F. O. Matthiessen Essay - Critical Essays

Matthiessen, F. O.


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 After Cheney's death in 1945, Matthiessen became progressively depressed and withdrawn.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.

Principal Works

Sarah Orne Jewett (criticism) 1929

Translation: An Elizabethan Art (criticism) 1931

The Achievement of T. S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry (criticism) 1935

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (criticism) 1941

Henry James: The Major Phase (criticism) 1944

Russell Cheney, 1881-1945: A Record of His Work (letters and essays) 1947

From the Heart of Europe (journal) 1948

Theodore Dreiser (criticism) 1951

The Responsibilities of the Critic: Essays and Reviews (essays) 1952

Rat and the Devil: The Journal Letters of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney (letters) 1978


R. P. Blackmur (review date 1935)

SOURCE: “A Citation of T. S. Eliot” in The Nation (New York), Vol. 141, No. 3668, October 23, 1935, pp. 478-80.

[In the following review, Blackmur provides a mixed assessment of The Achievement of T. S. Eliot.]

The great temptation in writing of T. S. Eliot's poetry is to batten upon the frequent illuminations provided for it in his critical essays; and to this temptation Mr. Matthiessen has again and again given in. His book [The Achievement of T. S. Eliot] is a citation rather than an examination of Eliot's work, and the circulating energy—what keeps the book going and unites its effects—is Mr. Matthiessen's felt appreciation of Eliot's governing obsessions. Thus the successive crises of interpretation and judgment tend naturally without a jar to appear as unrelieved quotation. There could be no better testimony of the scope, the consistency, and the expressive persuasiveness of Eliot's work once one gives in to it, and no clearer warning, perhaps, of the intellectual necessity of not always and never entirely giving in either to Eliot himself or, now, to Mr. Matthiessen's redaction. One gives in intellectually, emotionally, with all a reader's equipment, to find out what is there, but one draws back both to see what is not there and to situate what is. However valuable Mr. Matthiessen's book is, its very method of approach prevents it from being enough.

The advantage of the method is obvious: it keeps the discussion in terms which are actually pretty much those of Eliot's work. But the disadvantage is striking: there are no tools for detachment, for setting off, for placing Eliot, as Mr. Matthiessen attempts to do, in relation to the contemporary world and the body of poetry. It is a method which leads at its worst to the...

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Robert E. Spiller (review date 1942)

SOURCE: “American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman,” in American Literature, Vol. 13, No. 4, January, 1942, pp. 432-44.

[In the following laudatory review of American Renaissance, Spiller considers its “importance as a contribution to American literary history and to the theory and technique of historical writing.”]

I have already reviewed Mr. Matthiessen's book elsewhere in general terms. I should like here to consider its importance as a contribution to American literary history and to the theory and technique of historical writing. Even though its method is nonchronological, American Renaissance seems to me to...

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Philip Rahv (review date 1945)

SOURCE: “Modernizing James,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VII, No. 2 Spring, 1945, pp. 311-15.

[In the following mixed assessment of Henry James: The Major Phase, Rahv perceives Matthiessen's analysis as lacking, but deems the volume a significant study of James's later novels.]

This book [Henry James: The Major Phase] is an important contribution to the growing literature about Henry James. For all the talk of James as a neglected figure there is scarcely another American writer who has of late aroused so much critical ardor and discussion. Since the James number of The Little Review (1918) numerous appraisals of his work have appeared; and this...

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F. W. Bateson (review date 1953)

SOURCE: A review of The Responsibilities of the Critic, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXIII, No. 7, November, 1953, pp. 502-4.

[In the following mixed review of Responsibilities of the Critic, Bateson contends that Matthiessen was an excellent reviewer, but a mediocre critic.]

The subtitle [of The Responsibilities of the Critic: Essays and Reviews] is a little misleading. Of the fifty short critical pieces by Matthiessen that make up this book as many as thirty-nine are reviews, reprinted by Mr. Rackliffe, a tactful and intelligent editor, from the Yale Review, the New England Quarterly, the New Republic and similar journals....

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Richard Ruland (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen, Christian Socialist: Literature and the Repossession of Our Cultural Past,” in The Rediscovery of American Literature, Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 209-73.

