Mark Van Doren

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Mark Van Doren
Born(1894-06-13)June 13, 1894
Hope, Vermilion County, Illinois, US
DiedDecember 10, 1972(1972-12-10) (aged 78)
Torrington, Connecticut, US
Alma materUniversity of Illinois
Columbia University
Notable worksShakespeare (1939)
A Liberal Education (1943)
Notable awardsPulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1940 for Collected Poems 1922–1938
Academy of American Poets' Fellowship (1967)
SpouseDorothy Van Doren
ChildrenCharles Van Doren
John Van Doren
RelativesCarl Van Doren (brother)
Adam Van Doren (grandson)

Mark Van Doren (June 13, 1894 – December 10, 1972) was an American poet, writer and critic. He was a scholar and a professor of English at Columbia University for nearly 40 years, where he inspired a generation of influential writers and thinkers including Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, John Berryman, Whittaker Chambers, and Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He was literary editor of The Nation, in New York City (1924–1928), and its film critic, 1935 to 1938.[1]

He won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Collected Poems 1922–1938. Amongst his other notable works, many published in The Kenyon Review,[2] include a collaboration with brother Carl Van Doren, American and British Literature since 1890 (1939); critical studies, The Poetry of John Dryden (1920), Shakespeare (1939), The Noble Voice (1945) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1949); collections of poems including Jonathan Gentry (1931); stories; and the verse play The Last Days of Lincoln (1959).

Early life and education[edit]

Van Doren was born in Vermilion County, Illinois, the fourth of five sons of the county's doctor, Charles Lucius Van Doren, of remote Dutch ancestry, and wife Eudora Ann Butz. He was raised on his family's farm in eastern Illinois, before his father decided to move to the neighboring town of Urbana, to be closer to good schools.[3]

He was the younger brother of the academic and biographer Carl Van Doren, starting with whom all five brothers attended the local elementary school and high school. Mark Van Doren eventually studied at the University of Illinois in Urbana,[3] where he earned a B.A. in 1914. In 1920, he earned a Ph.D. from what became the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University, while also a member of the Boar's Head Society, a student society at the university devoted to poetry.[4]


Mark Van Doren in 1920

Van Doren joined the Columbia University faculty in 1920, having been preceded by his brother Carl. Mark Van Doren went on to become one of Columbia's greatest teachers and a "legendary classroom presence"; he became a full professor in 1942, and taught English until 1959, at which point he became Professor Emeritus until his death in 1972.[5] His students at Columbia included the poets and writers John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Louis Simpson, Richard Howard, Lionel Trilling (later a colleague), Robert Lax, Anthony Robinson, as well as the Japanologist and interpreter of Japanese literature Donald Keene, author and activist Whittaker Chambers,[6] writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Walter B. Pitkin Jr. and poet-critic John Hollander.[5][7]

"I have always had the greatest respect for students. There is nothing I hate more than condescension—the attitude that they are inferior to you. I always assume they have good minds."

– Mark Van Doren (Newsweek, 1959)[5]

He twice served on the staff of The Nation from 1924–1928 and again from 1935–1938.[8] He was a member of the Society for the Prevention of World War III.

In 1940, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Collected Poems 1922–1938.[9] This came only a year after his elder brother Carl had won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for Benjamin Franklin.[10] Van Doren helped Ginsberg avoid jail time in June 1949 by testifying on his behalf when Ginsberg was arrested as an accessory to crimes carried out by Herbert Huncke and others, and was an important influence on Merton, both in Merton's conversion to Catholicism and Merton's poetry. He was a strong advocate of liberal education, and wrote the book, Liberal Education (1943), which helped promote the influential "great books" movement.[11] Starting in 1941, he also did Invitation to Learning, a CBS Radio show, where as one of the experts he discussed great literature.

He was made a Fellow in American Letters of the Library of Congress and also remained president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.[12][13]

Global policy[edit]

He was one of the signatories of the agreement to convene a convention for drafting a world constitution.[14][15] As a result, for the first time in human history, a World Constituent Assembly convened to draft and adopt the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.[16]

Personal life[edit]

In 1922 Mark Van Doren married Dorothy Graffe, novelist and writer of the memoir The Professor and I (1959), whom he had earlier met at The Nation. His successful book, Anthology of World Poetry, enabled the couple to buy a house on Bleecker Street in New York City in February 1929, before markets collapsed.[7]

Their son, Charles Van Doren (February 12, 1926 - April 9, 2019), briefly achieved renown as the winner of the rigged game show Twenty-One. In the film Quiz Show (1994), Mark Van Doren was played by Paul Scofield,[17][18] who earned an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category for his performance.[19] Their second son is John Van Doren who also lives in Cornwall, Connecticut, at the farmstead where their father did most of his writing between academic years, and where he moved after retirement.[7]

