Partner Russell Cheney

Queer Places:
Hackley School, 293 Benedict Ave, Tarrytown, NY 10591, Stati Uniti
Polytechnic School, 1030 E California Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91106, Stati Uniti
University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 2JD, Regno Unito
Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, Stati Uniti
Cheney House, Old Ferry Ln, Kittery, ME 03904, Stati Uniti
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, Stati Uniti
Eliot House, 101 Dunster St, Cambridge, MA 02138, Stati Uniti
Hotel Manger, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, Stati Uniti
Springfield Cemetery, 171 Maple St, Springfield, MA 01105, USA

Francis Otto Matthiessen (February 19, 1902 – April 1, 1950) was an educator, scholar and literary critic influential in the fields of American literature and American studies.[1] His best known work, ''American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman'', celebrated the achievements of several 19th-century American authors and had a profound impact on a generation of scholars. Matthiessen was well known for his support of liberal causes and progressive politics. His contributions to the Harvard University community have been memorialized in several ways, including a recently endowed visiting professorship.

Matthiessen was born in Pasadena, California, on February 19, 1902. He was the fourth of four children born to Frederick William Matthiessen (1868-1948) and Lucy Orne Pratt (1866). The family's three older siblings included Frederick William (1894), George Dwight (1897) and Lucy Orne (1898).[2]

In Pasadena Matthiessen was a student at Polytechnic School. Following the separation of his parents, he relocated with his mother to his paternal grandparents home in Lasalle, Illinois. His grandfather, Frederick William Matthiessen, was an industrial leader in zinc production and a successful manufacturer of clocks and machine tools. He also served as mayor of Lasalle for ten years.[3] The grandson completed his secondary education at Hackley School, in Tarrytown, New York.

In 1923 Matthiessen graduated from Yale University, where he was managing editor of the Yale Daily News, editor of the Yale Literary Magazine and a member of Skull and Bones.[4] As the recipient of the university's Deforest Prize, Matthiessen titled his oration, "Servants of the Devil", in which he proclaimed Yale's administration to be an "autocracy, ruled by a Corporation out of touch with college life and allied with big business".[5] In his final year as a Yale undergraduate, he received the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize,[6] awarded to the senior "who through the combination of intellectual achievement, character and personality, shall be adjudged by the faculty to have done the most for Yale by inspiring in classmates an admiration and love for the best traditions of high scholarship".


Yale University, New Haven, CT

He studied at Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar earning a B.Litt. in 1925. At Harvard University, he quickly completed his M.A. in 1926 and Ph.D. degree in 1927. Matthiessen then returned to Yale to teach for two years, before beginning a distinguished teaching career at Harvard.

Matthiessen was known to his friends as "Matty".[7] As a gay man in the 1930s and 1940s, he chose to remain in the closet throughout his professional career, if not in his personal life – although traces of homoerotic concern are apparent in his writings.[8] In 2009, a statement from Harvard University said that Matthiessen "stands out as an unusual example of a gay man who lived his sexuality as an 'open secret' in the mid-20th century."[9][10]

He had a two decade long romantic relationship with the painter Russell Cheney, twenty years his senior. Like Matthiessen's family, Cheney's was prominent in business, being among America's leading silk producers. In a 1925 letter to Cheney, Matthiessen wrote about trusting friends with the knowledge of their relationship, rather than the world at large;[11] in planning to spend his life with Cheney, Matthiessen went as far as asking his cohort in the Yale secret society Skull and Bones to approve of their partnership.[12] With Cheney having encouraged Matthiessen's interest in Walt Whitman, it has been argued that ''American Renaissance'' was "the ultimate expression of Matthiessen's love for Cheney and a secret celebration of the gay artist."[13][14] Throughout his teaching career at Harvard, Matthiessen maintained a residence in either Cambridge or Boston. However, the couple often retreated to their shared cottage in Kittery, Maine. Russell Cheney died in July 1945.

Matthiessen committed suicide in 1950 by jumping off a 12th floor window of the Hotel Manger in Boston. He had been hospitalized once for a nervous breakdown in 1938–39. He also continued to be deeply affected by Russell Cheney's death. He spent the evening before his death at the home of his friend and colleague, Kenneth Murdock, Harvard's Higginson Professor of English Literature.

