M. H. Abrams

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Meyer Howard Abrams
Born (1912-07-23) July 23, 1912 (age 102)
Long Branch, New Jersey
Nationality American
Other names Mike Abrams
Occupation Literary critic
Known for The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Mirror and the Lamp

Meyer (Mike) Howard Abrams (born July 23, 1912), usually cited as M. H. Abrams, is an American literary critic, known for works on Romanticism, in particular his book The Mirror and the Lamp. Under Abrams' editorship, the Norton Anthology of English Literature became the standard text for undergraduate survey courses across the U.S. and a major trendsetter in literary canon formation.


Abrams was born the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Long Branch, New Jersey.[1] The son of a house painter and the first in his family to go to college, he entered Harvard University as an undergraduate in 1930. He went into English because, he says, "there weren't jobs in any other profession, so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn't enjoy." After earning his baccalaureate in 1934, Abrams won a Henry fellowship to the University of Cambridge, where his tutor was I.A. Richards. He returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935 and received his Masters' degree in 1937 and his PhD in 1940. During World War II, he served at the Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory at Harvard. He describes his work as solving the problem of voice communications in a noisy military environment by establishing military codes that are highly audible and inventing selection tests for personnel who had a superior ability to recognize sound in a noisy background. In 1945 Abrams became a professor at Cornell University. The literary critics Harold Bloom and E. D. Hirsch, and the novelist Thomas Pynchon were among his students.[1][2] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963.[3] As of March 4, 2008, he was Class of 1916 Professor of English Emeritus there.[4]

His wife of 71 years, Ruth, predeceased him in 2008.[5] He turned 100 in July 2012.[6]

The Mirror and the Lamp[edit]

In a powerful contrast, Abrams shows that until the Romantics, literature was usually understood as a mirror, reflecting the real world, in some kind of mimesis; but for the Romantics, writing was more like a lamp: the light of the writer's inner soul spilled out to illuminate the world.

Classification of literary theories[edit]

The classification used by Abrams

Literary theories, Abrams argues, can be divided into four main groups:

  • Mimetic Theories (interested in the relationship between the Work and the Universe)
  • Pragmatic Theories (interested in the relationship between the Work and the Audience)
  • Expressive Theories (interested in the relationship between the Work and the Artist)
  • Objective Theories (interested in close reading of the Work)



  1. ^ a b "The Last Critic Turns 100" by Adam Kirsch
  2. ^ "M.H. Abrams continues his labors (of love)". News.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  3. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 20 March 2011. 
  4. ^ See article in the Cornell Chronicle.
  5. ^ http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/theithacajournal/obituary.aspx?n=ruth-abrams&pid=119416918#fbLoggedOut
  6. ^ Seely, Hart (2012-07-23). "The man behind the Norton Anthology of English Literature is turning 100 today". The Post-Standard (Advance Publications). Retrieved 2012-07-23. 


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