René Wellek  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

René Wellek (August 22, 1903, Vienna – November 11, 1995, Hamden, Connecticut) was a Czech-American comparative literary critic. Like Erich Auerbach, Wellek was an eminent product of the Central European philological tradition and was known as a vastly erudite and "fair-minded critic of critics."

René Wellek was born and raised in Vienna, speaking Czech and German. He studied literature at the Charles University in Prague, and was active among the Prague School linguists there, before moving to teach in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1935, now part of University College, London.

From World War II on, Wellek lived in America. He taught first at the University of Iowa, where he taught for seven years, and then, beginning in 1946, at Yale University, where he established and chaired a department of comparative literature. In the United States, he was "widely regarded as a founder of the study of comparative literature in the United States." With Austin Warren, Wellek published a landmark volume entitled Theory of Literature, one of the first works to systematize literary theory. Beginning in the 1960s, Wellek defended the New Critics against the condemnation of their work in the name of a structuralist-influenced literary theory, and is thus sometimes classed as a conservative critic. However, Wellek always emphasized the importance of interpretation in literary criticism and was impatient with purely empirical approaches to literary scholarship.

The crowning work of Wellek's career was an eight-volume magnum opus entitled A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, the last two volumes of which he dictated from his bed in a nursing home.

Wellek married twice.

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