Morton Dauwen Zabel’s death in Billings Memorial Hospital, Chicago, on April 28th, deprives American letters of a valuable critic—our first exchange professor to Brazil, editor of the first anthology of American poetry in Portuguese, editor of many other anthologies—ours and foreign work—prose and verse. An authority on Henry James, Conrad, and on contemporary poetry, he was conspiciously brilliant in his shafts of wit as a book critic among the experts who wrote for Margaret Marshall during her literary editorship of the Nation.
“Teacher and Critic”—the heading for The New York Times’s notice of Dr. Zabel’s death—is probably an accurate reflection of the impression made on those of his friends who were authors, and others of literary tastes: Robert Morss Lovett, Charles Trueblood, Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson, Wallace Fowlie. Hugh Kenner, Louise Bogan, Allen Tate, Malvina Hoffman, Eileen Tone, and T. S. Eliot. He was an almost lifetime friend of Miss Harriet Monroe, of Mrs. Donald F. Bond, librarian for many years of Chicago University’s Poetry Library, and of Dr. Bond, Editor of the University’s review, Modern Philology; long a friend of Miss Geraldine Udall, Poetry’s remarkable Secretary during Miss Monroe’s and Dr. Zabel’s editing of the magazine, for whom Dr. Zabel was instrumental in securing work appropriate to her later, when the need was crucial.
Honesty and probity are faint terms for Morton Zabel’s trenchant exactitude. Capacity for friendship does not even suggest his chivalry in two senses—toward individuals and to letters. In speaking with me of Chicago, T. S. Eliot has more than once alluded to Dr. Zabel’s extraordinary generosity of spirit, finding it possible to show him Maurice Browne’s pioneer Little Theatre in the Fine Arts Building, of special interest to him, and other literary landmarks. Many a friend will recall similar generosities; meals at the University Club, visits to the Oriental Institute, the Art Institute, and to the Field Museum’s Hall of Man collection of Malvina Hoffman’s racial types, her study of typical specimens throughout the world. Upon one occasion, Mr. Zabel was determined to find for me a scare-devil from the Nicobar Islands which I had seen formerly on an upper floor—tenaciously pursued till found by him in a miscellaneous collection in the basement of the Museum, awaiting placement. He was of extraordinary fortitude without self-emphasis or self-pity. On becoming aware of his sister’s recurrent brain-tumors, which were to lead to her death, one could not forget his anxious daily visits to the hospital month upon month, consultations with specialists affording no hope, traveling from hospital to classroom—lecturing and examinations of candidates for degrees. One contemplates such ordeals with reverence.
Literary chivalries were commensurate. Having written at length an article summarizing Miss Monroe’s career and achievements upon her retirement from the editorship of Poetry, Mr. Zabel hesitated to attempt a second conspectus after her death in South America; but since no one was so well equipped as he to do it, he wrote again: H.M.: IN MEMORY 1860-1936, an appreciation and résumè of her life—fourteen pages which appeared in the January issue of Poetry, 1961.
Requested to undertake a biography of Ruth Draper, he was reluctant to assume so difficultly delicate a task, but a sense of indebtedness to her gifts, nobility, and self-discipline overcame hesitation and, after exigent consultations with dramatic initiates and her friends, and others, he assembled what he felt was close to the facts yet an unintrusively reticent appreciation of her life and work. Then, “encountering what had been an extreme perplexity and distraction from the beginning by reason of hestitatings about the book and changes of feeling upon the part of her family,” he was obliged, he felt, to “revise, rework, outline and recast endlessly” under stress which brought him to the verge of illness. “Persisting against fatigue,” he rewrote the book. Self-discipline resulted in what seemed to impartial judges the right thing—deplored when published, for reticence—even rudely attacked by some for superficial treatment.
What Morton Zabel said of Miss Monroe as editor of Poetry was true of himself. He had “to exercise the vigorous eclecticism of choice which is always more difficult to maintain than a privileged selectivity.” The magazine did not, with Miss Monroe as editor or with him, “indulge in unpaid accounts, bankruptcy, and aesthetic martyrdom.” Devotion, patience, and unflagging kindness marked his attitude to contributors. “No resentments, grievances, arguments.” His Notes in fine print which concluded issues of Poetry, summarizing items of current interest, constitute an index to poetry of that period. This initiate contribution on Morton Zabel’s part is like his knowledge of and performance of music. A pupil of Leschetizsky in earlier years, he was ever finding with intense interest whatever good music was performed in Chicago. His fortitude and largeness of attitude have few counterparts. He was a person of high chivalry—a very great gentleman.