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Meyer Howard "Mike" Abrams (July 23, 1912 – April 21, 2015), usually cited as M. H. Abrams, was an American literary critic, known for works on romanticism, in particular his book The Mirror and the Lamp. Under Abrams's editorship, The Norton Anthology of English Literature became the standard text for undergraduate survey courses across the U.S. and a major trendsetter in literary canon formation.

Early life

Abrams was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Long Branch, New Jersey.[1] The son of a house painter and the first in his family to go to college, he entered Harvard University as an undergraduate in 1930. He went into English because, he says, "there weren't jobs in any other profession..., so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn't enjoy."[2] After earning his baccalaureate in 1934, Abrams won a Henry fellowship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his tutor was I. A. Richards. He returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935 and received a master's degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1940.[3]


During World War II, he served at the Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory at Harvard. He describes his work as solving the problem of voice communications in a noisy military environment by establishing military codes that are highly audible and inventing selection tests for personnel who had a superior ability to recognize sound in a noisy background.[citation needed]

In 1945 Abrams became a professor at Cornell University. The literary critics Harold Bloom, Gayatri Spivak and E. D. Hirsch, and the novelists William H. Gass and Thomas Pynchon were among his students.[1][4] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963.[5] As of March 4, 2008, he was Class of 1916 Professor of English Emeritus there.[6]

Personal life

His wife of 71 years, Ruth, predeceased him in 2008.[7] He turned 100 in July 2012.[8] Abrams died on April 21, 2015 in Ithaca, New York, at the age of 102.[9][10]

The Mirror and the Lamp

Abrams shows that until the Romantics, literature was typically understood as a mirror reflecting the real world in some kind of mimesis; whereas for the Romantics, writing was more like a lamp: the light of the writer's inner soul spilled out to illuminate the world.[citation needed] In 1998, Modern Library ranked The Mirror and the Lamp one of the 100 greatest English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.[11]

The Norton Anthology of English Literature

Abrams was not only the general editor of The Norton Anthology, he was the editor of The Romantic Period (1798–1832) in that anthology,[12] and he evaluated writers and their reputations. In his introduction to Lord Byron, he emphasized how Byronism relates to Nietzsche's idea of the superman.[13] In the introduction to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Abrams said, "The tragedy of Shelley's short life was that intending always the best, he brought disaster and suffering upon himself and those he loved."[14]

To be clear, this anthology of "English" literature does not include Anglophone writers from places such as Canada, but it does include writers from various places in the British Isles, for instance, William Butler Yeats, who was appointed a senator in the Irish Free State.[15]

Classification of literary theories

The classification used by Abrams

Literary theories, Abrams argues, can be divided into four main groups:

  • Mimetic Theories (interested in the relationship between the Work and the Universe)
  • Pragmatic Theories (interested in the relationship between the Work and the Audience)
  • Expressive Theories (interested in the relationship between the Work and the Artist)
  • Objective Theories (interested in close reading of the Work)



  1. ^ a b "Adam Kirsch Pays a 100th Birthday Visit to M. H. Abrams, the Romanticist and Norton Anthology Editor". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved 23 April 2015. 
  2. ^ Crawford, Franklin (September 2012). "A Literary Century: English Professor Mike Abrams Fêted at 100th Birthday Bash". Cornell Alumni Magazine. Cornell University. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  3. ^ Grimes, William (22 April 2015). "M.H. Abrams, 102, Dies; Shaped Romantic Criticism and Literary 'Bible'". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  4. ^ "M.H. Abrams continues his labors (of love)". Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  5. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 20 March 2011. 
  6. ^ See article in the Cornell Chronicle.
  7. ^ "Ruth Abrams". Ithaca Journal. Retrieved 23 April 2015. 
  8. ^ Seely, Hart (2012-07-23). "The man behind the Norton Anthology of English Literature is turning 100 today". The Post-Standard. Advance Publications. Retrieved 2012-07-23. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ Jeff Stein (22 April 2015). "One of the greatest professors in Cornell history has died". The Ithaca Voice. Retrieved 23 April 2015. 
  11. ^ "100 Best Nonfiction". Modern Library. 1998. 
  12. ^ M. H. Abrams (1962), ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, New York: Norton, back cover.
  13. ^ M. H. Abrams (1962), ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, New York: Norton, p. 253.
  14. ^ M. H. Abrams (1962), ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, New York: Norton, p. 415.
  15. ^ M. H. Abrams (1962), ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, New York: Norton, p. 1341.