F. O. Matthiessen Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

F. O. Matthiessen 1902-1950

(Full name Francis Otto Matthiessen) American critic, essayist, and diarist.

Matthiessen is widely considered the most significant American literary critic of the early twentieth century. A prolific reviewer and essayist, he is credited with elevating the study of American literature into a worthy academic subject that could be used as a cultural and political resource for future students and scholars. His seminal study, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, is praised as one of the most important critical works on American literature ever written.

Biographical Information

Born in 1902 in Pasadena, California, Matthiessen grew up in LaSalle, Illinois. The youngest of four children, he was raised in a wealthy family. In 1919 he attended Yale University, where he became active in politics and interested in literary and religious studies. He was chosen as a Rhodes Scholar in 1923 and attended Oxford University, receiving his Bachelor of Letters degree in 1925. A year later he received his M.A. from Harvard University. He completed his Ph.D. thesis, eventually published as Translation: An Elizabethan Art. In 1927 Matthiessen became an instructor at Yale and then Harvard. He taught American literature at Harvard for the rest of his life, becoming an influential and distinguished member of the faculty. During his early years of teaching, he began a life-long romantic relationship with the painter Russell Cheney. In 1941 his landmark study of American literature, American Renaissance, was published and garnered much critical commentary. He was politically active during these years, involving himself in socialist causes and co-founding the Monthly Review. After Cheney's death in 1945, Matthiessen became progressively depressed and withdrawn. On April 1, 1950, he committed suicide in Boston.

Major Works

American Renaissance is considered a classic study of American literature. Before its publication, literature written by American authors was not widely studied and was considered unworthy of serious critical attention. With American Renaissance, Matthiessen defined the major figures of nineteenth-century American literature—such as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—and elevated the study of American authors and literature as a legitimate academic subject. His reviews and studies of later American authors such as Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, and T. S. Eliot forged a tradition of American literature that subsequent critics could use as a political and cultural resource. To do this he used the principles of New Criticism, which provided close attention to the structure and texture of language; this approach marked a departure from the work of earlier literary critics such as Vernon L. Parrington and Van Wyck Brooks. It has been asserted that Matthiessen's life-long goal of developing an American literary canon has influenced every subsequent literary critic and student of American letters.

Critical Reception

Matthiessen's impact on the study of American literature is invaluable, and as such the amount of critical attention his work has received is extensive. Most commentators laud his progressive, landmark studies of nineteenth-century American writers and maintain that his work helped to define a distinctive canon of American literature at a crucial time in world history. Yet a few dissenting critics deem Matthiessen's literary criticism as dated and fundamentally contradictory; furthermore, they contend that his importance as a reviewer, essayist, and critic is historical, rather than intrinsic. Recent critical studies have focused on Matthiessen's homosexuality and how it impacted his perspective and treatment of authors such as Walt Whitman, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Hart Crane.