Prodigious Prodigy

Faculty Profile

The Grand Old Men of Harvard, George Lyman Kittredge, John Livingston Lowes, Charles Townsend Copeland and Irving Babbitt, had been on the intellectual scene so long by the twenties that legends had grown up around each one of them. Into this sacrosanct atmosphere one fall came storming a brash, rebellious youngster fresh from a Minnespolis high school, who proceeded to impress many of these men almost as much as they impressed him, and to embark on a career which was already becoming legend before be had graduated. In his sophomore year be submitted a course essay on "Romantic Hellenism" to Irving Babbitt, who liked it so much that he encouraged him to enter it in the Bowdoin Prize competition. He not only won that but saw it published soon after by the Harvard University Press as The Broken Column. At the age of nineteen, Harry Levin had little competition as the youngest published critic in the country.

A couple of years later, when T. S. Eliot was lecturing at Harvard, Theodore Spencer showed him a Levin essay on the metaphysical poets which Eliot liked so much that he decided to publish it in his influential literary magazine, The Criterion.

Levin added to his own legend by several Herculean feats in other activities. During his senior year, for instance, he was managing a production of 'Sophocles' Philoctetes which the Classics Club (John Finley, President) was presenting, when their Odysseus became ill a few days before curtain time. Levin had never studied Greek in his life, but he somehow succeeded in memorizing the lengthy part, and the result, in Millman Perry's exuberant terms, was "the best performance of a Greek tragedy since the fifth century B. C."

Levin continued his astronomical rise after college with a Shaw Fellowship, which he used for study at the Sorbonne, and with his appointment, immediately afterwards to Harvard's newly organized Society of Fellows. Famous during this period for his fiery reviews in such liberal intellectual journals as The Nation and The New Republic, he had nevertheless restricted his scholarly endeavors, for the most part, to respectably antique subjects. When James Joyce published his last and longest book, however, Levin could not resist penning a review called "On First Looking Into Finnegans Wake." He was one of the first critics courageous enough to probe the obscurities of Joyce's "monomyth" and Joyce himself praised the review highly for its critical acumen.

Two years later, Levin had completed James Joyce, a book which served as the inspiration for New Directions' "Makers of Modern Literature" series, and which most scholars consider the best critical survey of Joyce's work as a whole yet written. He was then an Instructor in English, aged twenty-nine.

By that time he was already noted for the unusual breadth of his scholarship, which eventually ranged from such books as Ben Jonson and The Overreacher, a study of Christopher Marlowe, to Balzac, Flaubert, and Toward Stendhal. Appointed a full professor here in 1948 at the age of 36, Levin has taught courses varying from "Modern American Poetry," which he gave as a visiting professor at Tokyo University last summer, to "Shakespeare" and "Proust, Joyce and Mann."

Levin has also been able to advise and encourage many of the most promising younger writers in the Cambridge community. Richard Wilbur, for instance, dedicated his recent translation of Le Misanthrope to Levin. Robert Anderson, author of Tea and Sympathy, was a student of Levin and later a section man in his course on the Elizabethan drama, before leaving Cambridge to write the play. And Levin still remembers the day Robert Lowell, then a freshman in the College, came to him for advice as to whether or not he should transfer to Kenyon and John Crowe Ransom (which he eventually did). "The secret of advice," said Levin in commenting on Lowell's subsequent success, is simply to find out what a person really wants to do, and then to encourage him to go ahead."

More mature writers also ask for advice, but on more technical matters. Marianne Moore, for instance, consulted with him frequently while translating La Fontaine's Fables.

In the breadth of his intellectual interests Levin certainly resembles the teachers who have influenced him most, Alfred North Whitehead and, especially, Irving Babbitt. Babbitt's encyclopdic crudition provoked his students to make bets before lectures as to how many different authors he would refer to in the course of an hour, a custom which would not be out of place in Levin's courses. But Levin is still only at the mid-point of his career. Influenced by some of the greatest teachers in the Harvard tradition, a strong influence himself on some of the brightest students exposed to that tradition, he has only begun to make his contribution. It is as impressive a beginning, though as many men achieve in a lifetime.