Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894-1981), a pioneer investigator of the relationship between literature and science, helped shape the contemporary study of English and the humanities in American higher education as teacher, scholar, and administrator. She was the first woman president of Phi Beta Kappa and later served as president of the Modern Language Association.
Marjorie Hope Nicolson was born February 18, 1894, in Yonkers, New York, and died in White Plains, New York, on March 9, 1981. Her father, Charles Butler Nicolson, was the editor-in-chief of the Detroit Free Press during World War I and later became the paper's Washington correspondent. Her mother's maiden name was Lissie Hope Morris.
Nicolson took her B.A. at the University of Michigan in 1914 and her M.A. there in 1918. In 1920 she got her Ph.D. from Yale and did additional graduate work at Johns Hopkins from 1923 to 1926. She worked briefly for her father's paper, first as a drama critic, then in the Washington office during the early 1920s. While her father was sick for three months she ran the office by herself. The need to write compact, coherent copy for general audiences under deadline pressures helped shape her readable scholarly style as well as her direct and compelling classroom manner. Frederick Hard, President of Scripps College, remarked that Nicolson belonged "to that rare company of scholars who speak as lucidly, as readily, and as eloquently as they write…."
Her teaching career began in the public schools of Michigan. It was said that at one point she developed the art of wiggling her ears to keep the attention of her high school students. For college and graduate students of English she lectured without notes in syntactically complicated sentences and elaborately organized paragraphs, producing well-shaped oral essays. She cited large portions of text, poetry, and prose from memory. She could hold audiences spellbound with a mixture of erudition, clear delivery, and a sense of the human interest inherent in her subject. Her book John Milton: A Reader's Guide to His Poetry provides a good sense of her classroom manner, reading almost like a transcript of actual lectures.
She began her college teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1920, moving to Goucher College in 1923. In 1927 she joined the Smith College faculty, becoming professor of English in 1928 and dean in 1929. In 1941 she left to assume a professorship in Columbia University's graduate Department of English and Comparative Literature, the first woman to do so. She remained at Columbia until her retirement in 1962, becoming chairwoman of the department in 1954.
Nicolson had begun her scholarly career early, with a Guggenheim fellowship in 1926 and 1927, working in libraries abroad. Her early articles and books covered a wide range of subjects, including a student text of 19th century poets and one in The Art of Description. She also published articles and essays on detective fiction, Shakespeare, and college teaching and scholarship.
Her works examining the relationships among science, philosophy, imagination, and literature, however, constitute her most famous body of studies. A selection of her books in this area comprise a virtual outline of the subject: The Microscope and English Imagination (1935); A World in the Moon (1936); Newton Demands the Muse (1946), which received a prize from the British Academy; Voyages to the Moon (1948); The Breaking of the Circle (1950); Science and Imagination (1956); and Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959). She also wrote and lectured on the conflict between humanists and scientists in the 17th and 18th centuries as well as in the 20th century.
Recognition of her contributions to teaching, administration, and critical scholarship was abundant. She received 18 honorary degrees from such prestigious institutions as Princeton, Columbia, University of Michigan, Mt. Holyoke, Yale, Goucher, Rutgers, and Smith College. The American Council of Learned Societies and the American Association of University Women honored her. From 1930 to 1937 she was a member of the Guggenheim Foundation awards committee, and she remained a consultant until 1962.
At various times she was a visiting scholar or professor at Johns Hopkins and Princeton universities, Claremont Graduate School, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She served on the editorial boards of The American Scholar and of the Journal of the History of Ideas and was a consultant to the publications of the Modern Language Association and to Studies in Philology.
In 1940 she was elected president of Phi Beta Kappa, the first woman to hold that post and the only person to serve two terms. In 1963 she served as president of the Modern Language Association.
While she influenced the course of study for women while dean at Smith College, her period of greatest influence was at Columbia University, where she became a virtual legend.
Further biographical and bibliographical details may be found in the Directory of American Scholars and in Contemporary Authors. An extended essay on her time at Columbia may be found in Morris Freedman's "Marjorie Hope Nicolson," The American Scholar, 50 (Winter 1980-1981).