Mark Van Doren

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Mark Van Doren
Mark Van Doren (1894 – 1972).jpg
Born (1894-06-13)June 13, 1894
Hope, Vermilion County, Illinois
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Torrington, Connecticut
Occupation poet, critic, teacher
Alma mater University of Illinois
Columbia University
Notable works Shakespeare (1939)
A Liberal Education (1943)
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1940 for Collected Poems 1922–1938
Academy of American Poets' Fellowship (1967)
Spouse Dorothy Graffe Van Doren
Children Charles Van Doren
John Van Doren
Relatives Carl Van Doren (brother)

Mark Van Doren (13 June 1894 – 10 December 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 (1924–28), 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

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]


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]

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"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 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]

Personal life

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] He also owned the house at 123 West 11th Street at one time, where Wendell Willkie wrote a famous speech.

Their son, Charles Van Doren (born February 12, 1926), 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,[14][15] who earned an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category for his performance.[16] 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.[17] Lion: A Memoir of Mark Van Doren (1991), by Dan Wakefield won the 1992 Cohen Awards.


His correspondence with Allen Tate is at Vanderbilt University.[18] 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)
  • 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


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

Short story collection

  • Nobody Say a Word (1954)


  • Henry David Thoreau: A Critical Study (1916)
  • The Poetry of John Dryden (1920)
  • Introduction to Bartram's Travels (1928)
  • An Autobiography of America, (A. & C. Boni), )1929)
  • American poets, 1630-1930 (Little, Brown), (1932)
  • American and British Literature Since 1890 (1939), with Carl Van Doren
  • Shakespeare (1939)
  • The Liberal Education (1943)
  • The night of the summer solstice: & other stories of the Russian war, (Henry Holt and Company), (1943)
  • The Noble Voice (1946)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne (1949)
  • Introduction to Poetry (1951)
  • The Autobiography Of Mark Van Doren (1958)
  • The Happy Critic (1961)
  • Mark Van Doren on Great Poems of Western Literature. Collier Books. 1962.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Insights into literature. Houghton Mifflin. 1968.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • George Hendrick, ed. (1987). The Selected Letters of Mark Van Doren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-1317-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • John Dryden: A Study of His Poetry. Read Books. 2007. ISBN 978-1-4067-2488-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Edwin Arlington Robinson (Reprint ed.). Kessinger Publishing. 2010. ISBN 978-1-169-10983-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>



This well-edited, attractive selection (about one-fourth of the surviving letters) brings Mark Van Doren alive, especially to those who knew him and can hear the voice behind the written words. It should help criticism begin to engage the works and personality of a very considerable American "man of letters:" superb poet and critic, wide-ranging editor, accomplished storyteller and playwright, and devoted educator.[19]


  • "The literature of the world has exerted its power by being translated." [20]


  1. Mark Van Doren Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. "History" Archived 2008-12-30 at the Wayback Machine the Kenyon Review Web site, accessed January 26, 2007
  3. 3.0 3.1 Mark Van Doren: Collected and New Poems University of Pennsylvania
  4. Gitelman, Zvi (14 October 1959). "Review Produced Literary Notables: Barzun, Dewey, Van Doren Once Participated in King's Crown Literary Quarterly's Activity". Columbia Daily Spectator. Retrieved 5 March 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 "Mark Van doren", Columbia 250 - Colombian Ahead of Their Times Columbia University.
  6. Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 164–166, 545. ISBN 0-89526-571-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Mark Van Doren and Shakespeare
  8. "Author Bios: Mark Van Doren (and articles)". The Nation. Retrieved June 27, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Official listings: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry". Pulitzer Prize. Retrieved June 27, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Mark Van Doren Profile The New York Review of Books
  13. "Mark Van Doren", Faculty Profiles Columbia University.
  14. Maslin, Janet (September 14, 1994). "QUIZ SHOW; Good and Evil in a More Innocent Age". New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Mark Van Doren Archived 2009-02-24 at the Wayback Machine
  17. "Mark Van Doren, 78, Poet, Teacher, Dies". New York Times. December 12, 1972.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Mark Van Doren Archived 2010-06-20 at the Wayback Machine Vanderbilt University Library.
  19. "Mark Van Doren's Literary Letters". Virginia Quarterly Review: 756–764. Autumn 1989. Archived from the original on 2008-11-21. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. The Art, Craft, Modes, and Efficacy of Literary Translation Discussed Through the Ages Archived 2010-04-26 at the Wayback Machine The University of Texas at Dallas - School of Arts & Humanities.

Further reading

  • 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