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Friday, April 01, 2011
F O Mathiessen
Francis Otto Matthiessen was a historian and literary critic influential in the creation of the field of American studies.
He wrote and edited landmark works of scholarship on T S Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Sinclair Lewis, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.
Matthiessen's best-known book, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), discussed the flowering of literary culture in the middle of the American 19th century, with Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Its focus was the period roughly from 1850 to 1855 in which all these writers but Emerson published what would, by Matthiessen's time, come to be thought of as their masterpieces: Melville's Moby-Dick, multiple editions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, and Thoreau's Walden. The mid-19th century in American literature is commonly called the American Renaissance because of the influence of this work on later literary history and criticism.
Matthiessen, as a gay man in the 1930s and 1940s, chose to remain in the closet throughout his professional career, if not in his personal life – although traces of homoerotic concern are apparent in his writings. His longtime lover and life partner, the painter Russell Cheney, shared a cottage with him in Kittery, Maine for decades.
He was hospitalised once for a nervous breakdown in 1938-39. After Cheney's death, Matthiessen was increasingly distraught; he committed suicide by jumping from a window in 1950. Inquiries by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) into his politics may also have been a factor in his suicide.
Matthiessen's politics were left-wing, socialist, though not dogmatically Marxist, as he felt his Christianity was incompatible with Marxist atheism. Matthiessen, who was already financially secure, donated an inheritance he received in the late 1940s to his friend, Marxist economist Paul Sweezy; Sweezy used the money, totalling almost $15,000, to found a new journal, which became the Monthly Review.