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August 22, 1903
|Died||November 11, 1995
René Wellek (August 22, 1903 – November 11, 1995) was a Czech-American comparative literary critic. Like Erich Auerbach, Wellek was an eminent product of the Central European philological tradition and was known as a vastly erudite and "fair-minded critic of critics."
René Wellek was born and raised in Vienna, speaking Czech and German. He studied literature at the Charles University in Prague, and was active among the Prague School linguists there, before moving to teach at London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1935; the School is now part of UCL. His younger brother Albert Wellek (1904-1972) was one of the founders of musical psychology and lived in Germany. Before 1939, Wellek published some 60 items, all written in Czech.
From 1939, the beginning of World War II in Europe, Wellek lived in America. He taught first at the University of Iowa for seven years until 1946, and then, beginning in that year, at Yale University, where he established and chaired a department of comparative literature. In the United States, he was "widely regarded as a founder of the study of comparative literature." With Austin Warren, Wellek published a landmark volume entitled Theory of Literature, one of the first works to systematize literary theory.
Beginning in the 1960s, Wellek defended the New Critics against the condemnation of their work in the name of a structuralist-influenced literary theory, and is thus sometimes classed as a conservative critic. In actuality, Wellek advocated a synthesized approach to literary criticism, one that included 1) literary theory, 2) a careful study of previous works of criticism, and 3) a thorough understanding of the surrounding history involved in an author's creation of a work including the author's personal history and the societal millieu out of which a work is created. Any approach that elevated one of these three pillars above the other as being more important or relevant for use in criticizing a given work would itself be in error. Instead, Wellek asserted that the best literary critic must "do what every scientist and scholar does: to isolate his object, in our case, the literary work of art, to contemplate it intently, to analyze, to interpret, and finally to evaluate it by criteria derived from, verified by, buttressed by, as wide a knowledge, as close an observation, as keen a sensibility, as honest a judgment as we can command." Only by bringing all of literary theory, criticism, and history to bear upon the evaluation of a literary work of art can a critic hope to achieve a "victory over impermanence, relativity, and history."
The crowning work of Wellek's career was an eight-volume magnum opus entitled A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, the last two volumes of which he dictated from his bed in a nursing home at age 90.
Wellek married twice.
- Immanuel Kant in England 1793-1838, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1931.
- The Rise of English Literary History, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1941.
- Literature and Ideas, Charlottesville: The University of Virginia, 1948.
- Theory of Literature (with Austin Warren), New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1949.
- A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, New Haven: Yale UP, 1955-1992. (8 Volumes)
- Dostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962. (Introduction pp. 1–15; Anthology)
- Concepts of Criticism, Ed. Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963. (Collection of Wellek essays)
- Essays on Czech Literature, The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1963.
- Confrontations: Studies in the Intellectual and Literary Relations between Germany, England, and the United States during the Nineteenth Century, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1965.
- The Literary Theory and Aesthetics of the Prague School, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1969.
- Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism, New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.
- Evidence in Literary Scholarship: Essays in Memory of James Marshall Osborn, (with Alvaro Ribeiro) Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979. (Anthology)
- Four Critics: Croce, Valéry, Lukács, and Ingarden, Seattle: Washington UP, 1981.
- Chekhov: New Perspectives (Twentieth Century Views), (with Nonna D. Wellek) Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1981. (Anthology)
- The Attack on Literature and Other Essays, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982. (Collection of Wellek essays)
- Robert McG. Thomas Jr., "René Wellek, 92, a Professor of Comparative Literature, Dies," New York Times (November 16, 1995).
- Wellek, René. Concepts of Criticism ed. S. G. Nichols, Jr. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1963, p. 365.
- Wellek, René. Concepts of Criticism ed. S. G. Nichols, Jr. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1963, p. 2 and p. 20. Reprint of "Literary Theory, Criticism, and History," English Studies Today, 2nd ser., ed. G. A. Bonnard (Bern, Francke Verlag, 1961) pp. 53-65.
- ibid. p 17.
- ibid p. 20.
- Wellek obituary
- Champion, Rafe (Winter 1996). "Rene Wellek - premier scholar of literature". Retrieved 2009-02-16.
- Yeghiayan, Eddie. "René Wellek: A Bibliography". Regents of the University of California. Retrieved 2011-08-26.
- Yeghiayan, Eddie. "Special Issues of Journals on René Wellek". Regents of the University of California. Retrieved 2009-02-16.[dead link]
- Guide to the René Wellek Papers. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
- On Nature of Literature from the Theory of Literature