[In the following essay, Ruland analyzes the defining characteristics of Matthiessen's critical work, and evaluates his impact on American literary theory and criticism.]

The whole book is based on the proposition that what a writer believes about man, about society, and about the universe has a great deal to do with what he writes. …

—Granville Hicks on American Renaissance (1941)...

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Kenneth S. Lynn (essay date 1976-1977)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen,” in The American Scholar, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1976-1977, pp. 86-93.

[In the following essay, Lynn offers personal reminiscences of Matthiessen's tenure as an American literature professor at Harvard University in the 1940s.]

Teachers of American literature who were born, as F. O. Matthiessen was, in the first years of this century, but who are still alive today, have seen the study of their subject move through three different eras. The first, which might be called the Era of Rediscovery, began with Van Wyck Brooks and H. L. Mencken around 1908; gathered strength in the nineteen-twenties and thirties from the work of Lewis Mumford,...

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Leo Marx (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Double Consciousness and the Cultural Politics of F. O. Matthiessen,” in Monthly Review, February, 1983, pp. 34-56.

[In the following essay, Marx elucidates Matthiessen's political ideology and determines how these beliefs impacted his literary work.]

The bulk of mankind believe in two gods. They are under one dominion here in the house, as friend and parent, in social circles, in letters, in art, in love, in religion; but in mechanics, in dealing with steam and climate, in trade, in politics, they think they come under another; and that it would be a practical blunder to transfer the method and way of working of one sphere into the...

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William E. Cain (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Criticism and Politics: F. O. Matthiessen and the Making of Henry James,” in The New England Quarterly, Vol. LX, No. 2, June, 1987, pp. 163-86.

[In the following essay, Cain contends that Matthiessen's ambivalent feelings about the work of Henry James provide insight into the critic's “conflicted attitudes toward the relation between literary criticism and politics.”]

Probably more so than any other modern critic, F. O. Matthiessen legitimated the study of American literature. Not only did he define and develop the basic analytical method—a “close reading” of texts keyed to the articulation of central “American” myths and symbols—but he...

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Jonathan Arac (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen and American Studies: Authorizing a Renaissance,” in Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies, Columbia University Press, 1987, pp. 157-75.

[In the following essay, Arac addresses the often contradictory nature of Matthiessen's work and assesses “the possibilities for a new literary history in the practice of American Renaissance.”]

For decades since his suicide in 1950, F. O. Matthiessen has exerted a compelling attraction. The documentation, analysis, and controversy around him bulk larger than for any other American literary scholar born in the twentieth century, and they grow.


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William E. Cain (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen's Labor of Translation: From Sarah Orne Jewett to T. S. Eliot,” in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 355-84.

[In the following essay, Cain examines Matthiessen's critical writings of the late 1920s and 1930s, maintaining that with these works the critic forged his identity as a literary critic.]

F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941) is one of the landmark texts of American literary studies, and it is the book to which critics naturally turn when they examine Matthiessen's impact and influence. As Sacvan Bercovitch has recently stated—and...

(The entire section is 10643 words.)

Eric Cheyfitz (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Circumscribing the Revolution,” in American Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, June, 1989, pp. 341-61.

[In the following essay, Cheyfitz explicates and reconciles the contradictory images of Matthiessen in American literary critical theory.]

In 1963, reviewing four books of criticism, including F. O. Matthiessen's posthumous The Responsibilities of the Critic, Leslie Fiedler marked a moment of critical exhaustion. Three of these works, including the Matthiessen, Fiedler told his audience in The Yale Review,

are the victims of our new canon—a brief series of literary works...

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James W. Tuttleton (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Politics and Art in the Criticism of F. O. Matthiessen,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 7, No. 10, June, 1989, pp. 4-13.

[In the following essay, Tuttleton perceives a discrepancy between Matthiessen's literary criticism and his political views.]

Down with non-partisan writers!

—V. I. Lenin

At the time of his suicide in 1950, the Harvard professor F. O. Matthiessen was one of the most influential figures in the development of the academic criticism of American literature. Others—like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, William Empson and R. P. Blackmur, F. R. Leavis and...

(The entire section is 6338 words.)

