Blackmur, Richard P.

Blackmur, Richard P. (1904-1965), became one of America's foremost literary critics -- and one of Princeton's most distinguished professors -- without the benefit of an academic degree. During the years after his graduation from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, High and Latin School, he worked in a Cambridge bookstore and sat in on lectures at Harvard, but he did not become a candidate for a degree, choosing to attend, in fellow critic Leon Edel's words, ``the school of his own bold intelligence.'' He began his literary career as a regular contributor to The Hound and Horn, one of the earliest and most influential of America's ``little magazines.'' In 1935 the publication of his first volume of essays, The Double Agent, marked the beginning of what was to become known as the New Criticism, a school of criticism that revolutionized the teaching of literature in American universities by directing the student's attention to a close analysis of the language of literary works.

The independence that permitted Blackmur to develop his talents outside the framework of a formal college education was also at the center of his writing, with its ``avoidance of academic stereotypes'' -- one of the virtues singled out for mention by his colleague Allen Tate, whose recommendation brought Blackmur to Princeton in 1940 to help conduct Dean Christian Gauss's Creative Arts Program. The same independence characterized his twenty-five year teaching career at Princeton. A faculty tribute prepared by Professors Edward T. Cone, Alan S. Downer, and Edmund L. Keeley described Blackmur as a man who provided ``a constant challenge to both intellect and imagination,'' a challenge available to any colleague, student, or friend; those who chose to accept the challenge ``became participants in a continuing conversation.'' According to these associates, Blackmur's ``informal talk produced a comprehensive body of criticism,'' and displayed an immense range of knowledge ``coupled with a profound but simple wisdom, a `natural piety' that rooted his critical constructions, no matter how elaborate or abstruse, in his native New England soil.''

Blackmur himself may have best defined the power that made him a memorable teacher. ``Only those have force,'' he once wrote in reference to Dean Gauss, ``who know it is not theirs unless it is given to others.'' Students who took his courses in poetry, literary criticism, and creative writing have testified to his success in conveying his own gift of force, perhaps most appropriately in the words of one who wrote, ``If I were to tell the truth, next time I'm asked `Where do you come from?' I'd say, `I come from R. P. Blackmur.'''

His literary reputation was based on his poetry as well as his criticism. The first of his three books of poetry, From Jordan's Delight, was praised by Allen Tate as ``one of the most distinguished volumes of verse in the first half of the century,'' and his six collections of criticism, in the estimate of the Kenyon Review, made him one of the two or three contemporary critics ``likely to endure.'' His critical range took him from the studies of modern poetry in his first book to the discussions of politics and the cold war in later works like The Lion and the Honeycomb. He lectured frequently here and abroad, and enjoyed the distinction of being the first man of letters to hold the Pitt Professorship of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University. He was Princeton's first Hodder Fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, vice-president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Fellow in American Letters at the Library of Congress.

Blackmur conceived and found the necessary financial support for the Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism in 1949, and directed them from 1957 to 1965. According to one participant, English critic-novelist Alfred Alvarez, ``they turned out to be the brightest intellectual happenings in Princeton.'' At impromptu parties after each seminar, Alvarez wrote, ``Blackmur . . . would argue in fierce, sidelong bursts and with obvious enjoyment far into the night.'' Professors Cone, Downer, and Keeley concluded their tribute to Blackmur with this commentary on the seminars, which they called ``one of his enduring legacies to the University:

``Once a colleague was asked, `What is the real purpose of the Gauss Seminars?' He replied, `They make it possible for Blackmur to talk with his friends.' Many would have considered this justification enough.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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