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American Literary, Cultural Historian Quentin Anderson Dies at Age 90

Quentin Anderson

Quentin Anderson, Columbia professor emeritus and American literary and cultural historian, died on February 18 at age 90, in his home in New York City, of heart failure.

Anderson was the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, where he spent more than 40 years before retiring in 1981.

Anderson began teaching in Columbia's English department in 1939. He was named full professor in 1961 and appointed the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities in 1978. Anderson served as the departmental representative of the department of English in Columbia College from 1961 to 1969. He chaired the Joint Committee of Disciplinary Affairs, following campus disturbances in the spring of 1968.

He was granted a senior fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1973-74 and was a fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1979-80.

His decades of service to Columbia involved the instruction of thousands of students. A wry student course guide once described him as "the most pompous, friendly man on the Columbia campus," an epithet that captured his personality's mix of profound, sometimes inscrutable intellection with a heart-felt interest in his students.

Born in 1912 in Minnewaukan, N.D., the son of playwright Maxwell Anderson, Anderson came to literary criticism in the 1940s. He went on study at Columbia College with Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, and was a noted critic of the author Henry James. He received his B.A. from Columbia in 1937, M.A. from Harvard in 1945 and his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1953.

Among his published works are "The American Henry James" (1957), "The Imperial Self" (1971) and "Making Americans" (1992). His essays and review have appeared in The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement and numerous journals.

Anderson spent his formative years in New York, as his father moved among the worlds of journalism, Hollywood and the Broadway stage. During the Depression, Anderson's colorful life included stints as a grease monkey, grave-digger, and self-described spear-carrier at the rear of the stage as Helen Hayes starred up front.

A childhood accident kept him from military service in World War II, during which time he served in the civilian defense in Rockland County. A first marriage to Margaret Pickett ended in divorce. He married Thelma Ehrlich in 1947.

His research on primary figures in 19th century American literature focused on defining the particulars of American identity, both separate from and connected with European antecedents. He was an authority on Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.

Anderson is survived by his wife, Thelma Anderson; children Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum in New York; Abraham Anderson, faculty member at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Martha Anderson, artist in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and grandson, Chase Anderson.

There will be a private family service, followed by a memorial service at St. Paul's Chapel, on Saturday, March 22, at 10:00 a.m.

Published: Feb 25, 2003
Last modified: Feb 28, 2003

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