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Lily Bess Campbell (1883–1967)

Author of Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion

Includes the names: Lily B. Campbell, Campbell Lily Bess

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Lily Bess Campbell: 1883-1967
Professor Emeritus, English, UCLA

“Erudite and discriminating Renaissance scholars throughout the world long ago learned that Lily Bess Campbell, Professor of English at the University of California, was one of the most vigorous, energetic, and penetrating investigators and writers in the field.” So, upon the occasion of her retirement in 1950, wrote Louis B. Wright, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, about this distinguished scholar and influential teacher who died on February 18, 1967.

The circumstances of her early life did much to develop that single-minded pursuit of intellectual truth which Miss Campbell demanded of herself and of all. Her father was the founding minister of the Presbyterian church in Ada, Ohio, where she was born in 1883. Her precarious health soon led the family to move to Texas. There, despite periods of bedridden illness, she not only received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees at the University of Texas but also wrote a thesis of such quality on The Grotesque in the Poetry of Robert Browning that it was published by the University Press.

Her health restored and her promise as a literary scholar clearly indicated, she moved to the University of Chicago to pursue the doctorate at a time when it was rare and risky for a woman to do so. However, with another woman scholar like Myra Reynolds to encourage her in her ambition, and with J. M. Manly and C. R. Baskervill to guide her in the then-new “historical approach” to literary studies, she produced a dissertation in 1921 which, when published by Cambridge University under the title Scenes and Machines on the Elizabethan Stage, established her at once as a scholar of international repute and authority in the field of Renaissance dramatic literature. Meanwhile, she had demonstrated the effectiveness of her Socratic methods as a teacher at the University of Wisconsin from 1911 to 1918 and her characteristic sense of public service as regional executive secretary of the YWCA from 1918 to 1920.

With these achievements in scholarship, teaching, and service a matter of record, her arrival on the Los Angeles campus of the University in 1922 augured well for the “Southern Branch” on Vermont Avenue that was then hoping to become a major center of learning.

The rigorous intellectual standards which she required of herself and of her students characterized all of her manifold contributions to the reputation subsequently achieved by UCLA and by its Department of English in the world of literary scholarship. She was one of the first to recognize the research opportunities in Renaissance literature available to University scholars at the nearby Huntington Library. Even before the death of its founder, Henry E. Huntington, Miss Campbell had been admitted to this rich collection to pursue her Elizabethan studies. When the Library became public property she was, fittingly enough, issued Reader's Card Number One. Her weekly trips to the Huntington Library thereafter, usually with students or younger colleagues in tow, inspired the latter and led to her own books on Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature which, as the New York Times observed when she died, “established an approach to the understanding of Shakespeare's plays and the Elizabethan age that influences critics throughout the world.” Among these, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes in 1930 radically altered modern thinking about Shakespeare's tragedies, and Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Politics in 1947 did the same for the history plays. Both books, like her earlier Scenes and Machines, have been continually reprinted to meet the demands of interested scholars. Meanwhile, her two-volume edition of The Mirror for Magistrates had demonstrated her accuracy and acumen as an editor of literary texts. Even after her retirement, her indefatigable drive produced in 1959 her influential volume on Divine Poetry and Drama in Sixteenth-Century England.

Central in all of Miss Campbell's books and articles, and probably accounting for her permanent impact on literary scholarship, was her well-documented conviction that a complete understanding of Renaissance literature demanded a knowledge of the intellectual environment that produced that literature. As she herself put it, “I do not believe that a poet exists in a vacuum, or even that he exists solely in the minds and hearts of his interpreters.... Rather, it seems to me the poet must be reckoned a man among men, a man who can be understood only against the background of his own time.”

The intellectual demands which characterized her own work inspired admiration and emulation in a wide variety of students, undergraduate and graduate alike. When she saw genuine literary or scholarly promise in the classroom, she could be more than generous with her time and interest. Thus, she was instrumental in establishing and encouraging the UCLA chapter of Chi Delta Pi, the English undergraduate honorary society which still flourishes. Not only did she guide promising young writers in her composition classes, but, practicing with them what she preached, she herself wrote a novel, These Are My Jewels, which enjoyed a considerable success d'estime when it was published in 1929. Within the classroom and without, her flashes of wit, her illuminating insights, and, above all, her insistent demands for knowledge and good sense frequently awed but always inspired her students. One of them, Agnes De Mille, subsequently recalled in her autobiography, Dance to the Piper, the memorable occasions when she was “drinking tea with Dr. Lily Campbell and the professors, lapping up talk of books and history.” Miss De Mille herself, however, acknowledges, gratefully if somewhat ruefully, that Lily Campbell's forthright advice over the teacups helped turn the would-be dancer into the successful choreographer that she became.

Recognition of Miss Campbell's achievement as scholar and teacher came frequently during her lifetime. The first of her honorary degrees was the Litt.D. conferred in 1940 by Ohio Northern University in her native state. In the following year, the University of Chicago awarded her the L.H.D. as one of the 50 most significant American scholars chosen by the University to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. Then in 1951, UCLA, which had named her Faculty Research Lecturer in 1935, further acknowledged its indebtedness by conferring upon her the degree LL.D. Subsequently, the Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women in 1960 and the “Woman of the Year” award from the Los Angeles Times in 1962 gave both national and local public recognition to her achievement.

Although Miss Campbell was not without a wide and admiring audience, the size of the audience which she might reach never altered her insistent determination to present the facts of literature and of life as she saw them. Rather, all that she did was governed by a principle of intellectual integrity perhaps best expressed in lines from an Elizabethan poem which she regularly assigned to her students, Samuel Daniel's Musophilus, Containing a General Defense of All Learning:

And for my part, if only one allow
The care my laboring spirits take in this,
He is to me a theater large enow,
And his applause only sufficient is,
And if some worthy spirits be pleased too,
It shall more comfort breed, but not more will.
But what if none? It cannot yet undo
The love I bear unto this holy skill;
This is the thing that I was born to do,
This is my scene, this part I must fulfill.

(Franklin P. Rolfe, H. T. Swedenberg, James E. Phillips)
Disambiguation notice


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