M.H. Abrams, the influential literary critic, longtime professor of English at Cornell University, and founding editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, died on Tuesday, the university announced. He was 102.
Meyer Howard Abrams (he went by Mike) was born in 1912 and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from Harvard University. He also studied at the University of Cambridge, in England. He came to Cornell in 1945 as an assistant professor and retired in 1983, but remained an active lecturer at Cornell and other institutions throughout his 80s and 90s.
In a tribute, Cornell’s president, David J. Skorton, described Mr. Abrams as “one of the dominant figures in literary criticism of the 20th century” and said “his good judgment, his perennial optimism, his deep wisdom, his sense of humor, and his fundamental decency will be sorely missed.”
In a 2008 essay for The Chronicle Review, Jeffrey J. Williams described Mr. Abrams’s long career in literary studies and his role as “a prime participant in debates over literary theory, especially deconstruction, during the 1970s and 80s.”
“Talking to Abrams,” he wrote, “is like taking a course in literary history. He has seen major changes in the modern research university as well as in literary study.”
Major critical works by Mr. Abrams include The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1953) and Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (Norton, 1971). He also published a best-selling Glossary of Literary Terms in 1957 that he revised every few years thereafter.
But he is best known to millions of students as the editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which first appeared in 1962.
In a 2006 essay for The New York Times, Rachel Donadio noted that while the anthology had been “assailed by some for being too canonical and by others for faddishly expanding the reading list,” it had prevailed over the years “due in large part to the talents of Abrams, who refined the art of stuffing 13 centuries of literature into 6,000-odd pages of wispy cigarette paper.”
Mr. Abrams remained the anthology’s editor through seven editions over four decades. According to an obituary by the Times, more than eight million copies of it had been printed by 2006, when the eighth edition came out.
Mr. Abrams was among the recipients of the National Humanities Medal for 2013, which recognized him “for expanding our perceptions of the Romantic tradition and broadening the study of literature.”