Helen Vendler

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Helen Vendler
BornApril 30, 1933
AwardsAmerican Academy of Arts and Letters, 1993
Academic background
Alma materEmmanuel College (AB)
Harvard University (PhD)
Academic work
InstitutionsHarvard University
Boston University
Cornell University
Swarthmore College
Smith College
Main interestsPoetry, poetics, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney

Helen Hennessy Vendler (born April 30, 1933) is an American literary critic and is Porter University Professor Emerita at Harvard University.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Helen Hennessy Vendler was born on April 30, 1933, in Boston, Massachusetts, to George Hennessy and Helen née Newman Hennessy.[2]: 399  She was the second of three children.[3] Her parents encouraged her to read poems as a child. Vendler's father taught Spanish, French, and Italian at a high school, while her mother had taught in a primary school before marriage.[3][4][5] Vendler attended Emmanuel College over the Boston Girls' Latin School and Radcliffe College because her parents would not let her enroll in "secular education".[4][5] She received an A. B. from Emmanuel.[2]: 399 

Vendler was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, attending the Université catholique de Louvain from 1954 to 1955,[2]: 399  for mathematics. But while traveling to the university, she decided that she would rather study English than math and the Fulbright commission allowed her to switch her focus to literature. Upon returning to the U.S., Vendler took 12 undergraduate courses in English at Boston University in a year and in 1956 entered Harvard University as a graduate student in English. The department's chair told her within a week of entry that "we don't want any women here", while Perry Miller refused her entry in a seminar he led on Herman Melville despite viewing her as his "finest student", according to The New York Times. Other Harvard professors offered her more support, notably I. A. Richards. Vendler was offered a job teaching in Harvard's English department in 1959, making her the first woman the department offered a job as an instructor. She declined.[4]

Vendler graduated with a Ph.D. in English and American literature the next year.[3] She began teaching English at Cornell University in 1960,[2]: 399  after her husband at the time, Zeno Vendler, moved to teach there.[4] She left Cornell in 1963 and spent several years at various other institutions, including a year (1963-1964) teaching at Haverford College and Swarthmore College, two years (1964-1966) as an assistant professor at Boston University, and another two (1966-1968) as full professor. Vendler spent a year as a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Bordeaux. After this, she was Boston University's director of graduate studies in the English department from 1970 to 1975 and again from 1978 to 1979.[2]: 399 

Vendler has been a professor of English at Harvard University since 1984; from 1981 to 1984 she taught alternating semesters at Harvard and Boston University.[6] She has said that she retained her affiliation with BU for several years to ensure that she wasn't "some little token person" at Harvard.[4] In 1985, Vendler was named the William R. Kenan Professor of English and American Literature and Language. From 1987 to 1992, she served as associate dean of arts and sciences. In 1990, she was appointed the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor,[2]: 399  the first woman to hold this position.[citation needed] In 1992, Vendler received an honorary Litt. D. from Bates College.[7] She was a Charles Stewart Parnell fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1995, and was elected an Honorary Fellow of Magdalene in 1997.[8]

Vendler delivered the 2000 Warton Lecture on English Poetry.[9] In 2004, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities.[10][11] Her lecture, "The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar",[12] used poems by Wallace Stevens[13] to argue for the role of the arts (as opposed to history and philosophy) in the study of humanities.[14] In 2006, The New York Times called Vendler "the leading poetry critic in America" and credited her work with helping "establish or secure the reputations" of poets including Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, and Rita Dove.[4]

Vendler has written books on Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, John Keats, and Seamus Heaney.[6] She is a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.[15][16][17] She has also been a judge for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1974, 1976, 1978, 1986) and the National Book Award for Poetry (1972).[2]: 399 

Personal life[edit]

Helen Vendler was married to Zeno Vendler from 1960 to 1963;[18] the couple had one child.[4]



  1. ^ Harvard Gazette, "Faust named University Professor" Harvard Gazette, December 17, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Matthews, Tracey (2005). Contemporary authors new revision series. Gale. ISBN 978-1-4144-0538-4.
  3. ^ a b c "Helen Vendler". The National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Donadio, Rachel (2006-12-10). "The Closest Reader". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  5. ^ a b Simic, Charles. "The Incomparable Critic". The New York Review of Books. ISSN 0028-7504. Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  6. ^ a b Joel A. Getz, "Vendler Accepts English Dept. Appointment," Harvard Crimson, December 10, 1984.
  7. ^ List of Honorary Degree Recipients
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ Vendler, Helen (2001). "Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions" (PDF). Proceedings of the British Academy. 111: 225–244. (See Wallace Stevens.)
  10. ^ Jefferson Lecturers Archived 2011-10-20 at the Wayback Machine at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
  11. ^ Joshua D. Gottlieb, "Vendler Tapped for National Lecture," Harvard Crimson, March 12, 2004.
  12. ^ Helen Vendler, "The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar", text of Jefferson Lecture at NEH website.
  13. ^ See for example her remarks about Stevens's Harmonium and its various poems, such as Le Monocle de Mon Oncle and Bantam in Pine Woods
  14. ^ Sam Teller, "Vendler Advocates Larger Role for Arts in Academia," Harvard Crimson, March 15, 2005.
  15. ^ "Gruppe 4: Litteraturvitenskap" (in Norwegian). Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 10 January 2011.
  16. ^ "Helen Hennessy Vendler". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 2022-03-28.
  17. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2022-03-28.
  18. ^ Current Biography Yearbook. H.W. Wilson Company. 1986. p. 584.

External links[edit]