Who is Ren Wellek?

Posted: July 24, 2007 in Biography of Author, Literary Thoery, Ren Wellek
Ren Wellek (1903-1995) grew up in Vienna and Prague. He became a world traveller and spent most of his career in the United States.

It is likely that he is the premier scholar of literature in modern times because he combined all-round mastery of the specialisms of modern literary studies, with encyclopaedic reading in several languages, clear writing, a humane vision and commitment to reason.

Ren Wellek’s father moved from Prague to work as a government lawyer in Vienna, the capital of the massive Austo-Hungarian empire. The young Wellek grew up in Vienna, speaking German at school and Czech in the holidays. His paternal affiliation with the culture of Czechoslovakia ran deep because later in life he became a pillar of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Letters, and served two terms (almost five years) as President of the society.

He and his brother were both avid readers, given to the common affliction of bookish children, that is, “crazes” for information of various kinds – science, military history, religion. At ten he started serious study of Latin and at thirteen he began Greek. During a long illness his father read him the Pickwick Papers in German, and when he returned to school he substituted English for Greek.

In 1918 the Welleks moved to Prague where the high school taught literature in three languages, Latin, German and Czech. Rene had to pursue his growing interest in English literature at home. At the Charles University he had the priceless opportunity to study Shakespeare under a great and devoted scholar Vilem Mathesius. His studies for a Doctor of Philology included a thesis on Thomas Carlyle, helped by his father who funded a visit to England.

Supported by various fellowships he spent more time in England and at Princeton where he took a job until a post became available at Charles University in 1930. There he completed his first book, on Kant, and became an active member of the famous Prague Linguistic Circle. In 1935, he moved to London to lecture in Czech language and literature, funded by the Czech government until the German invaders terminated the project.

A network of scholarly contacts turned up a position for Wellek at the State University of Iowa; news of which sent Wellek on a mission to the map section of the British Museum to find the location of his exile. There he came into close contact with the New Critics, and he collaborated with Austin Warren over a period of years to produce a landmark text in the field, the marvellous Theory of Literature. In 1946 he moved to Yale as the Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature. After Theory of Literature was completed in 1949 his major focus was a multi-volumed history of modern criticism (eventually eight volumes) dealing with developments in France, England, Germany, Italy, Russia and America.

He retired officially in 1972 and continued with his major project which he completed despite being bedridden for the last years of his life. [source: http://www.the-rathouse.com/ReneWellek.html%5D

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