This Just in: The Lewis M. Dabney, III Papers

We are proud to announce the acquisition of a major collection of the papers of Lewis M. Dabney, III, the late scholar of American literature and Professor of English at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Dabney is best known for his magisterial 2005 biography, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, and a large body of scholarship on Edmund Wilson.

Lewis M. Dabney, III, undated, courtesy of Elizabeth Dabney Hochman

The UVA Library is now home to three groups of Dabney’s papers: his voluminous and meticulously prepared Wilson archives; a small set of materials documenting his book on William Faulkner, The Indians of Yoknapatawpha (1974); and a collection of papers of Dabney’s mother, Crystal Ray Ross Dabney, documenting her romantic relationship with John Dos Passos in the 1920s.

The earliest letter from Edmund Wilson to Lewis Dabney in the collection (Box 12.7). The correspondence begins with answers to Dabney’s questions about a  school periodical from Wilson’s youth, and moves on to many other topics.

Dabney’s heavily annotated copy of William Faukner’s “The Bear” (Box 19), used in his research for “The Indians of Yoknapatawpha.”

Each of these groups of materials individually has significant connections to existing collection strengths at the library: the Faulkner materials join our more than eighty archival collections related to Faulkner, and the Crystal Ross-John Dos Passos collection is an essential complement to the Papers of John Dos Passos. Edmund Wilson’s profound reach across American literary modernism means that Dabney’s research files for this project will have important links throughout the archival collections in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. We are grateful to Dabney’s family for choosing the University of Virginia as a home for these materials: his widow Sarah Dabney, daughter Elizabeth Dabney Hochman, and son Lewis M. Dabney IV (CLAS 1992).

An example of the tantalizing folder headings in just one box of the collection. Dabney worked with a professional archivist to organize his papers in the years leading up to his death in 2015.

Dabney’s scholarship on Edmund Wilson began while he was still a graduate student and came to know Wilson personally. It includes not just the biography but major editions of Wilson’s work, including The Portable Edmund Wilson; The Edmund Wilson Reader; The Sixties: The Last Journal, 1960-1972; and Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections. He also edited two Library of America volumes, Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s, and Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s.

File copy of a letter from Dabney to Malcolm Cowley, from an extended correspondence on the structure and contents of Dabney (ed.), “The Portable Edmund Wilson,” 1978 (Box 3.48).

Wilson looms large in the history of twentieth-century literature and culture, and it is no surprise that Dabney’s biography was the work of a lifetime. The biography will never be surpassed due to the access Dabney achieved to the living record of Wilson’s life: his files hold his communications with Wilson himself and Wilson’s friends and colleagues, including figures such as Malcolm Cowley, Donald Hall, and Lionel Trilling; also present are transcripts from his interviews with eminent literary figures such as Wilson’s one-time wife Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Svetlana Alliuyeva, Isaiah Berlin, Elena Wilson, Roger Straus, and others; in some cases, cassette tapes of the original interviews are present. Much of this material remains unpublished. Dabney’s notes from the interviews offer a taste of Wilson’s dramatic romantic and literary relationships, and like the rest of the collection, offer valuable insight into the biographer’s process.

Dabney’s notes from his multi-day interview with Wilson’s friend Adelaide Walker in 1984, heavily annotated (Box 7.29)

Dabney’s notes from interview with Elizabeth Hardwick regarding Wilson and Mary McCarthy’s relationship, 1984 (7.21)

Among the materials in the collection is Dabney’s prized typescript copy of Edmund Wilson’s journals. This copy was one of two made at the request of Wilson’s longtime publisher Roger Straus since Wilson’s handwriting was apparently nearly indecipherable.  Straus gave one copy to Dabney, and the other resides with Wilson’s papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale.

The William Faulkner and Edmund Wilson portions of the collection will be made available to researchers as soon as they have been processed.

Crystal Ross and John Dos Passos

 At the time of his death, Dr. Dabney had recently completed a draft of a book on the relationship between his mother and John Dos Passos. The two were briefly engaged in the 1920s, and remained friends their entire lives. Dabney’s family are publishing the book, and once it is released this portion of the collection will become available to scholars. When that happens, we will post again to this space.

If you have questions about any portion of the Dabney papers, please contact curator Molly Schwartzburg at


National Teacher Day: Ralph Cohen, Walter J. Kenan Professor of English at UVA 1968-2010

This post in celebration of National Teachers Day (May 4) was contributed by Ellen Welch, Manuscripts and Archives Processor at the Small Special Collections Library. 

