Wellek, René, 1903-1995

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René Wellek was an influential literary critic and theorist known for his pioneering work in the field of comparative literature. He taught at numerous institutions throughout his career, including Yale and the University of Iowa. Best known for his works Theory of Literature and A History of Modern Criticism, he was an advocate of the "intrinsic" literary critical method, which rejects the political and social influences on works of literature and stresses the content of the work itself.

Wellek was born in in Vienna, Austria on August 22, 1903 to a Czech father, Bronislav Wellek, and an Italian-born mother, Gabriele von Zelewski. Though Wellek spent much of his early childhood in Vienna, where his father was a lawyer in the Finance Ministry of the Austrian government, the family moved to Prague in 1919, following the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a child, Wellek was given a classical education emphasizing Greek, Latin, and history. His cosmopolitan upbringing, however, forced him to master many languages besides his native German, including Czech, French, Italian, and English.

In 1922, Wellek entered Charles University (the Czech University of Prague) where he studied first Germanic philology under Professors Josef Janko, Arnost Kraus, and Otokar Fisher, before shifting his focus to English literature. Wellek traveled to England for the first time in 1924 to work on his thesis entitled "Thomas Carlyle and Romanticism," under the direction of Vilem Mathesius at Prague. Two years later, at age 23, he received his doctorate.

Following his graduation, Wellek taught English in Prague until he received a Proctor Fellowship at Princeton University from the Institute of International Education. He remained in the United States for two years, teaching German at Smith College and then modern languages at Princeton. While traveling back to Prague, Wellek stopped in England to study at the British Museum. He discovered manuscript evidence that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had paraphrased and translated large passages from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. His research there led to his first major work, Immanuel Kant in England, published in 1931. Returning to Prague in 1930, Wellek began teaching at Charles University as a Privatdozent, or unestablished professor. He married Olga Brodska, an elementary school teacher, in 1932. They had one child, and remained married until her death in 1967.

As a Privatdozent at Charles University, Wellek taught elementary English, lectured for his now near-blind mentor Vilem Mathesius, and participated in the Prague Linguistic Circle. 1935, he secured a lectureship in Czech Language and Literature at the University of London's School of Slavonic Studies funded by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Education. While in England, Wellek gave over eighty lectures to British societies to help counteract German propaganda. He remained at the University of London until his salary was cut off when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. Unable to return to Prague, Wellek obtained an initial one-year appointment at the University of Iowa in the English department where he stayed until 1941. While at Iowa, he collaborated with Austin Warren on one of his best known works, Theory of Literature, which was published in 1945.

Like many others, Wellek's traditional academic career was briefly interrupted by World War II. From 1943-1944, he served as director of a program to train interpreters for the U.S. Army. He became an American citizen in 1949.

Having gained considerable notoriety in the United States, Wellek was hired by Yale University in 1946. During his time at Yale, he served as Professor of English, Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature, and finally Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature in 1952. In 1968, Wellek married Nonna Dolodarenko Shaw, a professor of Russian literature. They remained married until his death.

Wellek was active in a variety of professional organizations throughout his career, including the Modern Language Association, and the Czechoslovakia Society of Arts and Sciences in America. He was president of the International Comparative Literature Association and the American Comparative Literature Association. He was also a founding member of the editorial board for the journal Comparative Literature.

Though Wellek retired in 1972, he continued to write into nineties. He continued to work, for example, on his eight volume, analytic survey A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 into his retirement, eventually dictating the last two volumes while in a nursing-home. Wellek died in Hamden, Connecticut on November 10, 1995.

Several of Wellek's students, including Murray Krieger, went on to become prominent members of the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. The Wellek Library Lecture Series, an annual critical theory event, was named in his honor.

Wellek died in Connecticut on November 10, 1995.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Foerster, Norman, 1887-1972. Norman Foerster papers, 1907-1965. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Lienhard Bergel Papers, 1928-1995 Columbia University. Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Józef Wittlin correspondence and compositions, 1940-1976. Houghton Library
referencedIn Glauco Cambon Papers., undated, 1940-1987. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Center.
referencedIn William Kurtz Wimsatt papers, 1935-1975 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Thompson, S. mss., 1911-1976 Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
referencedIn Harry Levin papers Houghton Library
referencedIn James Marshall Osborn correspondence, 1928-1977 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
creatorOf Warren, Austin, 1899-1986. Papers, 1922-1986. Brown University Archives, John Hay Library
referencedIn Clarence Louis Frank Gohdes Papers, and undated, bulk, 1811-1990s, 1905-1981 David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
referencedIn George Warren Arms collection, 1848-1988 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
creatorOf René Wellek papers, ca. 1930-1996 University of California, Irvine. Library. Department of Special Collections
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950. 1955. University of California, Irvine. Library. Department of Special Collections
Relation Name
associatedWith Arms, George Warren, 1912- person
associatedWith Bergel, Lienhard, 1905-1987 person
correspondedWith Cambon, Glauco. person
associatedWith Foerster, Norman, 1887-1972. person
associatedWith Gohdes, Clarence, 1901 person
correspondedWith Levin, Harry, 1912-1994 person
associatedWith Osborn, James Marshall. person
associatedWith Ramsey, Warren, 1914- person
correspondedWith Thompson, Stith, 1885- person
associatedWith University of California, Irvine. Library. Department of Special Collections corporateBody
honoredBy University of California, Irvine. Wellek Library lectures at the University of California, Irvine corporateBody
associatedWith Warren, Austin, 1899-1986. person
associatedWith Warren, Robert Penn, 1905-1989 person
associatedWith Wellek, Nonna D., person
associatedWith Wellek, Nonna D., former owner. person
associatedWith Wimsatt, William K. (William Kurtz), 1907-1975. person
correspondedWith Wittlin, Józef, 1896- person
associatedWith Yale University. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Vienna 09 AT
Hamden CT US
Czechoslovakia 00 CZ
Comparative literature
Critical theory
Literary criticism
Literary critics


Birth 1903-08-22

Death 1995-11-11





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