M. H. Abrams

American literary theorist

Meyer (Mike) Howard Abrams (23 July 191222 April 2015) was an American literary critic, known for works on Romanticism, in particular his book The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1971).

We are human, and nothing is more interesting to us than humanity.


If you learn one thing from having lived through decades of changing views, it is that all predictions are necessarily false.

Cornell Chronicle interview (1999)

"Honored literary scholar M. H. Abrams continues his labors (of love)" in The Cornell Chronicle (10 June 1999)
  • The theories of the major philosophers of the 18th century secular enlightenment were biblical and theological in spite of themselves.
  • Hard work makes easy reading or, at least, easier reading.
  • I've always been surprised at the degree of success of The Mirror and the Lamp and the range and duration of esteem for it. … I had no reason to expect in 1953 that it would appeal to more than a specialized group interested in literary criticism. I think one of the reasons why it's been of interest to a broad spectrum of readers is because one of its emphases was on the role of metaphors in steering human thinking. It was a very early book to insist on the role of metaphors in cognition, as well as in imaginative literature — to claim that key metaphors help determine what and how we perceive and how we think about our perceptions.Natural Supernaturalism is quite well known and even used as a textbook, but it never seems to have attracted the acclaim of its predecessor.
  • If you read quickly to get through a poem to what it means, you have missed the body of the poem.
  • When something startlingly new comes up, young people, especially, seize it. You can't complain about that.
  • If you learn one thing from having lived through decades of changing views, it is that all predictions are necessarily false.
  • We are human, and nothing is more interesting to us than humanity. The appeal of literature is that it is so thoroughly a human thing — by, for and about human beings. If you lose that focus, you obviate the source of the power and permanence of literature.
  • It's amazing how, age after age, in country after country, and in all languages, Shakespeare emerges as incomparable.
  • He always violated your expectations. … He was a character.
  • The survival of artistic modes in which we recognize ourselves, identify ourselves and place ourselves will survive as long as humanity survives.
    • On the "death of literature"

People's Education interview (2007)

"An Interview with M. H. Abrams" by Sharon Hamilton (10 March 2007)
  • I think the hardest thing to teach a student is that what he or she puts down on paper is changeable. It’s not the final thing, it’s the first thing, which may just be the suggestive, vague identification of something that you have to come back to and rewrite. At first, students tend to freeze at the first effort. The breakthrough comes when they realize that they can make it better — can identify what their purposes were and realize better ways to achieve those purposes. That is the important thing in teaching students to write: not to be frozen in their first effort.
  • I think most of the things I published have been published out of desperation, not because they were perfected.
  • Pay attention to your students. Hear what they say, try to find out what their capacities are, what make sense to them. Adapt what you are doing and saying to those capacities, but make your students stretch upward. I think the trick is to adapt to the level of a student, but never rest on that level — always make them reach out. … If a student does not quite get it the first time, he or she will come back and get it later. If you don’t set your writing — and teaching — at a level that makes them stretch, they are never going to develop their intellectual muscle.
  • All students are capable of growth. Some of them seem to be very slow to begin with and it’s probably not their fault, nor do I think it’s a matter of genetics. It’s a matter of what has happened in their lives before. They are all capable of growing, but they will not grow unless you interest them, captivate them in some way, and then make them reach out. Then they will finally enjoy reaching out.

The New York Times dialogue with S. Greenblatt (2012)

"Built to Last" by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt in The New York Times: Sunday Book Review. (23 August 2012)
  • Life without literature is a life reduced to penury. It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human. It makes life enjoyable.
  • One of the joys of teaching with the anthology is to watch the excitement grow as students, who may think the past dull and irrelevant, find how fresh and new and powerful are the kinds of writings that are hundreds of years old.
  • It’s a pleasure that you don’t outgrow the anthology.
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