Obituary: Professor Kenneth Neill Cameron
Saturday 26 March 1994
KENNETH NEILL CAMERON was one of the 20th century's leading authorities on the works of Shelley and other important figures in the history of English
Cameron sought to place literature within history. He advocated the study of manuscript evidence, and urged the careful examination of the political and social context in which Romantic poetry was rooted. His prize-winning biography The Young Shelley: genesis of a radical (1950) changed the course of Shelley studies in the United States. This scrupulous account of the growth of a poet's mind restored Shelley's reputation, which had been clouded for decades by the charges of the New Critics, who had branded both his poetry and his ideas as
Publication of the biography brought Cameron to the attention of Carl H. Pforzheimer, a successful investment banker whose great library of English literature included extensive manuscript holdings related to Shelley. At Pforzheimer's request, Cameron left a professorship at the University of Indiana in 1952 to become the editor of Shelley and His Circle.
The first four volumes of this continuing series, published under Cameron's direction in 1961 and 1970, set new standards for Romantic textual scholarship and featured the results of exhaustive research into the lives and works of Shelley, Mary Shelley, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Love Peacock, Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, among others.
Cameron resumed his teaching career at New York University in 1963, remaining in the English Department there until 1975 when he became Professor Emeritus. The year before he retired he published Shelley: the golden years, a study of the poet's mature work that became a pendant to his earlier biography. McGill University had conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1971, and in 1978 his students and colleagues celebrated his accomplishments with a festschrift. The Keats-Shelley Association of America awarded him its first Distinguished Scholar Award in 1982.
Born in England at Barrow-in- Furness, Kenneth Cameron emigrated to Canada with his family when he was five. He received a degree from McGill University in 1931, and then took a BA and a BLitt at Pembroke College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin in 1939.
It was at Oxford that Cameron first developed his interest in Shelley. He dismissed the prevailing image of the poet as an 'ineffectual angel', choosing instead to follow George Bernard Shaw's example by taking the challenge of Shelley's social message seriously. Later, at the University of Wisconsin, he drew inspiration from the philosophical radicalism of his mentor, William Ellery Leonard.
Cameron shared Shelley's passion for reforming the world and his vision of a Utopian society that would be 'Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless, / Exempt from awe, worship, degree'. The most distinguished of his books reflecting this political commitment was a Marxist study, Humanity and Society: a world history, the fruit of many years' research that was published in 1973. Other titles included Marx and Engels Today: modern dialogue on philosophy and history (1976), Marxism, the Science of Society: an introduction (1985), and Stalin: man of contradiction (1987).
Other writings reflected different passions, as well as his wry take on a less than perfect world. In Poems for Lovers and Rebels (1977) he collected social and personal poetry written over almost four decades. In The Enormous Turtle (1954), a pseudonymous account of a trailer trip across the United States, he thinly fictionalised the misadventures of a recognisably vague professor, his energetic wife, an unnamed Baby, and a Scotch deerhound. Cameron dedicated the book to an uncle who was hanged; a reviewer noted that he 'regarded this relative with a certain amount of envy'.
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