102-year-old literary scholar, Pynchon’s prof, honored at White House

President Obama presented the National Humanities Medal to literary critic M.H. Abrams on Monday.
(MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty Images)

At 102 years old, literary scholar M.H. Abrams was awarded the National Humanities Medal on Monday at the White House by President Obama. Abrams is an emeritus professor at Cornell; in the 1950s, his students included Harold Bloom and Thomas Pynchon.

Abrams created the Norton Anthology of English Literature, a staple of college English classes that helped form the canon of English literary works in America and around the world. First published in 1962, the Norton Anthology was designed to be portable -- although anyone who lugged one of its 1,000-plus page volumes around knows, “portable” doesn’t mean “easy to carry.”

“We tried to represent the greatest of English literary works in two volumes. And over the years, the bigger it’s gotten, the better it’s sold,” Abrams said in 1999.


Abrams was a scholar of Romantic poetry who grew up speaking Yiddish in New Jersey. He put aside his poetry studies during World War II, when he worked in a secret language lab at Harvard. After the war, he studied at Cambridge University in England and returned to Harvard for his PhD.

He began teaching at Cornell, where he remained for almost 70 years.

Abrams, who traveled to Washington, published works of literary criticism that included “The Mirror and Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition” (1953) and “Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature” (1973). His most recent book is “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays,” published when he was 100.

The other recipients of the 2013 National Medals of the Humanities were historians David Brion Davis, Darlene Clark Hine, and Anne Firor Scott; East Asian studies scholar William Theodore De Bary; radio hosts Diane Rehm and Krista Tippett; filmmaker Stanley Nelson; architect Johnpaul Jones; and the American Antiquarian Society.

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