The Ralph Cohen papers and New Literary History records were transferred from the University of Virginia English Department to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library where I had the opportunity to process the collection and make them available to our patrons. The collection reveals the extraordinary knowledge of Ralph Cohen as an English professor and founder/editor of the New Literary History journal. I have thoroughly enjoyed processing the collection. One of my favorite things is that, through his papers, Ralph Cohen is still teaching anyone who uses this collection. His research notes are the barebones of his lectures and they are extremely thorough and educational. Another thing that really comes across in his papers is how much Ralph Cohen cared about individuals, about society, and how he wanted to find meaning in everything that he knew and then to share it. I would like to celebrate him on National Teacher Day!

photograph of Ralph Cohen

Ralph Cohen, Walter J. Kenan Professor of English at UVA 1968-2010

Ralph Cohen (1917-2016) taught English literature for more than sixty years including 42 years at the University of Virginia as the Walter J. Kenan, Jr. professor of English (1968-2010). He also taught at City College New York, UCLA, and James Madison University. He was born to Polish immigrant parents in Paterson, New Jersey on February 23, 1917. Dr. Cohen was a scholar of Eighteenth-Century British literature and Philosophy. He was among the most eminent critical thinkers and educators of twentieth-century America. His preternatural ability to illuminate and account for diverse positions on theory at professional conferences was legendary. His innovative concept of technology led to the establishment of the Cohen Center for the Study of Technological Humanism at James Madison University. He focused his teaching and research on criticism, genre, literary theory, and history. His celebrated transactive classroom strategies frequently attracted colleagues and devoted students to his courses. He taught and mentored many generations of students, preparing them for lives and careers as teachers and scholars. He maintained contact with many of his students and made recommendations supporting their teaching, fellowships, and tenure positions throughout their careers. Cohen was a dedicated teacher who really cared about literature and his students. This letter is an example of the kind of impact that Ralph Cohen had on one of his many students:

Letter from a student thanking Ralph Cohen (September 23, 2013)

Letter from a student thanking Ralph Cohen (September 23, 2013)

Cover of New Literary History, Spring 1973

Cover illustration for an issue of the New Literary History. The theme for this issue is Ideology and Literature. Each issue of the NLH had a theme and articles were submitted around that theme.

In addition to being a dedicated teacher, Ralph Cohen founded the international scholarly journal, New Literary History in 1969 as a new type of academic journal devoted to exploring literary and cultural questions and defining literary terms that could be debated among literary theorists. University of Virginia President, at the time, Edgar F. Shannon gave Cohen three years to make the journal successful as part of the Sesquicentennial Celebration at the University. At the end of the third year, there was no question about the success of the journal. It was the first literary journal of its kind because it was founded on the new idea that literary study could be properly pursued only through understanding its interrelations with other disciplines such as art, music, science, anthropology, religion, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Major literary and art critics from the United States and Europe had contributed articles, including the historian Hayden White, the scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, the music critic, Leonard S. Meyer, and numerous women artists and scholars, such as Patricia Stone, Rachel Trickett, Barbara Hernstein Smith, and Joan Weber. This interdisciplinary approach to literary history also showed how literary history was helpful to understanding aspects of everyday life, culture, and society. Following this idea, Cohen created the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change in 1988 at the University of Virginia, which he directed from 1988 to 1995. The interdisciplinary research center, Cohen wrote, “had as its primary aim the study of change and continuity in individuals and institutions in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences.”

Autumn 1999 cover of New Literary History: Papers from the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural ChangeNew Literary History is now in its fifth decade and has become an award-winning journal with its impact resonating around the globe. The journal has introduced numerous thinkers from France, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Russia, China, and elsewhere to an Anglo-American academic audience. In turn, New Literary History became the first English language literary journal to be translated into Chinese. Cohen included many diverse voices in the journal to represent more people with different perspectives. This diversity included women, minorities, and people from different cultures from many parts of the world. University of Virginia President Emeritus and University Professor John T. Casteen III, noted that the journal “has served a dual purpose: it has been both the touchstone for the community of scholars of literature within this one university and a global forum for wide-ranging scholarly discussion and debate among writers and critics in every place and of every persuasion.”

Ralph Cohen founded the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change at the University of Virginia in 1988. He published the papers written by the Center in the New Literary History Journal. The addition of these articles made the New Literary History a quarterly journal.

Ralph was known among graduate students as one of the hardest working senior faculty, not resting on his international reputation but still racking up book after book, article after article. His students truly appreciated him. At UCLA and at the University of Virginia since 1968, Cohen attracted a following of graduate students, humorously called “Cohen-Heads” in the days of the “Cone Heads” on Saturday Night Live, to courses entitled “Genre,” “Theories of Literary History,” “Classic to Romantic,” and “Problems of Literary Theory.”

Even though Ralph Cohen was an editor of a preeminent theoretical international journal of the only one of its kind in the world, and a director of the University of Virginia Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change, Cohen considered himself first and foremost, a teacher. Ralph Cohen died on February 24, 2016 at 99 years of age. To learn more about Ralph Cohen’s legacy, view UVAToday’s In Memoriam or watch the October 14, 2010 interview at James Madison University where he talks about books and New Literary History.