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definition - F._O._Matthiessen

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F. O. Matthiessen

F. O. Matthiessen
Born Francis Otto Matthiessen
(1902-02-19)February 19, 1902
Pasadena, California
Died April 1, 1950(1950-04-01) (aged 48)
Boston, Massachusetts
Cause of death Suicide by jumping from a height
Resting place Springfield Cemetery, Springfield, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Education Polytechnic and Hackley Schools
Alma mater Yale, Oxford and Harvard
Occupation Historian, literary critic, educator
Known for American Renaissance
Partner Russell Cheney
Awards Alpheus Henry Snow Prize, Rhodes Scholarship

Francis Otto Matthiessen (February 19, 1902 - April 1, 1950) was an educator, scholar and literary critic influential in the fields of American literature and American studies.[1]


  Early life and education

Matthiessen was born in Pasadena, California, where he was a student at Polytechnic School. Following the separation of his parents, he relocated with his mother to his paternal grandparents home in La Salle, Illinois. He completed his secondary education at Hackley School, in Tarrytown, New York. In 1923 he graduated from Yale University, where he was a member of Skull and Bones. In his final year as a Yale undergraduate, Matthiessen received the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize, [2] awarded to the senior who through the combination of intellectual achievement, character and personality, shall be adjudged by the faculty to have done the most for Yale by inspiring in classmates an admiration and love for the best traditions of high scholarship.

He studied at Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar earning a B.Litt. in 1925. At Harvard University, he quickly completed his M.A. in 1926 and Ph.D. degree in 1927. Matthiessen then returned to Yale to teach for two years, before beginning a distinguished teaching career at Harvard.

  Scholarly work

Matthiessen was an American studies scholar and literary critic at Harvard University,[3] and chaired its undergraduate program in history and literature.[4] He wrote and edited landmark works of scholarship on T. S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the James family (Alice James, Henry James, Henry James Sr., and William James), Sarah Orne Jewett, Sinclair Lewis, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.

Matthiessen's best-known book, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), discusses the flowering of literary culture in the middle of the American 19th century, with Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Its focus was the period roughly from 1850 to 1855 in which all these writers but Emerson published what would, by Matthiessen's time, come to be thought of as their masterpieces: Melville's Moby-Dick, multiple editions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, and Thoreau's Walden. The mid-19th century in American literature is commonly called the American Renaissance because of the influence of this work on later literary history and criticism. In 2009 The New York Times said that the book "virtually created the field of American literature."[1]


Matthiessen's politics were left-wing and socialist, though not dogmatically Marxist, as he felt his Christianity was incompatible with Marxist atheism. Matthiessen, who was already financially secure, donated an inheritance he received in the late 1940s to his friend, Marxist economist Paul Sweezy. Sweezy used the money, totalling almost $15,000, to found a new journal, which became the Monthly Review. Matthiessen was mentioned as an activist in Boston area so-called "Communist front groups" by Herbert Philbrick.[5]

  Personal life

Matthiessen, as a gay man in the 1930s and 1940s, chose to remain in the closet throughout his professional career, if not in his personal life – although traces of homoerotic concern are apparent in his writings.[6] In 2009, a statement from Harvard University said that Matthiessen "stands out as an unusual example of a gay man who lived his sexuality as an 'open secret' in the mid-20th century."[3][4]

Matthiessen had a 20-year romantic relationship with the painter Russell Cheney.[1] The couple shared a cottage in Kittery, Maine for decades. In planning to spend his life with Cheney, Matthiessen went as far as asking his cohort in the Yale secret society Skull and Bones to approve of their partnership (Levin 43-44). With Cheney having encouraged Matthiessen's interest in Whitman, it has been argued that American Renaissance was "the ultimate expression of Matthiessen's love for Cheney and a secret celebration of the gay artist."[1][7][8]

He was hospitalized once for a nervous breakdown in 1938-1939. After Cheney's death in 1945, Matthiessen became increasingly distraught. He committed suicide by jumping from a Boston hotel window in 1950.[1][3] Inquiries by the House Un-American Activities Committee into his politics may also have been a factor in his suicide. Writing in 1958, Eric Jacobsen referred to Matthiessen's death as "hastened by forces whose activities earned for themselves the sobriquet un-American which they sought so assiduously to fasten on others".[9] In 1978, however, Harry Levin was more skeptical, saying only that "spokesmen for the Communist Party, to which he had never belonged, loudly signalized his suicide as a political gesture".[10]

Matthiessen was buried at Springfield Cemetery in Springfield, Massachusetts.


