Literature’ has been on my desk for nearly half a century and is the most valuable handbook I know on our literature.”

Hart later became chairman of Berkeley’s English department. He was vice chancellor of the university between 1957 and 1960, and joined the Bancroft Library, which contains the university’s rare-book collection, in 1961. He became its director in 1969.


Hart edited several books, among them “My First Publication: Eleven California Authors Describe Their Earliest Appearances in Print” and “Robert Louis Stevenson, From Scotland to Silverado.” He also wrote “Companion to California,” a reference book on the state, and “The Popular Book: A Study of America’s Literary Taste,” which analyzed how prevailing social conditions make a book a bestseller.

Among other awards, he was designated a commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II because of his work in behalf of Marshall Scholarships for American students to attend English universities. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Harvard University Overseers Committee on the Library, a former trustee and board president of Mills College and a trustee of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museum. He had been a visiting professor at Harvard University and lectured at various European universities.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Constance, a son, Peter, and four grandchildren. His first wife, Ruth, died in 1977.

A memorial service will be held Thursday at the Faculty Club on the Berkeley campus. Gifts in his memory may be sent to the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, Calif. 94720.