November 11, 1999
University Gazette


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Alan Heimert, Teacher Of American Literature, English 70 Course, Dies

Alan Heimert ’49, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature and a former Master of Eliot House, died in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1, at 70. He suffered from cardiovascular problems, family members said.

"For four decades, Alan Heimert’s capacious, penetrating understanding of the American mind and character has been an inspiration to his students and colleagues alike," said Walter Kaiser, Francis Lee Higginson Professor of English Literature and professor of comparative literature. "Harvard has lost an incomparable teacher and counselor, and our country one of its wisest interpreters."

Born in Oak Park, Ill., on Nov. 10, 1928, Heimert prepared for Harvard College at York Community High School in Elmhurst, Ill. He received his A.B. in government from the College in 1949, his M.A. from Columbia University in 1950, and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1960.

Heimert was a teaching fellow in history and literature at Harvard in 1952, then served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1955. He returned to Harvard and in 1961 became instructor of English. He was named associate professor of English in 1965 and became Powell M. Cabot Professor in 1969. He chaired the Department of English and American Literature and Language from 1972 to 1976.

He became a Tutor in Eliot House in 1951, and after service as both a resident and non-resident Tutor, he was Master of Eliot House from 1968 to 1991. As Master he dedicated himself to creating and strengthening House programs, including the teaching of House sections for large undergraduate courses. Heimert practiced what he preached, teaching sections of his renowned American literature survey course, English 70, in Eliot House.

In the five years prior to his death he took on increasing numbers of undergraduate students for individual and group tutorials, his favorite setting for teaching and learning, particularly in the concentration of History and Literature, with which he was affiliated for nearly four decades. "In History and Literature, he could always be counted on to teach tutorials," said Daniel Donoghue, professor of English and American literature and language. "The more he was given, the happier he was — and his students often went on to distinguished careers."

An expert on the Puritans and on 18th-century America, Heimert was the author of Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the American Revolution (1966), which has had a significant, continuing impact on the study of that era in American history. He was co-author, with Rheinhold Niebuhr, of A Nation So Conceived (1963), co-editor, with Perry Miller, of The Great Awakening (1967), and, with Andrew Delbanco, of The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology (1985).

Colleagues, former students, and friends are quick to note that Heimert’s scholarly interests were not a full measure of the man. He was founding director of the Harvard South Africa Fellowship Program, which since its inception in 1981 has brought more than 100 South African professionals to Harvard for a year of study. During the turbulent 1968-69 academic year, he served on the Faculty Committee on African and Afro-American Studies. He was also a member of the Committee of Fifteen and the University Committee on Governance from 1969-71.

"Alan was incisive, perceptive, wise, funny, and very smart," said Daniel Steiner, former Harvard vice president and general counsel, of Heimert’s service in those years. "He had high standards and a great loyalty to, and a clear and noble vision of, Harvard College, and he fought the good fight over many years to maintain that vision. His strengths were many, his contributions lasting."

Heimert introduced thousands of undergraduates to American literature in his 32 years of teaching English 70, as well as training many teaching fellows who went on to become leading scholars. Over the 30-year course of his involvement with Harvard’s History of American Civilization program, he advised more dissertations than any other member of the committee. He continued to advise graduate students on dissertations until his death.

"Alan, whose own passionate interests included not only the relationship of 18th-century religious revivals and revolutionary ideology but also Melville, American jazz, and the ending of South African apartheid, followed the careers of many of [his students] with uncommon generosity, dedication, and pride," said Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and professor of Afro-American studies. "He will be sorely missed by the international community of Americanists."

"Alan Heimert was a great teacher who inflamed generations of students with a passion for the life of the mind," said former student Andrew Delbanco, now Julian Clarence Levi Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.

Heimert was elected to the American Antiquarian Society in 1986 and that year also was named a Fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. In 1995 the Early American Literary Division of the Modern Language Association gave him its lifetime achievement award for scholarship and teaching in the field of colonial literature. And in 1997 Harvard awarded him the Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Award for excellence in undergraduate instruction.

Alan Heimert is survived by his wife, Arline Grimes Heimert, of Winchester, Mass.; his son, Andrew, of Washington, D.C.; his daughter, Larisa, of New Haven, Conn.; and a sister, Marion Rees, of Los Altos, Calif.

A service in Heimert’s memory is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 19, at 3 p.m. in the Memorial Church, with a reception to follow in Eliot House.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College