Edward Wagenknecht

Scholar bookman of Victorian productivity

Edward Wagenknecht was the last surviving great scholar bookman to be born at the end of the Victorian era. He wrote two seminal works on the English and American novel, and a long line of critical literary biographies from 1929 to 1994. As a regular filmgoer from the earliest days of the cinema, he was also a prominent champion of American silent movies.



Edward Charles Wagenknecht, writer, teacher and critic: born Chicago 28 March 1900; Professor of English, Boston University 1947-65 (Emeritus); married 1932 Dorothy Arnold (three sons); died St Albans, Vermont 24 May 2004.



Edward Wagenknecht was the last surviving great scholar bookman to be born at the end of the Victorian era. He wrote two seminal works on the English and American novel, and a long line of critical literary biographies from 1929 to 1994. As a regular filmgoer from the earliest days of the cinema, he was also a prominent champion of American silent movies.

His grandparents emigrated in 1868 from Germany to Chicago, building a large redbrick family house in California Street where Edward was born in 1900. He decided to become a writer at the age of six after reading L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, which always remained one of his favourite books and the subject of his early monograph Utopia Americana (1929). He observed: "Someday we may have better American fairy tales, but that will not be until America is a better place."

He attended the High School in Oak Farm, Illinois, where Ernest Hemingway was a classmate, and in 1917 became one of the future novelist's first literary characters as a famous baseball player, in the classbook number of the school's Tabula magazine, an ironic observation satirising Wagenknecht's utter indifference to all sports and games.

Wagenknecht graduated from Chicago University with an MA in 1924, and received his PhD while teaching at the University of Washington eight years later. He later taught at Illinois Institute of Technology and at Boston University, where he became Professor of English in 1947, elevated to Professor Emeritus on his extended "retirement" in 1965.

He began reviewing books regularly in the Atlantic Monthly and the Yale Review in his early twenties. Two important early works were Values in Literature (1928), intended for college sophomores, and A Guide to Bernard Shaw (1929).

Under the influence of Gamaliel Bradford, Wagenknecht developed the "psychography" method, the style of biography organised topically rather than chronologically, concentrating throughout on the subject's character and personality. His first major biography, The Man Charles Dickens: a Victorian portrait (1929), was introduced by Bradford. Two years later Wagenknecht successfully persuaded Arthur Rackham to illustrate Dickens's Christmas tale The Chimes for the Limited Editions Club.

His next biography, Jenny Lind (1931), was inspired by a family tradition from the time his grandmother first heard the "Swedish Nightingale" sing in Germany. Among his many more similarly crafted biographies were studies of Mark Twain ( Mark Twain: the man and his work, 1935), Nathaniel Hawthorne ( Nathaniel Hawthorne: man and writer, 1961), Washington Irving ( Washington Irving: moderation displayed, 1962), Edgar Allan Poe ( Edgar Allan Poe: the man behind the legend, 1963), Harriet Beecher Stowe ( Harriet Beecher Stowe: the known and the unknown, 1965), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ( Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: portrait of a humanist, 1966), John Greenleaf Whittier ( John Greenleaf Whittier: a portrait in paradox, 1967), William Dean Howells ( William Dean Howells: the friendly eye, 1968), Ralph Waldo Emerson ( Ralph Waldo Emerson: portrait of a balanced soul, 1974), three works on Henry James, and a further series exploring the "personality" of writers, Chaucer (1968), Milton (1970) and Shakespeare (1972).

Wagenknecht's two largest and best-known literary tomes were Cavalcade of the English Novel (1943) and Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952), both undertaken with the participation of many living writers including Ernest Hemingway and H.G. Wells.

He championed many British writers such as Walter de la Mare and Marjorie Bowen in As Far as Yesterday (1968) and Seven Masters of Supernatural Fiction (1991), and edited many best-selling anthologies, notably The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories, When I Was a Child and The Story of Jesus in the World's Literature, all published in 1946.

He also wrote two historical novels, both published in Britain under the pseudonym "Julian Forrest", Nine Before Fotheringhay (1966) on Mary Queen of Scots, and The Glory of the Lilies (1969) on Joan of Arc.

Wagenknecht was an extremely methodical scholar, with innumerable slips of paper neatly filed and organised in shoeboxes. He never worked in the evenings, always preferring to watch films instead. Two of his earliest publications were tributes to gifted actresses in D.W. Griffith's company, Clarine Seymour (1920) and Lillian Gish (1927), and half a century later he collaborated with Anthony Slide on The Films of D.W. Griffith (1975).

Wagenknecht's The Movies in the Age of Innocence (1962) was an important contribution to the steadily growing revival of interest in silent films, and brought him more feedback and mail than anything else he had ever written. Fondly remembering his delight while seeing all these movies at various film theatres along Ocean Avenue, California, in the 1908-18 years of his boyhood, he recalled that "it was the simulation of life itself - the sheer wonder of motion that caught and enthralled me, and it is impossible for any youngster of today really to understand how marvellous that was".

He also paid homage to his favourite actresses, from Ellen Terry to Marilyn Monroe, in Seven Daughters of the Theater (1964), praised by the Antiquarian Bookman as "A long love letter . . . by a wonderfully stage-struck scholar" . This was followed in 1966 by a companion volume on eight actors (including Garrick, Kean and Irving) called Merely Players. His essay "The House of Dreams" centred on the Chicago theatre of his childhood, and how the same generation of Americans made their contact with drama.

Wagenknecht befriended Geraldine Farrar, the great operatic star who curiously became a silent movie heroine in the Cecil B. de Mille spectaculars Carmen and Joan the Woman, and wrote Geraldine Farrar: the authorized record of her career, published as a signed limited edition in 1929, and now a rare collector's item.

His last published book was Willa Cather (1994), a study of the novelist.

Richard Dalby

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