July 23, 2014

M.H. Abrams to receive National Humanities Medal

M.H. Abrams and President Obama
Jocelyn Augustino, Courtesy of National Endowment for the Humanities
President Barack Obama greets Professor M.H. Abrams at a ceremony honoring the recipients of the National Humanities Medal and the National Medals of Arts July 28 at the White House.

M.H. (Meyer Howard) Abrams, the Class of 1916 Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Cornell, has been named a recipient of the 2013 National Humanities Medal, which recognizes outstanding achievements in history, cultural studies, filmmaking, cultural commentary and historic preservation.

Abrams was cited “for expanding our perceptions of the Romantic tradition and broadening the study of literature,” a press release from the National Endowment for the Humanities stated. “As a professor, writer and critic, Dr. Abrams has traced the modern concept of artistic self-expression in Western culture, and his work has influenced generations of students.”

President Barack Obama announced the medal winners July 22, the day before Abrams’ 102nd birthday.


Watch M.H. Abrams receive his medal.

“Two years ago this week many of Mike Abrams’ friends and admirers gathered at Cornell to celebrate his 100th birthday,” said Roger Gilbert, English department chair. “It’s wonderful that we now have yet another reason to celebrate this great scholar’s life and achievements.”

National Humanities Medals honor individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities. The medals, along with National Medals of Arts, will be presented at a White House ceremony that will be live streamed Monday, July 28, at 3 p.m. at www.WhiteHouse.gov/live. Abrams plans to attend the ceremony, Gilbert said.

Abrams is the author of “The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition” (1953), “The Glossary of Literary Terms” (1957) and other influential works. He also conceived “The Norton Anthology of English Literature,” first published in 1962, and served as its general editor through 2000.

He came to Cornell in 1945 as an assistant professor after studying at Cambridge and Harvard universities. His students included literary critic Harold Bloom ’52 and novelist Thomas Pynchon ’59. He was named the F.J. Whiton Professor of English in 1960 and the Class of 1916 Professor in 1973. After his retirement in 1983, Abrams continued to lecture at Cornell, Yale and other institutions.

“M.H. Abrams is an inspiration to all of us,” said Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “A renowned scholar and teacher, he has defined the college for generations of students and faculty alike.”

The 10 humanities medalists also include David Brion Davis, a scholar of the history of slavery and abolitionism who taught at Cornell for 14 years and is the Sterling Professor of American History Emeritus at Yale University. The other honorees are historians Darlene Clark Hine and Anne Firor Scott; East Asian scholar William Theodore De Bary; architect Johnpaul Jones; filmmaker Stanley Nelson; radio hosts Diane Rehm and Krista Tippett; and the historical organization the American Antiquarian Society.