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Evans, Bergen, 1904-1978



  • Existence: 1904-1978


Bergen Baldwin Evans was born on September 19, 1904 in Franklin, Ohio, the third child of Rice Kemper and Louise Cass Evans' six children. Evans joined the faculty of Northwestern University as in the department of English in 1932. He was an incredibly popular instructor, and remained at Northwestern until his retirement in 1974. In addition to his career as an English scholar, Evans was an author and was involved with many television and radio programs. He died in 1978.

In 1909 Evans' father, a fourth generation doctor, gave up his practice to accept a clerkship in the consular service in Sheffield, England. The family lived there until 1915 when Rice Evans' salary could no longer support his large family. That and the outbreak of World War I forced him to send his children back to America to live with an aunt in Franklin, Ohio.

Bergen Evans was educated in both English and American schools and entered Miami University in Oxford, Ohio at the age of fifteen. Despite nearly being dismissed after his first year as a result of his unorthodox study habits, Evans graduated in 1924 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After earning an M.A. from Harvard in 1925 he returned to Miami University and taught English from 1925 to 1928. Thereafter he attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar from 1929 to 1931, receiving a B.Litt. degree in 1930. He returned to Harvard where he received a Ph.D. in English Philology in 1932. The subject of his dissertation was Samuel Johnson's career as a biographer.

In September of 1932, Evans began his teaching career at Northwestern as an Instructor in English. He remained at Northwestern until his retirement in 1974, being promoted to Assistant Professor in 1936, Associate Professor in 1939, and Professor in 1944. His courses, in particular, Introduction to Literature, became extremely popular, enrolling more students than any other course offered at the university.

Evans simultaneously pursued a second career as an author, publishing short stories in national magazines. As a result he won the Scribner Prize in 1939. As a feature writer for the American Mercury from 1947 to 1950 he contributed a column entitled “The Skeptics Corner.” Evans also published a number of books, with the first coming about by chance. Teaching in the university's Evening Division he became acquainted with a student, Herman Bishop, a mechanic, with whom he wrote Your Car is Made to Last, a car repair book for the layman. Evans second book, The Psychiatry of Robert Burton, written with G.J. Mohr in 1944, analyzed Burton's grasp of modern psychology while writing in the 17th century. His first book to gain popular attention was The Natural History of Nonsense (1946). He next published The Spoor of Spooks and Other Nonsense (1954) as a result of his long-standing interest in myths and superstitions.

Evans' major contribution to scholarship was The Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, which he authored in collaboration with his sister, Cornelia Evans Goodhue, in 1957. A vocabulary-building book containing chapters on British-American vocabulary, Word-A-Day, was released in 1963. Evans also wrote two reference works: Dictionary of Quotations (1968) and Dictionary of Mythology (1970). Evans also edited anthologies and literary works, including two relating to Samuel Johnson, and wrote essays, book introductions, and textbook chapters, as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and delivered numerous lectures.

In addition to his writing, Evans appeared on television and radio. After appearing briefly in a television program entitled “Majority Rules,” Evans became a nationally known personality through “Down You Go,” a program based on the parlor game “hang the butcher.” The program originated in Chicago and ran from 1951 - 1956 and was revived from 1961 - 1963.

Evans was also involved in several other television and radio panel shows through the 1950s and early 1960s, including “Of Many Things,” “Superghost,” “English for Americans,” “Inquiry,” “The Last Word,” “Words in the News,” and “Conversation.” For most of these programs Evans commuted to New York every weekend.

Although he did not appear on the program, beginning in 1955 Evans prepared questions used on the television game show “The $64,000 Question.” In 1959 the producers of the show were accused of coaching contestants, including giving them the questions in advance. Illinois State Representative Peter F. Mack, Jr. accused Evans of having been a part of the scandal and called for his resignation from Northwestern. Evans emerged from the scandal unscathed, having received the full support of his students and Northwestern president J. Roscoe Miller.

Evans retired from teaching in May of 1974, having taught three years past the University's mandatory retirement age of 68. He died on February 4, 1978.

Evans married Jean Whinery on August 5, 1939. They had two sons, Derek and Scott. Among the many honors Evans received during his long and productive career were the 1957 Peabody Award for outstanding public service in broadcasting, honorary degrees from Miami (Ohio) University in 1959 and Franklin and Marshall College and the Ohioana Career Medal in 1972.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Bergen Evans (1904-1978) Papers

Identifier: 11/3/11/9

Bergen Evans joined the faculty of Northwestern University in the department of English in 1932. He was an incredibly popular instructor, and remained at Northwestern until his retirement in 1974. The Bergen Evans Papers, comprising 83 boxes and spanning the period 1921–1978, includes biographical materials, educational materials, correspondence, teaching materials, research and consulting files, addresses, television and radio program files, and publications.

Dates: 1921-1978