Selected Books by
Ren   Wellek
Ren  Wellek (1903-1995) grew up in Vienna and Prague. He became a world traveller and spent most of his career in the United States.

It is likely that he is the premier scholar of literature in modern times because he combined all-round mastery of  the specialisms of modern literary studies, with encyclopaedic reading in several languages, clear writing, a humane vision and commitment to reason.

Ren  Wellek's father moved from Prague to work as a government lawyer in Vienna, the capital of the massive Austo-Hungarian empire. The young Wellek grew up in Vienna, speaking German at school and Czech in the holidays. His paternal affiliation with the culture of Czechoslovakia ran deep because later in life he became a pillar of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Letters, and served two terms (almost five years) as President of the society.

He and his brother were both avid readers, given to the common affliction of bookish children, that is, "crazes" for information of various kinds - science, military history, religion. At ten he started serious study of Latin and at thirteen he began Greek. During a long illness his father read him the Pickwick Papers in German, and when he returned to school he substituted English for Greek.

In 1918 the Welleks moved to Prague where the high school taught literature in three languages, Latin, German and Czech. Rene  had to pursue his growing interest in English literature at home. At the Charles University he had the priceless opportunity to study Shakespeare under a great and devoted scholar Vilem Mathesius. His studies for a Doctor of Philology included a thesis on Thomas Carlyle, helped by his father who funded a visit to England.

Supported by various fellowships he spent more time in England and at Princeton where he took a job until a post became available at Charles University in 1930. There he completed his first book, on Kant, and became an active member of the famous Prague Linguistic Circle. In 1935, he moved to London to lecture in Czech language and literature, funded by the Czech government until the German invaders terminated the project.

A network of scholarly contacts turned up a position for Wellek at the State University of Iowa; news of  which sent Wellek on a mission to the map section of the British Museum to find the location of his exile. There he came into close contact with the New Critics, and he collaborated with Austin Warren over a period of years to produce a landmark text in the field, the marvellous Theory of Literature. In 1946 he moved to Yale as the Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature. After Theory of Literature was completed in 1949 his major focus was a multi-volumed history of modern criticism (eventually eight volumes) dealing with developments in France, England, Germany, Italy, Russia and America.

He retired officially in 1972 and continued with his major project which he completed despite being bedridden for the last years of his life.
the Revivalist . winter

"I  hope  that  I  have preserved my integrity and a  core  of  convictions:

that the aesthetic experience differs from other experiences and sets off the realm of art, of fictionality, from life;

that the literary work of art, while a linguistic construct, at the same time refers to the world outside;

that it cannot therefore be described only by linguistic means but has a meaning telling of man, society, and nature;

that all arguments for relativism meet a final barrier;

that we are confronted with an object, the work of art, out there which challenge us to understand and interpret it;

that there is thus no complete liberty of interpretation. Analysis,
interpretation, evaluation are interconnected stages of a single procedure.

Evaluation grows out of understanding. We as critics learn to distinguish between art and nonart and should have the courage  of our convictions.

The lawyer knows or thinks he knows what is right and what is wrong; the scientist knows what is true and what is false; the physician knows what is health and what is illness; only the poor humanist is floundering, uncertain of himself and his calling instead of proudly asserting the life of the mind which is the life of reason,"

Immanuel Kant in England (1931)

The Rise of  English Literary History (1941)

Theory of Literature, with Austin Warren, (1949)

A History of Modern Criticism (8 vols)
(1955 to 1992)

Concepts of  Criticism (1963)

Discriminations (1970)

The Attack on Literature and Other Essays (1982)

Many of these books  are available at

Unchanged Meanings
An essay on the nature of the literary text which draws on Buhler's theory of  language and makes  a comparison between Popper's views on the "third world" of ideas and Wellek's theory of the literary object.

Some hundreds of items (including translations) over the period 1924  to 1996.

Chapter 2 from Theory of Literature

.On the nature of literature, theory of the text.
Ren   Wellek, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale,died on November 10, 1995, after a long illness. He was 92 years old.

Ren   Wellek's association with Comparative Literature began even before the appearance of its first issue. He was a member of the group within the Modern Language Association that worked to create an American journal in our field. He subsequently became one of the five members of the original Editorial Board appointed by the president of the University of Oregon in 1948; at his request, his name remained on our masthead after the accident in 1986 that left him bedridden and unable to participate actively in the work of evaluating manuscripts that he had done faithfully for so many years. His central role in shaping the new journal is revealed in his extensive correspondence with its first editor, Chandler Beall. He was especially pleased that a former student, whose dissertation he had directed, succeeded Chandler Beall as Editor on the latter's retirement.

Sarah Lawall's "Ren   Wellek and Modern Literary Criticism," CL 40 (1988), 3-24, is an excellent introduction to his conception of literary scholarship, which gives equal attention to criticism, theory and history. His greatest achievement is his monumental History of Modern Criticism, which was completed after the publication of Professor Lawall's essay.

In 1955, when the first two volumes of the History appeared, Wellek planned to bring his account down to the present in two further volumes. The two additional volumes eventually became six; the last appeared in March 1993, only a few months before the author's 90th birthday. The work was completed in extremely difficult conditions while he was confined to bed in a nursing home and forced to dictate the text which he then revised in typescript.

The great virtue of the History is Wellek's insistence on examining all the writings of each critic he studies, on confronting them with the literary works they discuss, and  on setting forth his own reactions to both as
clearly and fairly as possible. His later writings are more personal than his earlier ones, perhaps because, as he notes in a retrospective glance at his History, he had become that criticism deals with what the philosopher W B Gallie calls "essentially contested concepts." One can say of the History, as Wellek's friend Erich Auerbach said of his own Mimesis, that it is "ganz bewusst en Buch, das  ein bestimmter Mensch, in einer bestimmten
Lage...geschrieben hat."

Thomas R Hart
Comparative Literature, Winter 1996



The Attack on Literature

A masterly reply to some of the various schools of thought that have sought to subvert the value of  literature as an art form.

The  first  chapter  of  a book which provides a good  overview  of  the main events in Wellek's life and an appraisal of his  major achievements
spanning several several countries.
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Two rejoinders to the modern high theorists

Late in his career, Wellek wrote a critical review of the deconstructionist movement describing it as the new nihilism in literary studies. More...
An extended summary of the arguments of Australians,  Richard Freadman and Seamus Miller,  who wrote a thorough and persuasive critique of contemporary literary theory.  More....