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F. O. Matthiessen
Born Francis Otto Matthiessen
February 19, 1902(1902-02-19)
Died April 1, 1950 (aged 48)
Cause of death Suicide by jumping from a height
Nationality American
Occupation Historian, literary critic, educator
Partner Russell Cheney

Francis Otto Matthiessen (February 19, 1902, Pasadena, California - April 1, 1950) was a historian and literary critic influential in the creation of the field of American studies.[1]


Scholarly work

Matthiessen was an American studies scholar and literary critic at Harvard University,[2] and chaired its undergraduate program in history and literature.[3] He wrote and edited landmark works of scholarship on T. S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the James family (Alice James, Henry James, Henry James Sr., and William James), 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), discusses 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. In 2009 the The New York Times said that the book "virtually created the field of American literature."[1]

Personal life

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. In 2009, a statement from Harvard University said that Matthiessen "stands out as an unusual example of a gay man who lived his sexuality as an 'open secret' in the mid-20th century."[2][3]

Matthiessen had a 20-year romantic relationship with the painter Russell Cheney.[1] The couple shared a cottage in Kittery, Maine for decades. In planning to spend his life with Cheney, Matthiessen went as far as asking his cohort in the Yale secret society Skull and Bones to approve of their partnership (Levin 43-44). With Cheney having encouraged Matthiessen's interest in Whitman, it has been argued that American Renaissance was "the ultimate expression of Matthiessen's love for Cheney and a secret celebration of the gay artist."[1][4][5]

He was hospitalized once for a nervous breakdown in 1938-1939. After Cheney's death, Matthiessen was increasingly distraught; he committed suicide by jumping from a window in 1950.[1][2] Inquiries by 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. F. O. Matthiessen was mentioned as an activist in Boston area Communist front groups by Herbert Philbrick.[6]


In June 2009, Harvard announced that it will establish an endowed chair in LGBT studies called the F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality.[2][3][7] Believing the post to be "the first professorship of its kind in the country,"[2] Harvard President Drew G. Faust called it β€œan important milestone.”[3][7] It is funded by a $1.5 million gift from the members and supporters of the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus.[2][3][7][8]


  1. ^ a b c d e Smith, Dinitia (May 29, 2003). "American Culture's Debt To Gay Sons of Harvard". The New York Times. Retrieved June 3, 2006.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f Steinberg, Jacques (June 3, 2009). "Harvard to Endow Chair in Gay Studies". The New York Times. Retrieved June 4, 2009.  
  3. ^ a b c d e Jan, Tracy (June 3, 2009). "Harvard to endow professorship in gay studies". The Boston Globe. Retrieved June 3, 2009.  
  4. ^ Bergman, David (January 1, 1991). Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. The University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0299130509.  
  5. ^ Shand-Tucci, Douglass (May 19, 2003). The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality and the Shaping of American Culture. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312198965.  
  6. ^ Google books I Led 3 Lives
  7. ^ a b c Associated Press (June 3, 2009). "Harvard to Endow Chair in Gay, Lesbian Studies".,2933,525024,00.html. Retrieved June 4, 2009.  
  8. ^ "Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus: F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality". Retrieved June 4, 2009.  
  • Arac, Jonathan. "F. O. Matthiessen: Authorizing an American Renaissance." The American Renaissance Reconsidered. Eds. Walter Benn Michaels and Donald Pease. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.
  • Hyde, Louis, ed. Rat and the Devil: Journal Letters of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1978. ISBN 1-55583-110-9; ISBN 0-208-01655-4.
  • Levin, Harry. "The Private Life of F. O. Matthiessen." New York Review of Books 25:12 (July 20, 1978), pp. 42–46 (abstract online; full text for subscribers only).
  • Leverenz, L. David. Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989.
  • Matthiessen, F. O.. American Renaissance. ISBN 0-19-500759-X (also available in many other editions).
  • Phelps, Christopher. "Introduction: A Socialist Magazine in the American Century." Monthly Review 51:1 (May 1999).
  • Marcus, Greil. The Old Weird America New York: Henry Holt (Picador), pp. 90, 124
  • Reynolds, David. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race and the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1993.

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