Helen Vendler


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Helen Hennessy Vendler (born April 30, 1933) is an American literary critic and is Porter University Professor Emerita at Harvard University. Helen Hennessy Vendler was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 30, 1933, to George Hennessy and Helen née Newman Hennessy.  She was the second of three children. Her parents encouraged her to read poems as a child. 

Vendler's father taught Spanish, French, and Italian at a high school, while her mother had taught in a primary school before marriage. Vendler attended Emmanuel College over the Boston Girls' Latin School and Radcliffe College because her parents would not let her enroll in "secular education." She received an A. B. from Emmanuel.

Vendler was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, attending the Université catholique de Louvain from 1954 to 1955 for mathematics. But while traveling to the university, she decided that she would rather study English than math, and the Fulbright commission allowed her to switch her focus to literature. Upon returning to the U.S., Vendler took 12 undergraduate courses in English at Boston University in a year and 1956, entered Harvard University as a graduate student in English. 

The department's chair told her within a week of entry that "we don't want any women here." At the same time, Perry Miller refused her entry in a seminar he led on Herman Melville despite viewing her as his "finest student," according to The New York Times. Other Harvard professors offered her more support, notably I. A. Richards. Vendler was offered a job teaching in Harvard's English department in 1959, making her the first woman the department offered a job as an instructor. She declined.

Vendler graduated with a Ph.D. in English and American literature the next year. She began teaching English at Cornell University in 1960, after her husband at the time, Zeno Vendler, moved to teach there. She left Cornell in 1963 and spent several years at various other institutions, including a year (1963-1964) teaching at Haverford College and Swarthmore College, two years (1964-1966) as an assistant professor at Boston University, and another two (1966-1968) as full professor. 

Vendler spent a year as a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Bordeaux. After this, she was Boston University's director of graduate studies in the English department from 1970 to 1975 and again from 1978 to 1979. Vendler has been a professor of English at Harvard University since 1984; from 1981 to 1984, she taught alternating semesters at Harvard and Boston University. She has said that she retained her affiliation with BU for several years to ensure that she wasn't "some little token person" at Harvard. 

In 1985, Vendler was named the William R. Kenan Professor of English and American Literature and Language. From 1987 to 1992, she served as associate dean of arts and sciences. In 1990, she was appointed the A—Kingsley Porter University Professor,  the first woman to hold this position. In 1992, Vendler received an honorary Litt. D. from Bates College.

Vendler delivered the 2000 Warton Lecture on English Poetry. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Her lecture, "The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar," used poems by Wallace Stevens to argue for the role of the arts (as opposed to history and philosophy) in studying humanities. In 2006, The New York Times called Vendler "the leading poetry critic in America." It credited her work with helping "establish or secure the reputations" of poets, including Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, and Rita Dove.

Vendler has written books on Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, John Keats, and Seamus Heaney. She is a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. She has also been a judge for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1974, 1976, 1978, 1986) and the National Book Award for Poetry (1972). 

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