English Matters, Fall 2004


Robert B. Heilman 1906-2004

Robert Heilman On August 5, 2004, Robert Heilman died in California where he had moved last year from Seattle. We include this tribute to Bob because of the enormous impact he had on the department over the 23 years he served as chair, after coming to the University of Washington in 1948. There are few who read these words who didn’t know either Bob or his many writings, so it is fitting to remember his many achievements.

Following his death, Robert Heilman’s self-designed obituary appeared in The Seattle Times, followed a few days later by a longer piece more descriptive of his many interests and achievements. It is fitting to mention here his last, and in many ways most personal, book, The Professor and the Profession (University of Missouri Press, 1999), in which he collected five groups of essays: those about his early life and especially his abiding passion for sports; recollections of such colleagues as Robert Penn Warren and Theodore Roethke; Shakespearean literary types and problems; more recent literature and reflections on literary study; and considerations of larger educational issues. Reviewing this work, Professor Edward Alexander began, “If we think of the essay not as enlarged journalistic polemic, but as the graceful movement of a free and capacious mind at play, then Robert Heilman is one of the great living masters of the essayist’s art.” Such a tribute serves well to remember with his passing. To it we add the following tribute to Heilman by the University of Washington in UW Showcase: A Century of Excellence in the Arts, Humanities, and Professional Schools (1997). The English Department thanks Deborah Illman for permission to reprint the following article:


Before Robert B. Heilman joined the UW faculty as chair of the English department in 1948, the department was best known through the work of two earlier scholars and chairs, Vernon Louis Parrington and Fredrick Morgan Padelford. By the late 1940s, the majority of the faculty were former students of these two, and the UW administration began the sort of change that over the next decades would give national stature to the UW.

Heilman joined the department with five other “outside” appointments, including poet Theodore Roethke; but because Heilman had been the colleague at Louisiana State University of the leaders in a school of thought called “New American Criticism,”1 many at the UW assumed he had been brought in to “new-criticize” a department whose previous distinction had been through more traditional literary historicism.

During his more than two decades as chair, the department achieved national distinction for the quality and diversity of its scholarship and teaching. The faculty of the 1950s and 1960s maintained great strength in fields of American and English literature by the contributions of such scholars as Arnold Stein, a nationally-respected Miltonist; Andrew Hilen, editor of the six-volume edition of the Longfellow letters; Edward Alexander, the author of several volumes about 19th century literature; James W. Hall, author of three critical volumes on 20th-century literature. Following the death of Roethke in 1963, poets David Wagoner and Nelson Bentley and a series of distinguished visitors kept the Northwest school of poetry prominent. Continuing today [1997] are the annual Theodore Roethke readings and the publication of Poetry Northwest. By the time Heilman completed his service as chairman in 1971, the department had hired new faculty from more than 30 graduate schools, and UW graduates were employed by at least that many other colleges and universities.

Heilman has remained active professionally in the two decades since his retirement, and he sets a high scholarly standard both in the stature and breadth of his interests. He is the author of nine volumes of critical works: on Shakespeare, on dramatic forms, and on prose fiction. He edited 12 volumes which served as textbooks in many departments across the country. They include three Hardy novels, a Swift, a Conrad, a collection of modern short stories, a collection of pre-Shakespeare plays, two Shakespeare plays, and with Yale professor Cleanth Brooks, a book called Understanding Drama, which enjoyed considerable success as a textbook.

Two 1991 volumes are collections of essays on a variety of topics. The Southern Connection contains essays about the South based on his experience while living and teaching in Louisiana from 1935 to 1948. The volume opens with an account of events that occurred on the seventh day that Heilman and his wife were in Baton Rouge, when at a meeting of the Louisiana State legislature, U.S. Senator Huey Long was fatally wounded. The other volume published in 1991, entitled The Workings of Fiction, analyzes various English, American and European novels.

Two of Heilman’s writings provide genial local and personal history. The Charliad is a light-verse tribute to his long-time friend, UW President Charles Odegaard, on the occasion of Odegaard’s retirement in 1973.

“Football: An Addict’s Memoirs and Observations” (Journal of Popular Culture) became for Heilman an ongoing fiction, sometimes played at the level of melodrama. Notes Richard J. Dunn, Divisional Dean for Humanities, College of Arts and Sciences: “Even when describing some of the pre-glory years at Washington, Heilman confessed that the ‘aesthete and partisan are not wholly separable. It is painful to see the graces regularly conjoined to unfriendly power,’ and readers of Heilman’s lucid and persuasive prose must acknowledge that in his work grace prevails.2

1 A movement beginning after World War I with the critical works of modern poets and critics, such as T.S. Eliot and John Crowe Ransom, which focuses on close reading and interpreting of individual texts as opposed to studying the history, ideology, philosophy or other factors that shape literary experience. The movement shaped the general development of educational programs in literature in the U.S. See for example the essay on “New Criticism” in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, Ed. By Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.

2 Special thanks to Richard L. Lorenzen, Leroy Searle, and Richard J. Dunn for assistance in preparing this vignette.

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