Study Guide

Wimsatt and Beardsley Biography

Basic Information

Name

William Kurtz Wimsatt, Jr. / Monroe Curtis Beardsley

Nickname

Wimsatt the Whimsical, Kurtz (no wonder he preferred his initials), WW Jr., Author Denier, The Fallacizer / B: The Beard, MC Beardsley, Wimsatt's Significant Other, The Aestheticizer

Sex

Male on both counts. We New Critics weren't terribly interested in discussing gender. That's just too close to biography!

Home town

Washington, D.C.—but, just so you know, I never considered a career in politics. I'm not a believer in the whole hero/great man thing. / B: Bridgeport, Connecticut—a city known for its famous former mayor, P.T. Barnum.

Work & Education

Occupation

W: I put in some serious time in the Yale English Department (go Elis!). Even after I became a glittering star in the lit crit scene, I didn't hop around between various glamorous academic appointments. Yale was where I met my intellectual comrade and spirit animal, Monroe Beardsley. I taught, criticized, published, and basically kept it real in New Haven for almost four decades. 

B: Well, my first job was as a newspaper delivery boy for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram, which is a cute biographical detail, given how important I eventually became in the world of letters. I really thought I would become a journalist rather than an internationally significant American academic. Sometimes life surprises you. 

I was a little more of a wanderer than Bill, and despite my expertise as a literary critic, I actually saw myself (as did others) more as a philosopher of art—also referred to as an aesthetician—than as a literary critic. 

My salad days as a professor were at Swarthmore College and Temple University, but Yale is where Bill and I locked eyes and minds in the belief that the author just didn't matter. 

A cute little detail about my professional life: I often worked with my brainiac wife, Elizabeth, writing and editing important philosophical texts. It was the 1950s, but Liz wasn't at home baking casseroles—she had her own prestigious academic career.

Education

W: I stayed local for a while by going to Georgetown University (B.A. and M.A.) and then found my way to Yale, where I earned my Ph.D. and stayed until my dying days. FYI: on my journey through life, I also picked up an honorary doctorate at the Saint Louis University. Those are so much easier than doctorates you actually have to write dissertations for. 

B: Yale is my alma mater—I just didn't want to leave Connecticut. Not to brag, but I not only earned my B.A. and Ph.D. there, but I was also the recipient of the John Addison Porter Prize, which is a university-wide prize for doing great research and writing it in a beautiful, literary way. It was a super big deal. 

Beliefs

Political views

W: My rise to the top occurred during the Cold War, so politics were all around us—if that sounds paranoid, it is. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were running high. Politics were never really my thing, but a lot of the issues I was obsessed with could be used to think about politics. In short, I can give you the tools, but you'll have to do the work yourself. 

You should know that I had very strong feelings about emotions; in fact, as my man Beardsley and I once said, "Emotion, it is true, has a well-known capacity to fortify opinion, to inflame cognition, and to grow upon itself in surprising proportions to grains of reason. We have mob psychology, psychosis, and neurosis" (source). Basically, we were saying that the Cold War hysteria was based more on emotion than on reason—and at the time, that was a rather political statement. 

Allow me to conclude by saying that if you had lived through the era of Stalin and Hitler, you would have agreed with me about all of this psychosis stuff. Those were crazy times, with crazy cults of personality. I'm not into personality or authority—either in my politics or in my poems. 

B: I took time away from my busy schedule of pondering aesthetics and hammering out paradigm-changing essays to participate in political life. Growing up during the Great Depression was a real downer, and it impacted me for the rest of my life. 

As conservative as my aesthetic views are, I am a true liberal, and when it comes to a worthy social cause, count me in. If membership in American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) isn't enough to prove my commitment to the people, how about the fact that I was an active participant in the civil rights movement? 

Religious views

W: I'm not terribly religious. I didn't actually practice any religion, but I can say that my beliefs about writing and emotion can be applied to religion in some interesting ways. 

For example, as I will discuss in painful detail later, I wrote a lot about what I called the Affective Fallacy, and my point was that we shouldn't judge a poem by how it makes us feel, since that just throws the poem's aesthetic importance out the window. Similarly, I think that people should consider God and the Bible for what they are, and not for how they make us feel. All these feelings really cloud things. 

B: I can't say I was ever a pious man, but Mom and Dad were decent folks who raised me in the Congregationalist tradition, in which each individual church pretty much does its own independent thing. 

Activities & Interests

Likes

Going to formal events
Objectifying poems and sometimes people
Public art
Anonymity
Concrete and concrete things
Beauty
Being annoyingly orthodox (WKW)
Native American artifacts and chess (WKW)
Some good strong meter
T.S. Eliot

Dislikes

Biographies
Anything touchy-feely
Impressionist art
Ugliness
Romantic poets—such narcissists
People who don't agree with us about what is beautiful and what is not
Subjectivity
Anything fuzzy and unclear, especially when it involves language
Relativism—no, it's not "all good"
Critics with political agendas

Interests

Reading Longinus and Aristotle
Blowing off interviews
Earning honorary doctorates
Boycotting "Author Talks"
Giving talks with our backs to the audience
Participating in rational and logical discourse
Working every day to make literary criticism just a little bit better
Calling out other critics for their nonsensical ideas
Being academics who don't worry about what the "outside world" thinks
Judging
Getting crazy at a good civil rights rally (MB)
Teaching—I love those undergrads, and they love me (MB)

Groups

The Aesthetes
Book Huggers
The Critics' Critics
Stylists
Biography Deniers
Anti-Relativists
Anti-Impressionists
The Objectifiers
Enemies of the Author
Philosophers Aesthetes