In a note left in the hotel room, Matthiessen wrote, "I am depressed over world conditions. I am a Christian and a Socialist. I am against any order which interferes with that objective."[15] Commentators have speculated on the impact of the escalating Red Scare on his state of mind. He was being targeted by anti-communist forces that would soon be exploited by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and inquiries by the House Un-American Activities Committee into his politics may have been a contributing factor in his suicide. In an article subsection titled "Dupes and Fellow Travelers Dress Up Communist Fronts" in the April 4, 1949 edition of ''Life Magazine'', Matthiessen is pictured among fifty prominent academics, scientists, clergy and writers, who also included Albert Einstein, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer and fellow Harvard professors, Kirtley Mather, Corliss Lamont and Ralph Barton Perry.[16] Writing in 1958, Eric Jacobsen referred to Matthiessen's death as "hastened by forces whose activities earned for themselves the sobriquet un-American which they sought so assiduously to fasten on others".[17] However, in 1978 Harry Levin was more skeptical, saying only that "spokesmen for the Communist Party, to which he had never belonged, loudly signalized his suicide as a political gesture".

Matthiessen was buried at Springfield Cemetery in Springfield, Massachusetts.[18]


  1. ^Smith, Dinitia (May 29, 2003). "American Culture's Debt To Gay Sons of Harvard". The New York Times. NYTimes.com. Retrieved June 3, 2006. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/29/arts/american-culture-s-debt-to-gay-sons-of-harvard.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1
  2. ^The Ancestry and the Descendants of John Pratt of Hartford, Conn Retrieved December 21, 2013. https://books.google.com/books?id=VDVLAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA179
  3. ^"newspaper obituary". February 11, 1918. Retrieved November 11, 2012. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6997626
  4. ^Yale University obituary mssa.library.yale.edu, Retrieved December 21, 2013. http://mssa.library.yale.edu/obituary_record/1925_1952/1949-50.pdf
  5. ^Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land, Retrieved December 21, 2013. https://books.google.com/books?id=1nij-fnz8RIC&pg=PA21
  6. ^"Biography of F. O. Matthiessen". Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus. Retrieved January 26, 2012. http://hglc.org/matthiessen.html
  7. ^Phelps, Christopher (May 1999). "Introduction: a Socialist Magazine in the American Century". Monthly Review. 51 (1): 2. http://www.monthlyreview.org/599phelp.htm
  8. ^"American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 431".
  9. ^Steinberg, Jacques (June 3, 2009). "Harvard to Endow Chair in Gay Studies". The New York Times. NYTimes.com. Retrieved June 4, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/education/04harvard.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=harvard%20gay%20lesbian%20caucus&st=cse
  10. ^Jan, Tracy (June 3, 2009). "Harvard to endow professorship in gay studies". The Boston Globe. Boston.com. Retrieved June 3, 2009. http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2009/06/harvard_to_endo.html
  11. ^Stein, Marc (2004). Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America. 2. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 238. ISBN 0684312611. "In the same letter to Cheney (7 February 1925), Matthiessen makes clear a distinction between the world and those 'close friends' with whom he thinks it safe to share the fact of their relationship."
  12. ^Levin, Harry. "The Private Life of F. O. Matthiessen." New York Review of Books 25:12 (July 20, 1978), pp. 42–46 (abstract online; full text for subscribers only). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=8104
  13. ^Bergman, David (January 1, 1991). Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. The University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-13050-9.
  14. ^Shand-Tucci, Douglass (May 19, 2003). The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality and the Shaping of American Culture. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-19896-5.
  15. ^"F.O. Matthiessen Plunges to Death from Hotel Window". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved November 11, 2012. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1950/4/1/f-o-matthiessen-plunges-to-death/
  16. ^"Red Visitors Cause Rumpus". Life Magazine. April 4, 1949. p. 43. Retrieved November 11, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=U04EAAAAMBAJ
  17. ^Jacobsen, Eric (1958). Translation: a Traditional Craft. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel. pp. 9–10.
  18. ^Find A Grave - F.O. Matthiessen Retrieved April 29, 2013. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7024168