Wimsatt, William K. (William Kurtz), 1907-1975

Alternative names
Birth 1907-11-17
Death 1975-12-17
English, German

Biographical notes:

William Kurtz Wimsatt: member of the Yale University English department, 1939-1975; Sterling Professor of English, 1974-1975; author of numerous books and articles; active in Catholic affairs and recipient of many awards and honorary degrees.

From the description of William Kurtz Wimsatt papers, 1935-1975 (inclusive). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702168270

William K. Wimsatt was born in Washington, D.C., and educated at Georgetown and at Yale, where he received his doctorate in English in 1939. Wimsatt specialized in eighteenth-century literature, and he spent his entire teaching career in the English Department at Yale, from 1939 until his death in 1975.

Wimsatt's scholarly publications include The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson (1941), Selected Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope (editor, 1951), Boswell for the Defense (editor, 1959), Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare (editor, 1960), The Portraits of Alexander Pope (1965), and Samuel Johnson: Selected Poetry and Prose (editor, with Frank Brady, 1978). He is perhaps best known, however, as co-author of The Verbal Icon (1954) with Monroe C. Beardsley. This work introduced the concepts of the "intentional fallacy" and the "affective fallacy" to a wide audience, and both quickly became central tenets of the New Criticism.

Wimsatt married Margaret Elizabeth Hecht in 1944, and the couple had two children. His hobbies included painting, playing chess, and collecting Native American artifacts. Wimsatt died in New Haven, Connecticut in 1975.

From the guide to the William K. Wimsatt Research Files on Alexander Pope and Art, [circa 1950-1970], (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

William Kurtz Wimsatt: member of the Yale University English department, 1939-1975; Sterling Professor of English, 1974-1975; author of numerous books and articles; active in Catholic affairs and recipient of many awards and honorary degrees.

William Kurtz Wimsatt, Jr., scholar, critic, and teacher of literature, was born on November 17, 1907, in Washington, D.C. From 1924 to 1929 he attended Georgetown University, where he earned his A.B., summa cum laude in 1928 and his M.A. in 1929. While studying at Georgetown Wimsatt contributed reviews, essays, poems, short stories, and translations to the Georgetown College Journal . He was on the staff from 1925 to 1928 and served as Managing Editor in 1928. 1

From 1929 to 1930 Wimsatt taught Latin at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. From 1930 to 1935 he served as Head of the English Department at Portsmouth Priory School, Rhode Island, where he taught both English and Latin. In 1935 Wimsatt served as an assistant instructor in English at Catholic University of America while doing graduate work in Medieval Latin, Old French, French literature, and English literature.

Wimsatt continued his graduate education at Yale University, where he studied Old English, English literature, and bibliography. His poem, Shapes from Dusk and Winter, I-XV, won the Yale University Cook Prize for Poetry in 1938. He received his Ph.D. in 1939. His doctoral dissertation, The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson, was written under the direction of Frederick A. Pottle and Chauncey B. Tinker and later published as Volume 94 of Yale Studies in English (1941). It announced a life-long interest in prose style.

After graduation Wimsatt joined the Yale University English Department faculty as an instructor. In 1943 he advanced to assistant professor, in 1949 to associate professor, and in 1955 to full professor. In 1965 he became the first Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of English. In 1974 he was named Sterling Professor of English.

Wimsatt was active in many learned organizations. He served as Chairman of the English Institute (1954) and edited three volumes of Institute essays: English Stage Comedy (1965), Explication as Criticism (1963), and Literary Criticism: Idea and Act (1974). He served on the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association (1955-1958) and edited Versification: Major Language Types: Sixteen Essays (1972) for the Association. He was President of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences (1969-1970). He served on the College Section Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English and as Chairman of the Executive Committee for the Catholic Committee on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs. He was also involved with many scholarly journals and editions. He was a consultant to the Catholic Renascence Society (publishers of Renascence ), an advisor to the Yale Edition of the Private Papers of James Boswell, and a member of the Editorial Committee for the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson; he also lent his name and support to less well-known publications, for example, Style and Concerning Poetry .

During his career Wimsatt received many honors. He held a Guggenheim Fellowship (1946-1947) and a Ford Foundation Fellowship from the Fund for the Advancement of Education (1953-1954). From Georgetown he received the John Carroll Award (1957) and the Alumni Association Educator's Testimonial. The National Council of Catholic Men cited him, along with three other men, for "intellectual excellence" (1963). In 1965 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received honorary degrees from Villanova University (1962), the University of Notre Dame (1963), St. Louis University (1964), LeMoyne College (1965), and Kenyon College (1970). On his sixty-fifth birthday former students and colleagues published Literary Theory and Structure: Essays in Honor of William K. Wimsatt (1973).

Wimsatt was an eminent scholar of eighteenth-century English literature. After his dissertation on Johnson, he wrote two more books on eighteenth-century subjects: Philosophic Words: A Study of Style and Meaning in the Preamble and Dictionary of Samuel Johnson (1948) and The Portraits of Alexander Pope (1965). He edited Alexander Pope: Selected Poetry & Prose (1951) and Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare (1960). He co-edited Boswell for the Defence, 1769-1774 (1959) with F. A. Pottle and Samuel Johnson: Selected Poetry and Prose (1977) with Frank Brady. In addition he wrote numerous articles on eighteenth-century subjects, such as "One Relation of Rhyme to Reason: Alexander Pope" (1941), "Rhetoric and Poems: The Example of Pope" (1949), "The Augustan Mode in English Poetry" (1953), "In Praise of Rasselas : Four Notes (Converging)" (1968), "Imitation as Freedom, 1717-1798" (1970), and "Belinda Ludens: Strife and Play in The Rape of the Lock" (1972).

Wimsatt wrote on a variety of subjects outside the eighteenth century. He produced several articles on Edgar Allan Poe, two on T.S. Eliot, and one on chess problems. His interest in prosody led him to collaborate with Monroe C. Beardsley on "The Concept of Meter: An Exercise in Abstraction" (1959). To answer the questions raised by their initial article they wrote: "On the Objectivity of Meter" (1962) and "Rhythm and 'Exercises in Abstraction'" (1962). Wimsatt further clarified his theory of prosody in "The Rule and the Norm: Halle and Keyser on Chaucer's Meter" (1970). Wimsatt's interest in comedy as a special problem for the literary theorist led him to edit The Idea of Comedy: Essays in Prose and Verse: Ben Johnson to George Meredith (1969).

Wimsatt died of a heart attack on December 17, 1975.


1. This information on Wimsatt's involvement with the Journal comes from an unpublished essay by Frank Mita. The essay, written for an undergraduate American Studies Seminar at Georgetown, discusses whether Wimsatt's college writings foreshadow his later critical writings. The essay also provides an interesting portrait of Georgetown in the 1920's. In a supplement to the essay Mita discusses a visit he had with Wimsatt in March, 1975. For a copy of the essay, supplement, and some correspondence, including a list of Wimsatt's contributions to the Journal, see: Series V, SUBJECT FILES, Frank Mita.

2. René Wellek, "The Literary Theory of William K. Wimsatt," The Yale Review, 64 (Winter, 1977), pp. 178-179. The article provides an excellent survey of Wimsatt's contribution as a literary theorist.

From the guide to the William Kurtz Wimsatt papers, 1935-1975, (Manuscripts and Archives)


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  • Literature--History and criticism
  • English drama--History and criticism
  • Versification
  • Authors, English--18th century--Portraits
  • English literature
  • Criticism
  • Poetry


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