Courtesy of Cornell.edu

Ithaca, N.Y. — We learn sad news today: M.H. Abrams, one of the most distinguished professors in the history of Cornell, has died. He was 102 years old.

Abrams taught English at Cornell for 67 years, founded the Norton Anthology of English Literature and was honored in July 2014 at the White House.

“As a scholar, writer and critic, Dr. Abrams has expanded our perception of the romantic tradition and explored the modern concept of artistic self-expression in Western culture, influencing and inspiring generations of students,” President Barack Obama said.

Abrams with Obama last summer. Courtesy of Cornell.edu

Here’s an incomplete list of Abrams’ dizzying career highlights:

— Pedigree of students

Abrams began at Cornell in 1945 after studying at Cambridge and Harvard universities, according to Cornell.

His students would come to include literary critic Harold Bloom ’52, writer E.D. Hirsch ’50 and novelist Thomas Pynchon ’59.

— Mirror and the Lamp

Abrams wrote the Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition , which is widely used in undergraduate survey courses in the U.S.

In 1999, the book was ranked No. 25 on the Modern Library’s list of “the 100 Best Nonfiction Books Written in English during the 20th Century,” according to Cornell.

The work was “quickly hailed as one of the most important books ever written about English literature,” Adam Kirsch wrote recently in Tablet Magazine.

See related: The Last Critic Turns 100

Kirsch also highlighted Abrams’ Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, which was published in 1971.

Kirsch wrote: “These two books are not only masterly examples of the history of ideas, elucidating complex thoughts from a staggering range of primary sources. Together, they offer a window on the evolution of the modern mind, as seen at one of its most dramatic moments; they help explain why we think and feel the way we do about art, genius, religion, and history.”

The title “the Mirror and the Lamp,” Kirsch writes, is about the difference between classical and modern literature.

“Classical literature was a mirror, reflecting the world; Romantic and modern literature is a lamp, shining forth from the soul of the artist,” he says.

— Norton Anthology

Abrams founded and served as the editor of the Norton Anthology, first published in 1962. The anthology has been read by millions.

As Cornell’s Linda Glaser wrote in 2012:

“The New York Times Book Review noted in 2006 that ever since its initial publication, The Norton Anthology “has remained the sine qua non of college textbooks, setting the agenda for the study of English literature in this country and beyond.”

Kirsch again: “The Norton Anthology may be Abrams’ most influential work—along with his Glossary of Literary Terms, now in its ninth edition, another indispensable companion for students.”

Abrams served as editor of the anthology for its first seven editions, from 1962 until 2000.

— Producing late into life

At age 100, Abrams published his eighth book, “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem.”

The work was widely celebrated. “Abrams continues to produce criticism that delights us in its erudition, joyfulness and lucidity,”said Kenneth McClane, Cornell’s W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, in a statement.

“No one argues better for how a poem works; no one, more importantly, argues better for why literature matters.”

When Abrams turned 100, Cornell celebrated the birthday with a webpage filled with student testimonials.

We’ve pulled a handful of them:

“The course you gave that became Natural Supernaturalism when I was a graduate student in the early sixties was the most wide-ranging and intellectually adventurous I ever took, and the work I did for you then has been important to me ever since.”

— Bob Folkenflik

“I’m filled with wonder and boundless respect when I think of the transformative, shape-shifting effect you’ve had on literature these many years.”

— Alice Fulton

“It was always reassuring for us to know that you were a denizen of Goldwin Smith Hall, a presence in the heart of campus on whom we could permanently depend.

Thank you for your friendship, your scholarship, and your unfailing laughter. You continue to make Cornell the great university it is.”

— Elizabeth and Hunter Rawlings

“Here are 3 Abrams-isms lodged in my memory after many decades.

After a wayward 2 years at Cornell, including some disagreements with my sophomore English professor, I came to see you (around 1947/8) about an honors program you were starting. After a few minutes of chat, I confessed that I had just made a C in sophomore English. You said “You’re in. It takes a lot of talent to make a C in that course.”

My favorite scholarly Abrams-ism: good criticism requires “a keen eye for the obvious.”

My favorite airport-waiting-room Abrams-ism: I ask you: Have you read “A Sea of Thighs?” You replied without a pause: “No, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of that one.”

— Don Hirsch


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.