Matthiessen's contribution to the critical celebration of 19th-century American literature is considered formative and enduring. Along with several other scholars, he is regarded as a contributor to the creation of American studies as a recognized academic discipline. His stature and legacy as a member of the Harvard community has been memorialized in several ways by the university. He was the first Senior Tutor at Eliot House, one of Harvard College's undergraduate residential houses. More than sixty years after his death, his suite at Eliot House remains preserved as the F. O. Matthiessen Room, housing personal manuscripts and 1700 volumes of his library available for scholarly research by permission.[11] In 2009 Harvard established an endowed chair in LGBT studies called the F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality.[3][4][12] Believing the post to be "the first professorship of its kind in the country,"[3] Harvard President Drew G. Faust called it “an important milestone.”[4][12] It is funded by a $1.5 million gift from the members and supporters of the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus.[3][4][12][13]


  1. ^ a b c d e Smith, Dinitia (May 29, 2003). "American Culture's Debt To Gay Sons of Harvard". The New York Times. NYTimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/29/arts/american-culture-s-debt-to-gay-sons-of-harvard.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1. Retrieved June 3, 2006. 
  2. ^ "Biography of F. O. Matthiessen". Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus. http://hglc.org/matthiessen.html. Retrieved January 26, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Steinberg, Jacques (June 3, 2009). "Harvard to Endow Chair in Gay Studies". The New York Times. NYTimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/education/04harvard.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=harvard%20gay%20lesbian%20caucus&st=cse. Retrieved June 4, 2009. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Jan, Tracy (June 3, 2009). "Harvard to endow professorship in gay studies". The Boston Globe. Boston.com. http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2009/06/harvard_to_endo.html. Retrieved June 3, 2009. 
  5. ^ Google books I Led 3 Lives
  6. ^ "American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 431".
  7. ^ Bergman, David (January 1, 1991). Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. The University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-13050-9. 
  8. ^ Shand-Tucci, Douglass (May 19, 2003). The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality and the Shaping of American Culture. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-19896-5. 
  9. ^ Eric Jacobsen, Translation: a Traditional Craft (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1958), pp. 9-10.
  10. ^ Levin, Harry. "The Private Life of F. O. Matthiessen." New York Review of Books 25:12 (July 20, 1978), pp. 42–46 (abstract online; full text for subscribers only).
  11. ^ "Eliot House - Facilities". eliot.harvard.edu. http://www.eliot.harvard.edu/eliot/facilities. Retrieved January 25, 2012. 
  12. ^ a b c Associated Press (June 3, 2009). "Harvard to Endow Chair in Gay, Lesbian Studies". FOXNews.com. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,525024,00.html. Retrieved June 4, 2009. 
  13. ^ "Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus: F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality". HGLC.org. http://hglc.org/matthiessen.html. Retrieved June 4, 2009. 

  Further reading

  • Arac, Jonathan. "F. O. Matthiessen: Authorizing an American Renaissance." The American Renaissance Reconsidered. Eds. Walter Benn Michaels and Donald Pease. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.
  • Hyde, Louis, ed. Rat and the Devil: Journal Letters of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1978. ISBN 1-55583-110-9; ISBN 0-208-01655-4.
  • Levin, Harry. "The Private Life of F. O. Matthiessen." New York Review of Books 25:12 (July 20, 1978), pp. 42–46 (abstract online; full text for subscribers only).
  • Leverenz, L. David. Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989.
  • Matthiessen, F. O.. American Renaissance. ISBN 0-19-500759-X (also available in many other editions).
  • Phelps, Christopher. "Introduction: A Socialist Magazine in the American Century." Monthly Review 51:1 (May 1999).
  • Marcus, Greil. The Old Weird America New York: Henry Holt (Picador), pp. 90, 124
  • Reynolds, David. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race and the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1993.
  • Toibin, Colm. "Love in a Dark Time". New York, Scribner, 2004.


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