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M.H. Abrams, Norton Anthology Founder, Dies at Age 102

  • Associated Press

FILE - President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to literary critic M.H. Abrams during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, D.C., July 28, 2014.

FILE - President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to literary critic M.H. Abrams during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, D.C., July 28, 2014.

M.H. Abrams, an esteemed critic, teacher and tastemaker who helped shape the modern literary canon as founding editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and joined the elite himself by writing one of the 20th century's most acclaimed works of criticism, has died. He was 102.

Abrams' death was confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday by Cornell University President David J. Skorton, who declined to give details. According to the website of the Ithaca-based university, where he was a longtime member of the English department, Abrams died Tuesday at the retirement community Kendal at Ithaca. No cause of death was given.

While at Cornell in the 1950s, Abrams was asked by publisher W.W. Norton to lead a team of editors compiling excerpts of vital English works. The first edition of the Norton Anthology came out in 1962 and was an immediate success. Abrams stayed on through seven editions, into his 80s, as the book became required reading - or perusing - for millions of college students.

Literary theory

Abrams also wrote several books, notably the 1953 publication "The Mirror and the Lamp," a groundbreaking work of literary theory that celebrated Byron, Keats and other British Romantic poets and popularized a field of study that emphasized how authors' lives and feelings influenced their work.

"The Mirror and the Lamp" was ranked No. 25 on a Modern Library list of the greatest English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.

In the years before VThe Mirror and the Lamp," the Romantics had been effectively denigrated by T.S. Eliot, who found Byron to have a "disorderly mind, and an uninteresting one" and believed Keats and Shelley "not nearly such great poets as they are supposed to be."

He valued reason and restraint, stating that a poem's meaning should be clear.

But Abrams countered that the Romantics changed and enriched the history of poetry by freeing the emotions and imagination. The Romantics broke from the ideal of capturing the real world (a mirror) and instead composed "lamps," illuminating the poet's personal vision.

"The first test any poem must pass is no longer, `Is it true to nature ...?' " Abrams wrote, "but a criterion looking in a different direction; namely, `Is it sincere? Is it genuine?' "

Abrams' other books included the influential social and political history "Natural Supernaturalism" and "The Milk of Paradise." In July 2012, the essay collection "The Fourth Dimension of a Poem" was published to mark his 100th birthday. In July 2014, he received a National Arts Medal for "expanding our perceptions of the Romantic tradition and broadening the study of literature."

Raised in New Jersey

A son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Meyer Howard Abrams was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. As a child, he spoke Yiddish until age 5 and loved reading so much he would borrow up to three books at a time from the library and then return the next day for more.

He was a scholarship student at Harvard University - and one of the few Jews then permitted at Harvard - and later won a scholarship to Cambridge University.

He joined the Cornell faculty in 1945 and established himself as the teacher of a popular introductory survey class, with students including such future literary stars as the novelist Thomas Pynchon (who submitted a term paper so accomplished that Abrams suspected - wrongly - it was plagiarized) and the critic Harold Bloom.

Known fondly to Bloom and others as "Mike" Abrams, he modeled his work for Norton on his literature course. At the time Abrams was commissioned for the anthology, each book a student read in many English departments "was treated as an object in itself, to be read and interpreted and admired independently of its historical setting," he told The Associated Press in 1999.

Abrams and his colleagues "believed that to understand literature you had to understand its place in history and culture."

Experimented with content, form

Abrams experimented with content and form. When he was an undergraduate at Harvard, anthologies were grim, square volumes with double-column printing on each page - printed as if the verses of Homer were no different from a table of prime numbers.

Abrams innovated with single columns and the kind of fine, thin paper used for high-priced Bibles, making the anthology portable. The preface of the first edition promised a volume that "can not only be carried everywhere, but read anywhere, in one's own private room, in the classroom, or under a tree."

The anthology was conceived when the canon was overwhelmingly white and male, but Abrams and his fellow editors opened up over the following decades, including women and "post-colonial" authors such as Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe and V.S. Naipaul.

Norton, meanwhile, issued numerous separate anthologies that included volumes on African-American writers, Latinos and nonfiction authors.

Abrams married Ruth Gaynes in 1937. They had two children.