Skip to main content

Harold Kaplan: Literary Critic, Author, Poet Dies at 99

Northwestern professor remembered as ‘gifted and generous teacher’

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Harold Kaplan, Northwestern University professor emeritus of English and American literature, died March 7 in Williamstown at the age of 99 following a period of declining health.

A distinguished literary critic and poet, Kaplan joined Northwestern in 1972 and retired in 1986.

“He arrived the same year I did, he as an eminent senior professor and I just out of graduate school,” said Carl Smith, a celebrated author and the Franklyn Bliss Snyder Emeritus Professor of English and American Studies at Northwestern. “Harold was a very important friend and wise mentor who encouraged me and helped me with my work in my early career.”

The youngest of seven children, Kaplan was born in Chicago in 1916 to Lithuanian immigrants Elia and Ida Kaplan. He grew up on the South Side and attended the University of Chicago on a scholarship.

After post-graduate study in English literature, Kaplan made his way to New York City. There he settled into a thriving literary scene in Greenwich Village and became friends with many noted literary figures of his generation, including Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz and Stanley Edgar Hyman.

Following his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1946, Kaplan was hired by Rutgers University, where he discovered his passion for teaching. He joined the literature division at Bennington College in 1949 to begin a long career in teaching literature and creative writing.

In 1961, he embarked on one of a series of Fulbright-sponsored teaching positions in Dijon, France, where he met and fell in love with Isabelle Ollier of Clermont-Ferrand, a city in France. They married and in 1962 returned to Bennington, where she joined him on the faculty.

“What was wonderful about him, in addition to his penetrating intelligence, was his passion for ideas generally,” Northwestern’s Smith said. “He was deeply engaged not only in the study of literature but also in the major social, political and philosophical issues of our time.”

Kaplan is the author of “The Passive Voice: An Approach to Modern Fiction,” “Democratic Humanism and American Literature,” “Power and Order: Henry Adams and the Naturalist Tradition in American Fiction,” “Conscience and Memory: Meditations in a Museum of the Holocaust,” “Poetry, Politics and Culture: An Argument in the Works of Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Williams,” a book of his poetry titled “Redemptive Memory,” and a family collection, “A Memoir of Being Human.”

During the four years that Kaplan served in the Army, he trained pilots in Texas and was selected to write a history of the U.S. Army Air Corps and its role in the war.

In addition to his wife Isabelle, Kaplan is survived by three children; Anne Kaplan, Gabriel Kaplan and Claire Kaplan, and eight grandchildren. 

Back to top