Lionel Abel, UB Emeritus English Professor, Dies at 90

Release Date: April 24, 2001 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Nationally regarded playwright, drama critic and translator Lionel Abel, emeritus professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo, died April 19 in New York City. He was 90.

A noteworthy, if cantankerous, scholar and author, Abel frequently is cited in the literary company of Delmore Schwartz, Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling James Agee, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt and Elizabeth Hardwick.

He joined the UB faculty in 1967 and retired in 1979. He earlier was a visiting professor of drama at Columbia University, Rutgers University and UB, and a visiting professor of aesthetics at the Pratt Institute.

Among Abel's best-known works of scholarship are "Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form"(Hill & Wang, 1963), a collection of his essays and addresses, and his compilation, "Moderns on Tragedy: An Anthology of Modern and Relevant Opinions on the Substance and Meaning of Tragedy" (Fawcett, 1967).

His books, "The Intellectual Follies: A memoir of the literary venture in New York and Paris"(Norton, 1984) and "Important Nonsense" (Prometheus Books, 1987), also are frequently cited.

Leslie Fiedler, UB emeritus professor of English, knew Abel before and after his tenure at UB.

"As a scholar, Lionel preferred recent drama, that is, 20th-century drama. He was a playwright, but was more successful as a theater critic," Fiedler says. "He was a man of many fascinating ideas, but was not very diplomatic in his way of selling them. His way of dealing with people was to 'put them down.' He was very sure of himself. He sometimes boasted with great assurance about things that he had never read. Nothing got in his way. Lionel was a difficult customer.

"He was interested in literature in French, but also American and English work. For a long time, he was a completely independent intellectual who stayed out of universities because he distrusted them. He refused jobs at other universities, perhaps on the grounds that he wouldn't belong to any club that would have him," Fiedler says.

"He did not become widely known, but was very influential among those who did know him," he adds. "He's a man I would like to have in the department with me. I worked very hard to get him here and was glad I did. Of course, the first thing he did when he got her was insult me."

Miles Slatin, UB emeritus professor of English, agrees that Abel "had a reputation as a very tough customer. He liked to fight. He believed in the value of intellectual argument.

"In the late '60s or early '70s when a faculty member wrote a paper, we would have a meeting at which he or she would read the paper," Slatin recalls. "At one meeting, Angus Fletcher, a very distinguished Renaissance scholar who's now at Columbia, read his new work. As he read, Lionel sat back beaming and beaming and listening and listening.

"When Angus sat down, Lionel stood up and tore the paper apart. As he did, Angus sat there beaming and beaming and then got up and tore Lionel's arguments apart. As Angus spoke, Lionel sat there beaming and beaming... they went on and on, for the sheer pleasure of arguing. I always thought of it as an example of what the intellectual enterprise should be."

Abel's plays included "The Death of Odysseus," first produced in New York's Amato Theatre in 1953; "Absalom," first produced in New York at Artist's Theatre in 1956; "The Pretender," first produced in New York at Cherry Lane Theatre in 1960, and "The Wives," first produced in New York in 1965. His plays were anthologized by James Laughlin for New Directions in 1956 and by Herbert Machiz for Grove in 1960.

He translated several books, including "Some Poems of Rembaud" (Exiles Press, 1939), Apollinaire's "Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Meditations," Camille Pissarro's letters to his son, Lucien; three plays by Jean Paul Sartre, and Michel Seuphor's "Piet Mondrian: Life and Work."

Marcus Kline, UB emeritus professor of English, calls Abel, "contentious, yes, but very elegant. I knew him in New York and after I moved here I saw Lionel on the street near my home. 'Marcus,'" he said, "'you're gonna love it here. There's an all-night bakery on the corner.' He was delighted to have found some New York City in Buffalo."

"In his last years here it was for me to deal with him," Fiedler says. "Lionel had been a Marxist, but moved to the political far right and said a lot of things that made no sense at all. I must say, though, that talking to Lionel when he was being irrational was better than talking to most people who weren't.

"I guess I would conclude by saying that it's easy to say bad things about him, but much more interesting are the good things that are hard to say."

Funeral services were held in New York City on April 22.

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