Robert B. Heilman

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[Photo: Robert B. Heilman]
  Robert B. Heilman. Photo courtesy of the Special Collection Division, UW Libraries

Before Robert B. Heilman joined the UW faculty as chair of the English department in 1948, the department was best known through the work of two earlier scholars and chairs, Vernon Louis Parrington (see Vernon Louis Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought) and Frederick Morgan Padelford. By the late 1940s, the majority of the faculty were former students of these two, and the UW administration began the sort of change that over the next decades would give national stature to the UW.

Heilman joined the department with five other "outside" appointments, including poet Theodore Roethke (see Poet Theodore Roethke); but because Heilman had been the colleagues at Louisiana State University of the leaders in a school of thought called "New American Criticism," footnote 1 many at the UW assumed he had been brought in to "new-criticize" a department whose previous distinction had been through more traditional literary historicism.

During his more than two decades as chair, the department achieved national distinction for the quality and diversity of its scholarship and teaching. The faculty of the 1950s and 1960s maintained great strength in fields of American and English literature by the contributions of such scholars as Arnold Stein, a nationally-respected Miltonist; Andrew Hilen, editor of the six-volume edition of the Longfellow letters; Edward Alexander, the author of several volumes about 19th century literature; James W. Hall, author of three critical volumes on 20th-century literature. Following the death of Roethke in 1963, poets David Wagoner (see Poetry Northwest) and Nelson Bentley and a series of distinguished visitors kept the Northwest school of poetry prominent. Continuing today are the annual Theodore Roethke readings and the publication of Poetry Northwest (see Poetry Northwest). By the time Heilman completed his service as chairman in 1971, the department had hired new faculty from more than 30 graduate schools, and UW graduates were employed by at least that many other colleges and universities.

Heilman has remained active professionally in the two decades since his retirement, and he sets a high scholarly standard both in the stature and breadth of his interests. He is the author of nine volumes of critical works: on Shakespeare, on dramatic forms, and on prose fiction. He edited 12 volumes which served as textbooks in many departments across the country. They include three Hardy novels, a Swift, a Conrad, a collection of modern short stories, a collection of pre-Shakespeare plays, two Shakespeare plays, and, with Yale professor Cleanth Brooks, a book called Understanding Drama, which enjoyed considerable success as a textbook.

Two 1991 volumes are collections of essays on a variety of topics. The Southern Connection contains essays about the South based on his experience while living and teaching in Louisiana from 1935 to 1948. The volume opens with an account of events that occurred on the seventh day that Heilman and his wife were in Baton Rouge, when at a meeting of the Louisiana State legislature, U.S. Senator Huey Long was fatally wounded. The other volume published in 1991, entitled The Workings of Fiction, analyzes various English, American, and European novels.

Two of Heilman's writings provide genial local and personal history. The Charliad is a light-verse tribute to his long-time friend, UW President Charles Odegaard, on the occasion of Odegaard's retirement in 1973.

"Football: An Addict's Memoirs and Observations" (Journal of Popular Culture) became for Heilman an ongoing fiction, sometimes played at the level of melodrama. Notes Richard J. Dunn, Divisional Dean for Humanities, College of Arts and Sciences:

even when describing some of the pre-glory years at Washington, Heilman confessed that the 'aesthete and partisan are not wholly separable. It is painful to see the graces regularly conjoined to unfriendly power,' and readers of Heilman's lucid and persuasive prose must acknowledge that in his work grace prevails.

  1. A movement beginning after World War I with the critical works of modern poets and critics, such as T. S. Eliot and John Crowe Ransom, which focuses on close reading and interpreting of individual texts as opposed to studying the history, ideology, philosophy or other factors that shape literary experience. The movement shaped the general development of educational programs in literature in the U.S. See for example the essay on "New Criticism" in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, Ed. by Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.
  2. Special thanks to Richard L. Lorenzen, Leroy Searle, and Richard J. Dunn for assistance in preparing this vignette.

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