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Samuels, Ernest, 1903-1996



  • Existence: 1903 - 1996


Ernest Samuels was born on the south side of Chicago on May 19, 1903. His parents were Albert (also known as Alexander) and Mary (Kaplan) Samuels. He attended Chicago Public Schools, including Tilden Technical High School, after which he entered the University of Chicago as a pre-law student in 1919. He received a Bachelor of Philosophy in Law and French in 1923 and immediately entered the University of Chicago Law School. Although ill with tuberculosis for one year during this time, he received his J.D. in 1926.

After graduation a recurrence of the disease forced him-to go to New Mexico in order to recuperate. After recovering he established a law practice in El Paso, Texas, in partnership with Harold Potash, remaining there from 1928-1930. In 1930 he then returned to Chicago to pursue a long standing interest in literature. While a student he had edited and written articles for The Pyramid, his fraternity literary magazine.

From January to August 1931 he resumed his studies at the University of Chicago, this time in the English Department. He passed a proficiency examination to attain the equivalent credits of an undergraduate literature major and after three quarters of study, during which he wrote a thesis on Henry David Thoreau's literary reputation, he received a Master of Arts in English.

The prevailing economic situation led Samuels to take the first available position, teaching English and Law at Bryant Stratton College, a business school in Chicago. During his tenure there, 1931-1936, he was chairman of the English Department. He also developed a business English textbook-workbook, Business English Projects (1936 and later editions). The book was originally designed to supplement his own class work, but it was eventually adopted by 600 schools.

He also resumed the practice of law, becoming licensed in Illinois in 1933. He pursued the law exclusively in 1936-1937, working for his brother Leo Samuels' firm. He then received an offer to teach at the State College of Washington (later Washington State University) at Pullman. He taught his first upperclass literature classes at Washington State and this experience convinced him of the need to strengthen his background in literature; hence, in 1939 he again entered the University of Chicago to pursue a PhD in American and English literature.

While at Pullman, he met and married Jayne Porter Newcomer on August 24, 1938. She held a Bachelor's degree in education from Grinnell College and was a teaching fellow while pursuing her Master's degree at Pullman. She later served as Samuels' research associate and pursued her own career as a teacher and administrator at Kendall College in Evanston. The Samuels have three children: Susanna (1943), Jonathan (1944) and Elizabeth (1952).

Returning to his studies at the University of Chicago full time in 1939, Samuels began the research project that would last for more than twenty years. His chief interest was post-Civil War American literature, and accordingly, his dissertation topic was, “The Early Career of Henry Adams.” Samuels received his PhD from Chicago in September 1942.

Samuels was appointed Instructor of English in the fall of 1942 at Northwestern University, where he remained until his retirement in 1971. He became an Assistant Professor in 1946, Associate Professor in 1949, and full Professor in 1954. He also served as department chairman from 1964-1966 and held the Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professorship from 1970-1971.

While at Northwestern Samuels continued his research on the career of Henry

Adams and in 1948 The Young Henry Adams was published by Harvard University Press. The first of what would become a three-volume biography was based upon his dissertation. He later wrote Henry Adams: The Middle Years (1958) and Henry Adams: The Major Phase (1964), after receiving permission to use the Adams papers, which had previously been closed. During the 1955-1956 academic year after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, he took a leave of absence to work on the second volume. With its publication in 1958 Samuels was awarded the Parkman Prize by the Society of American Historians, and in early 1959, Columbia University awarded him the Bancroft Prize, as well. During the year 1958-1959 he served as Fulbright lecturer in American literature and civilization in Belgium. The zenith of his career came with the publication of Henry Adams: The Major Phase in the fall of 1964. The following May he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Biography for 1965. Samuels himself later served on the Pulitzer Prize Jury in Biography and History.

In 1966-1967 Samuels held the Leo S. Bing Visiting Professorship at the University of Southern California. He had already begun his next project, a biography of the art historian and critic Bernard Berenson. In 1971-1972 he was awarded a second Guggenheim Fellowship to research and write the Berenson biography, a project he worked on full-time after retiring from Northwestern in August 1971. The work was published in 1979. In addition, after having served on the editorial advisory committee for the Adams (family) Papers, Samuels became senior editor of the Henry Adams letters, a projected six-volume series.

Samuels was an active member of several professional organizations including the Modern Language Association, National Council of Teachers of English, American Studies Association, American Association of University Professors, College English Association and the Massachusetts Historical Society. He also edited and wrote introductions to several new editions of Henry Adams' major works.