Presidential Archives

Remembering M. H. Abrams Class of 1916 Professor of English, Emeritus

Remarks by Elizabeth Garrett, President, Cornell University

Welcome to this celebration of the life of M. H. Abrams, one of the greatest professors in Cornell history, and one of the most beloved. There is no clearer evidence of Mike Abrams’s place in the lives of so many, and in the life of Ithaca and Cornell, than those who have gathered here today to honor his memory: family members, faculty, members of the Ithaca community, and representatives from W.W. Norton, who have prepared a special anthology of Mike Abrams’s writing as a keepsake of today’s memorial. And coinciding with today’s tribute, the Johnson Museum has staged an exhibit of art works and literary materials that Mike donated to the museum.

Many professors leave profound impressions on their students that last a lifetime. Alumni have often told me that interactions with great teachers and scholars are what they remember most fondly about their student years at Cornell.

Certainly, Mike Abrams was one of those great teachers to generations of Cornellians, but he was infinitely more. As the founding editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, and its general editor for 38 years, he influenced millions of students all over the world. I never had the privilege of meeting Mike in person, but I still remember the Norton Anthology from my days as an undergraduate, and I suspect that many of you do as well, no matter where you earned your undergraduate degree or in what field.

Mike spent his entire career—all 70 years of it—at Cornell, proving by example that the best scholars make the best teachers, and the other way around. “All my work came out of my teaching and returned to my teaching,” he once said. “It’s a reciprocal process.”

That “reciprocal process” produced such notables as novelist Thomas Pynchon ’59 and critic Harold Bloom ’51, who were among his first students. It produced works of great scholarship including Natural Supernaturalism and The Mirror and the Lamp, which The Modern Library includes as #25 on its list of the 100 most important non-fiction books of the 20th century. Along the way, Mike helped to found the Society for the Humanities at Cornell and the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. And of course, in the summer of 2014, his work brought Mike recognition by President Obama in a White House ceremony at which he received the National Humanities Medal for his contributions to literature.

Although Mike officially retired in 1983 and became the Class of 1916 Professor Emeritus, he remained deeply engaged in the life of Cornell: warm and gracious to colleagues, including those who took different approaches to the study of literature. In his final decade he became interested in the acoustic properties of poetry as it is read aloud, which led to his final book, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem — a work that has given me and many others a way to more fully explore and enjoy poetry.

I would have liked to talk with Mike Abrams about literature and the reading of poetry aloud and what it means to be a humanist in the 21st century. I would have enjoyed seeing him at a home football game, which I’m told he never missed. I would have reveled in his wit, his gentle dignity, his kindness and his wisdom. But, unlike many of you, I knew Mike Abrams only through his work—a precious gift that he gave to the world.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once described the most substantial reward of a scholarly life as “[t]he secret isolated joy of the thinker, who knows that, a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, [people] who have never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought.”

Although Mike Abrams is gone as a physical presence on our campus, he lives on in the great body of work he has bequeathed to us, in the students he taught and colleagues he mentored, and in the example he set of the ideal professor: warm, accessible, erudite; someone for whom teaching and the highest levels of scholarship were productively entwined. This afternoon, let us celebrate the life and legacy M. H. Abrams left to us as we still move to the measure of his thought.