University of California: In Memoriam, 1986

Henry Nash Smith, English: Berkeley

Professor Emeritus

Although Henry Nash Smith will be remembered as the most distinguished mind of the American Studies movement, his friends and colleagues knew him additionally as a generous and gracious companion. Born September 29, 1906, he was 79 when he died in an automobile accident in Nevada.

All his life Henry had a deep and somewhat equivocal relationship with the American West, and especially with Texas. Born and brought up in Dallas, he graduated from Southern Methodist University at 18. After a year, he went to Harvard where he took a master's degree. Dissatisfied with the philological emphasis of graduate studies there, he returned to Dallas to teach at S.M.U. While carrying a teaching load of four courses a term in the English department, he also assisted Joseph McGinnis, whom he greatly admired, in editing the Southwest Review as well as the book page of the Dallas Morning News. Writing political pieces, cultural analyses, and book reviews, Henry made a major effort to distinguish between a valid identity for his region on the one hand and a sentimental or boastful provincialism on the other.

The first of several crises over academic and literary freedom that were to mark Henry's career occurred when he was involved in publishing a story by William Faulkner which university authorities considered obscene. His chairman tried to have him dismissed, but local support led to an uneasy compromise in which Henry was transferred to the Comparative Literature department.

In 1937, having learned of Harvard's creation of a new program in American Civilization, Henry returned to Cambridge. His doctoral dissertation focussed on Eastern perceptions of the West; then over the next decade, it broadened into a powerful and original book, Virgin Land. While at work on this demanding project, Henry again taught briefly at S.M.U., then moved in 1942 to the University of Texas. In 1944 at Austin, he became once more involved in a major struggle over academic freedom, the president of the university having come under heavy attack, in part for

permitting a Dos Passos novel to be assigned to undergraduates. In 1945, unable to make progress on his book, Henry was rescued by a visiting appointment at Harvard, followed by a fellowship at the Huntington Library. When he returned to teaching in 1947, it was at the University of Minnesota.

Long eagerly awaited, Virgin Land finally appeared in 1950 and quickly won both the Bancroft and the John H. Dunning prizes in American history. The book was based on voluminous research in a great diversity of materials, ranging from government documents to travellers' diaries to dime novels. With these, Henry built an understanding of certain images and myths of the West that were so powerfully embedded in the national imagination that they affected both legislation and social behavior, even when they diverged from continental actualities.

Virgin Land firmly established Henry as a critic and cultural historian of international renown. It also brought him an invitation in 1953 to join Berkeley's English Department and to assume the editorship of the Mark Twain papers. Under his guidance, the Mark Twain Project in collaboration with the University of California Press undertook a large and successful program that involved the publication of much manuscript material as well as the scrupulous and informed editing of those of Twain's books already in print. This elaborate enterprise required organizational planning, extensive negotiations, and the selection and supervision of a technical staff. At the same time, Henry carried on a vigorous teaching program. Numerous graduate students remember and value his scrupulous, humane, and never intrusive supervision.

Henry's subsequent publications began with an edition of Twain's surviving contributions to Nevada journalism in Mark Twain of the Enterprise (1957). In 1960, he and William Gibson published the two-volume Mark Twain-Howells' Letters, 1872-1910, a model of detailed and insightful editing. Henry's own ideas on Twain were set out in Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer (1962). In this study, he traced Twain's coming to terms with the vernacular, understood not as language alone, but as a whole complex of ideas and attitudes that Twain first absorbed in his Hannibal childhood and then gradually learned to trust and refine until he achieved a masterpiece of vernacular prose in Huckleberry Finn. Two years later, Henry elaborated his thoughts about a single book in Mark Twain's Fable of Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in “A Connecticut Yankee.”

During these years of urgent intellectual work, Henry also chaired the Department of English (1957-60) and was elected president of the Modern Language Association (1968-69). In 1964-65, he was Fulbright Lecturer in Italy, France, Yugoslavia, and the United Kingdom, and in 1965, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. After his retirement in 1974, he continued to lecture, teach, and write. In 1978, he brought out his last book, Democracy and the Novel. Its title bears witness

to Henry's lifelong immersion in the complex relations between literary culture and a democratic society.

During the difficult years that began with the Free Speech Movement in 1964, Henry labored incessantly to find practical and humane solutions to the issues dividing the University, while sustaining his lifelong commitments to freedom of expression and intellectual honesty. Even those colleagues who contested his views appreciated his courtesy and integrity in debate.

Beyond the formalities of a professional life, Henry and his wife, Elinor Lucas Smith, took much pleasure from the attainments, especially those in music, of their children, Mayne, Janet, and Harriet. At the same time, Henry maintained many friendships both in and outside the university community, for he was invariably accessible to any who shared his zest for ideas.

Richard Bridgman James D. Hart Robert Hirst Henry F. May

About this text
Courtesy of University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
Title: 1986, University of California: In Memoriam
By:  University of California (System) Academic Senate, Author
Date: 1986
Contributing Institution:  University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
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