Paul A. Bove (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Love of Reading/The Work of Criticism: F. O. Matthiessen and Lionel Trilling,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 373-82.

[In the following review of William A. Cain's F. O. Matthiessen and the Politics of Criticism, Bove praises Cain's reading of Matthiessen's work.]

What magnanimity!

—Daniel O'Hara

When the historical sense reigns without restraint, and all its consequences are realized, it uproots the future because it destroys illusions and robs the things that exist of the atmosphere in which alone they can live....

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Michael Cadden (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Engendering F. O. M.: The Private Life of American Renaissance,” in Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism, edited by Joseph A. Boone and Michael Cadden, Routledge, 1990, pp. 26-35.

[In the following essay, Cadden determines how Matthiessen's sexuality influenced his views on Walt Whitman and discusses the incongruity of his public and private writings on the poet.]

“To work out:—The sexual bias in literary criticism. … What sort of person would the critic prefer to sleep with, in fact.”1

—E. M. Forster

“‘Dosce, doce,...

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David Bergman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen: The Critic as Homosexual,” in Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 85-102.

[In the following essay, Bergman considers the impact of Matthiessen's sexuality on his work.]

Despite the publicity that attended F. O. Matthiessen's suicide in 1950, and the books that were subsequently written about him, including May Sarton's 1955 novel Faithful are the Wounds, it was not until a quarter of a century later that his homosexuality became public knowledge. During his life, Matthiessen had not tried to hide the fact, but neither had he made it a public issue....

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Marc Dolan (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The ‘Wholeness' of the Whale: Melville, Matthiessen, and the Semiotics of Critical Revisionism,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Autumn, 1992, pp. 27-58.

[In the following essay, Dolan determines Matthiessen's important role in the critical rediscovery of the work of Herman Melville.]

Last year we observed two important anniversaries in the history of American literature: 1991 marked both the centennial of Herman Melville's death and the semicentennial of the publication of F. O. Mathiessen's American Renaissance. In the half-century between those two occurrences, Melville went from being an obscure New York writer of sea stories to his...

(The entire section is 12301 words.)

Philip Horne (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Henry James: The Master and the ‘Queer Affair’ of The ‘Pupil’,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1995, pp. 75-92.

[In the following essay, Horne discusses Matthiessen's reading of James's “The Pupil.”]


Perhaps I can best indicate some of the troubles I want to raise in this essay by quoting from a 1990 volume entitled Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. One of the editors, Michael Cadden, has an interesting meditation on the great, homosexual critic F. O. Matthiessen—‘Engendering F. O. M.: The Private Life of American Renaissance’—where in effect he...

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Charles E. Morris III (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘The Responsibilities of the Critic’: F. O. Matthiessen's Homosexual Palimpsest,” in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 84, No. 3, August, 1998, pp. 261-82.

[In the following essay, Morris maintains that Matthiessen's literary criticism provides insights into his attitudes toward his sexuality as well as the practice of gay historical criticism generally.]

“It is important to recognize that criticism creates American literature in its own image because American literature gives the American people a conception of themselves and of their history.”

Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs (199)...

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Jay Grossman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Canon in the Closet: Matthiessen's Whitman, Whitman's Matthiessen,” in American Literature, Vol. 70, No. 4, December, 1998, pp. 799-832.

[In the following essay, Grossman analyzes how Matthiessen's sexuality influenced his perception and discussion of the literary relationship between Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.]

An artist's use of language is the most sensitive index to cultural history, since a man can articulate only what he is, and what he has been made by the society of which he is a willing or an unwilling part.

—F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance


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Further Reading


Levin, Harry. “The Private Life of F. O. Matthiessen.” In Memories of the Moderns, pp. 218-30. New York: New Directions, 1980.

Brief biographical account of the events surrounding Matthiessen's suicide and his relationship with Russell Cheney.


Aaron, Daniel. “Parrington Plus.” The Kenyon Review IV, No. 1 (Winter 1942): 102-6.

Positive assessment of American Renaissance.

Delany, Paul. “Varieties of Liberal Experience.” Times Literary Supplement (5 December 1980): 1391-92.

Contends that Rat and the...

(The entire section is 192 words.)