Mark Van Doren died on December 10, 1972, in Torrington, Connecticut, aged 78, two days after undergoing surgery for circulatory problems at the Charlotte Hungerford Hospital. He was interred at Cornwall Hollow Cemetery in Connecticut.[20]


His correspondence with Allen Tate is at Vanderbilt University.[21] Since 1962, students of Columbia College have honored a great teacher at the school each year with the "Mark Van Doren Award".[5]



  • Spring Thunder (1924)
  • An Anthology of World Poetry (1928)
  • Jonathan Gentry (1931), (Editor)
  • The Oxford Book of American Prose, (OUP), (1932)
  • Winter Diary (1935)
  • Collected Poems 1922–1938 (1939), Winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
  • The Mayfield Deer (1941)
  • The Country Year (1946) William Sloane Associates, New York
  • Selected poems (Holt), (1954)
  • The Last Days of Lincoln, a play in six scenes (1959), a Verse Play
  • Our Lady Peace
  • The Story-Teller (N/A)
  • Collected and New Poems 1924–1963 (1963)
  • Mark Van Doren: 100 poems. Hill and Wang. 1967.
  • That Shining Place: New Poems (1969) Hall and Wang


  • The Transients (1935)
  • Windless Cabins (1940)
  • Tilda (1943)

Short story collection

  • Nobody Say a Word (1954)




  • "The literature of the world has exerted its power by being translated." [22]


  1. ^ Mark Van Doren Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ "History" Archived December 30, 2008, at the Wayback Machine the Kenyon Review Web site, accessed January 26, 2007
  3. ^ a b Mark Van Doren: Collected and New Poems University of Pennsylvania
  4. ^ Gitelman, Zvi (October 14, 1959). "Review Produced Literary Notables: Barzun, Dewey, Van Doren Once Participated in King's Crown Literary Quarterly's Activity". Columbia Daily Spectator. Retrieved March 5, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d "Mark Van Doren". Columbia 250 – Columbians Ahead of Their Time. Columbia University. 2004. Archived from the original on March 27, 2022. Retrieved October 16, 2022.
  6. ^ Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 164–166, 545. ISBN 0-89526-571-0.
  7. ^ a b c Mark Van Doren and Shakespeare
  8. ^ "Author Bios: Mark Van Doren (and articles)". The Nation. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  9. ^ "Official listings: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry". Pulitzer Prize. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  10. ^ Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography Official Listings.
  11. ^ "The Beginnings of the Great Books Movement at Columbia". Columbia Magazine. Winter 2001. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  12. ^ Mark Van Doren Profile The New York Review of Books
  13. ^ "Mark Van Doren", Faculty Profiles Columbia University.
  14. ^ "Letters from Thane Read asking Helen Keller to sign the World Constitution for world peace. 1961". Helen Keller Archive. American Foundation for the Blind. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  15. ^ "Letter from World Constitution Coordinating Committee to Helen, enclosing current materials". Helen Keller Archive. American Foundation for the Blind. Retrieved July 3, 2023.
  16. ^ "Preparing earth constitution | Global Strategies & Solutions | The Encyclopedia of World Problems". The Encyclopedia of World Problems | Union of International Associations (UIA). Retrieved July 15, 2023.
  17. ^ Maslin, Janet (September 14, 1994). "QUIZ SHOW; Good and Evil in a More Innocent Age". New York Times.
  18. ^ David Ansen (September 19, 1994). "FALL PREVIEW: MOVIES: When America Lost Its Innocence--Maybe - Robert Redford Takes A Prismatic Look At A Nation Through The Tv Quiz-Show Scandals Of The '50S". Newsweek.
  19. ^ Mark Van Doren Archived February 24, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Mark Van Doren, 78, Poet, Teacher, Dies". New York Times. December 12, 1972.
  21. ^ Mark Van Doren Archived June 20, 2010, at the Wayback Machine Vanderbilt University Library.
  22. ^ The Art, Craft, Modes, and Efficacy of Literary Translation Discussed Through the Ages Archived April 26, 2010, at the Wayback Machine The University of Texas at Dallas - School of Arts & Humanities.

Further reading[edit]

  • The Essays of Mark Van Doren: (1924-1972) Selected, with an Introduction by William Claire. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
  • Mark Van Doren, by J. T. Ledbetter. Peter Lang, 1996. ISBN 0-8204-3334-9.
  • Sonnets by Mark Van Doren

External links[edit]