In Memoriam: Martin Price, Distinguished Scholar of 18th-Century English Literature

Martin Price, Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and one of the 20th century’s most distinguished scholars of the Augustan Age and the history of the novel, died on April 10. He was 90 years old.

Price’s preeminence as an authority on 18th-century English literature was established with the first two books he authored: “Swift’s Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning” (1953) and “To the Palace of Wisdom: Studies in Order and Energy from Dryden to Blake” (1964). With the publication of “Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel” in 1983, Price emerged as a leading expert on the evolution of the novel as a literary genre.

Harold Bloom, to whom Price dedicated “To the Palace of Wisdom,” said of his colleague of 40 years: “Martin Price was one of the most gifted and independent scholarly critics of our time. He wrote three books I rely upon. His early study, ‘Swift’s Rhetorical Art,’ is the best account I know of the greatest ironist in the language. His two major works are ‘To the Palace of Wisdom,’ an unmatched overview of 18th-century English literature and thought; and ‘The Forms of Life,’ a seminal description of character in the novel.”

Born in New York in 1920, Price earned his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York at the age of 18. He went on to do graduate work in creative writing and, later, literary criticism at the University of Iowa, where he received his M.A. in 1940. This was followed by a series of teaching positions in the Midwest, which were interrupted by service in the military. After World War War II, he came to Yale, where he taught while doing his doctoral work on the prose style of Jonathan Swift under the noted scholar Maynard Mack. He received his Ph.D. at Yale in 1950.

He was appointed full professor in 1964, named the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor in 1971, and appointed a Sterling Professor in 1978.

In 1999, Price was awarded one of Yale’s highest honors, the DeVane Medal for scholarship and teaching.

Duke University president and Yale alumnus Richard Brodhead noted of his former teacher: “Martin Price had a vast curiosity about literature and its sister arts and a rare sensitivity to the nuances of literary effects. As a teacher, he was gentle of manner but intimidating too, since he held others - as he held himself - to such high standards of intelligence. Above all, he gave his students a compelling example of devotion to the life of the mind.”

Price is survived by his wife, Mary, a former managing editor of The Yale Review; two children, Peter and Maggie; and two grandchildren.

In lieu of a funeral, a memorial service will be held at a date to be determined.

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