Thomas M. Greene, 77, Noted Scholar and Educator Dies

Thomas McLernon Greene, the Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University, whose tenure on the faculty at Yale spanned five decades, died on Monday, June 23, in New Haven.

Born in Haddonfield, New Jersey, on May 17, 1926, Greene attended Yale College, where he majored in English, graduating summa cum laude in 1949. He interrupted his undergraduate career to serve in the U.S. Army, 1945-47, as a special investigator for the Counter-Intelligence Corps. From 1949-51, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then returned to Yale to earn his Ph.D. in 1955 in Comparative Literature. He was appointed an instructor in English in 1954, and rose through the ranks to become a full professor of English and Comparative Literature in 1966. He was named to the Frederick Clifford Ford professorship in 1978. Over the years, Professor Greene headed the Directed Studies Program, the Department of Comparative Literature and the Renaissance Studies Program.

Professor Greene retired in 1996 after 42 years of teaching at Yale, but continued his scholarly activities up until the month before he died, completing the final revisions to a collection of essays that will appear next year. He wrote extensively in the field of Renaissance Studies and was honored for his outstanding teaching. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Medal of the College de France. He served as president of the Renaissance Society of America and was an officer of the International Comparative Literature Association, the American Comparative Literature Association and the Modern Language Association. In 1999, the Renaissance Society of America awarded him the Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award, “In recognition of a lifetime of uncompromising devotion to the highest standards of scholarship….” He was the first scholar of literature to be given this honor.

Professor Greene’s career spanned a time during which the field of literary criticism underwent enormous shifts in focus and philosophical outlook, with the introduction of Deconstructionism and other theories of literature. While he engaged actively with these changing points of view, Professor Greene’s contribution was to articulate a compelling rationale for centering the act of criticism on a close examination of text.

Among his books were “The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity” (1963), “Rabelais: A Study in Comic Courage” (1970), “The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry” (1982), “The Vulnerable Text: Essays on Renaissance Literature” (1986), PoŽsie et Magie” (“Poetry and Magic” 1991), “Calling from Diffusion: Hermeneutics of the Promenade” (2002) and “Poetry, Signs and Magic” (forthcoming). “The Light in Troy” won the Harry Levin Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association and the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language Association.

In addition to his writings, Professor Greene was much loved and respected by his many students, to whom he was famous for bringing an unfailing close attention, courtesy and quiet enthusiasm. Many of the students who enjoyed his mentoring have gone on to illustrious careers throughout the academic world. His distinguished teaching was recognized with the 1968 E. Harris Harbison Award from the Danforth Foundation

“Tom Greene was a giant in the world of scholarship and a profoundly influential teacher who shaped more than one generation of students of the Renaissance,” said David Quint, the George M. Bodman Professor of English and Comparative Literature and chair of the Renaissance Studies Program at Yale. “As one of those students, I can attest to the model of scholarly excellence, pedagogical dedication and humane generosity that he set for us.”

Noted scholar and critic Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities and English at Yale, met Greene soon after they enrolled at Yale as first-year graduate students in September 1951. “He and Liliane invited me to dinner,” and a half-century friendship began. “He was certainly one of the handful of great scholar-teacher-critics that I’ve encountered in my long academic career. He was the pre-eminent Renaissance scholar of his entire generation. In all my years at Yale, Tom was the most deeply learned person I knew. He was honest, open and immensely helpful. In the deepest and best sense, he was a gentleman.”

After retirement in 1996, Professor Greene created The Open-End Theater, an amateur drama company that endeavored to provoke middle- and high-school students in New Haven to grapple with the moral dilemmas that surround them. His achievement was to craft a theater experience for young people in which they learned that many of life’s questions resist easy or quick resolution. The Open-End Theater has performed for thousands of students over the past several years.

An avid ping-pong, tennis and squash player in his youth, Professor Greene was known throughout his life for his near fanatic dedication to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Professor Greene is survived by his wife of 54 years, Liliane Greene; three sons, Philip J. of Branford, Connecticut, Christopher G. of Madison, Connecticut, and Francis R. of Highland Park, Illinois; and five grandchildren.

A private funeral will be held in New Haven tomorrow. A public memorial service will take place at Yale in the fall.

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