The William Van O'Connor Library

William Van O'Connor


William Van O’Connor was born in Syracuse, New York on Jan. 10, 1915, attended Christian Brothers Academy, and graduated from Syracuse University in 1937 with a jointly awarded B.A. and M.A.  At Columbia University, he completed course work for his doctorate within two years, then took a teaching job at Ohio State University in 1940‑41.  In 1941 O’Connor accepted an instructorship at Louisiana State University where he wrote his first book, The New Woman of the Renaissance, and worked with Cleanth Brooks, Robert Heilman and Robert Penn Warren, who were shaping American literary criticism.  O’Connor met and married a Department colleague, Mary Allen, with whom he co-wrote his second book, Climates of Tragedy.  During three years as a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army in New Guinea and the Philippines, O’Connor met Karl Shapiro with whom he shared friendship and his copy of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.  Shapiro later said the Oxford Book, together with the Bible and quotes in his head were his library for “Essay on Rime.”  

After the war, O’Connor received a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, and he began to write a new dissertation under his Columbia thesis committee headed by Lionel Trilling, and with Marjorie Hope Nicolson and William York Tindall.  Invited to the English Department at the University of Minnesota by Chair Joseph Warren Beach, O’Connor was particularly glad to join a department where Robert Penn Warren was directing the Creative Writing Program.  The Ph.D was awarded, and O’Connor’s thesis, Sense and Sensibility in Modern Poetry, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1948.  

O’Connor rose to full professor at University of Minnesota within nine years and served as Director of Graduate Studies.  In those years O’Connor taught summer session at the University of Puerto Rico, was the first Fulbright Lecturer to the University of Liege, Belgium, was Berg Professor of English and American Literature at New York University, and taught summer session at Duke University and at Columbia University.

O’Connor was hired at UC Davis in 1961 to build a graduate program, and he became Chair in 1962.  He began to build a graduate library to complement the collections at Shields Library.  On his travels and in his administrative and scholarly pursuits, O’Connor sought out books and periodicals that would enhance the resources of the Department.  Supporting the research and publications of his colleagues, O’Connor was a prolific writer of articles and reviews for both the popular and scholarly presses.  In addition to the books mentioned above, his works include The Shaping Spirit: A Study of Wallace Stevens, 1950, reissued 1964; The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner, 1954, and William Faulkner, 1959; A Key to American Literature, 1962; The Grotesque: An American Literary Genre, 1962; and The New University Wits, 1963.  O’Connor had suggested the successful “Pamphlets” format to the University of Minnesota Press and edited and wrote for that series, as well as editing and writing for the Modern Writers Pamphlet series of Columbia University Press.  He edited Forms of Modern Fiction: Essays Collected in Honor of Joseph Warren Beach, 1948; Twentieth Century Literature in America with Frederick J. Hoffman, 1951-52; Poems for Study with Leonard Unger, 1953; Modern Prose: Form and Style, 1959; American Literary Forms, 1960; and Seven Modern American Novelists, 1964.  O’Connor edited Religion and American Literature, 1964, in collaboration with his UCD colleague Robert Wiggins, a book that included chapters by other Davis faculty: Everett Carter, David Jacobson and Brom Weber. 

Translations of many of these publications were made into Asian, Arabic and other Romance languages.  O’Connor also wrote an essay on the life and writings of William Faulkner for The Ladder Edition, a series for readers for whom English is a second language. 

O’Connor’s creative writing included short stories in Kenyon Review and Prairie Schooner, and in his book, Campus on the River, 1960, which The New York Times said gave “heartening evidence that professors are part of the human race.”  His poetry was published from 1943 across two decades, including the 1963 collection, High Meadow.  He was writing poetry on illness and death at the end of his life.

His play In the Cage, centering on Ezra Pound’s imprisonment by the U.S. Army in Pisa, Italy, was produced in Minneapolis in 1961, published in 1967 and produced off-Broadway in 1969.  His poetic play, The Heron and the Hawk, 1963, was publicly read by the UCD Drama Department. 

O’Connor was committed to his students, graduate and undergraduate, and to those who had become professors and writers themselves, including Murray Krieger and Earl Miner, who have essays in Sense and Sensibility in Twentieth-Century Writing: A Gathering in Memory of William Van O’Connor (edited by Brom Weber, 1970).  O’Connor was active in the National Council of Teachers of English and was a member of the University’s Graduate Council, the Committee on Academic Advising for the Santa Cruz campus, and the Committee for Regents’ Lecturers and Professors. 

The English Department was housed with other language departments in Voorhies Hall from November 1959 until it moved to Sproul Hall in November of 1963.  The Department’s Reference Collection and Reading Room was set up in that year with Professor Weber’s oversight and Marian Koritz serving as librarian.  Early money for purchases was obtained from Title XI National Defense Education Act funding.  In 1965 $3,000 was budgeted to the collection by Chancellor Emil Mrak and occasional donations and gifts were received.  In 1966 a further grant from the National Defense Education Act was made in the amount of $1,475, specifically for purchases of books for teachers of English in grades 7 through 12 in support of the program “Model Educational Curriculum Center.”  The library was founded for the purpose of obtaining standard bibliographic works and definitive editions of major authors and full on-going sets of periodicals that were either not available or were reprints at Shields Library, but would be specifically useful in graduate study. 

O’Connor had been the 24th Faculty Research Lecturer in March 1966 (speaking on “The Fabric of Fiction”) and was Professor, Step 5, and Chair of the English Department when he died suddenly September 26, 1966, the first day of the fall quarter.  At his death he had a full teaching schedule and was working on research begun in England on Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a Roman Catholic aristocrat granted title to what is now the several states of New England.  The possible differences in American attitudes and actions that would have come from a territory settled through such a grant, as opposed to the history begun by the American Puritans, was a new interest to O’Connor. 

At his death, Bill O’Connor’s friends and colleagues generously provided special gifts in his honor to the Memorial Library including a first edition of City Lights pamphlets on the Beat Poets, a whole first edition of Ruskin (Shields Library had the reprint), and donated by Professor Robert Wiggins were recordings of Ezra Pound held only at Davis and in the National Archives. Jerome Rosen, Chair of the UCD Music Department., wrote and produced “The Planctus” from O’Connor’s poetry and presented a record to the Library. O’Connor’s family—his widow Mary Allen O’Connor, and children Willa, Ellen and Jewett—donated the portrait that hangs in the Library.

The collection was formally incorporated into the William Van O’Connor Memorial Library in an opening ceremony outside Sproul Hall that included his family’s presentation of his portrait in May 1967.  Professor John Hayden served as academic advisor to the Library Committee and Betty Kimura was librarian until 1993, when budget shortfalls restricted the library’s services. The English Department’s move back to Voorhies provided an opportunity to revitalize the Library and it re-opened in September 2002.    

Further Reading:

Phillips, Robert, The Achievement of Wiliam Van O'Connor.  Syracuse University, 1969.

Scheuring, Ann F.  Abundant Harvest: The History of the University of California, Davis.  UC Davis History Project, 2001.

Weber, Brom, ed. Sense and Sensibility in Twentieth-Century Writing: A Gathering in Memory of William Van O’Connor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.




Collections & Catalogues          History        Using the Library       O'Connor Library       English Department       UC Davis