Image of William Lyon Phelps


Lifetime: 1865 - 1943 Passed: ≈ 80 years ago


Author, Critic


United States

William Lyon Phelps

William Lyon Phelps was an American author, critic and scholar. He taught the first American university course on the modern novel. He had a radio show, wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column, lectured frequently, and published numerous books and articles.

Phelps' father Sylvanus Dryden Phelps was a Baptist minister, and the family had deep ancestral roots in Massachusetts Bay Colony. William, as a child, was a friend of Frank Hubbard, the son of Langdon Hubbard, a lumber merchant who founded Huron City, Michigan. Phelps earned a B.A. and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1887, writing an honors thesis on the Idealism of George Berkeley. He earned his 1891 from Yale and in the same year his A.M. from Harvard. He taught at Harvard for a year, and then returned to Yale where he was offered a position in the English department. He taught at Yale until his retirement in 1933.

Phelps was engaged to marry Frank's sister Annabel when Langdon Hubbard died. Annabel inherited the family estate and William christened it "The House of the Seven Gables,” after the Nathanial Hawthorne story of the same name. Her father built the house in 1882 on a bluff overlooking Lake Huron. The couple was married on the estate on December 21, 1892 and it became their summer home.

Phelps converted the space in front of the house from a trotting track into a private 18-hole golf course in 1899. and they lived there part-time from 1893 through 1933, when he retired, and full-time through 1938. They had no children.

Phelps was very athletic and played what was then the new game of baseball as well as golf and lawn tennis. He studied novelists like Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. During his first year at Yale he offered a course in modern novels. This brought the university considerable attention nationally and internationally which upset his tenured peers at Yale. He agreed to give up the course for a while to avoid the media attention. Responding to popular demand by his students, and to avoid scrutiny, he taught the same course outside the official curriculum. Once the unfavorable attention died down, he was appointed Lampson Professor of English Literature in 1901.

Phelps' courses became the most popular and well attended on campus. He had an engaging speaking style and was personally involved with what he taught. He wrote about English and European literature. During trips to Europe he met many of the leading writers of the turn of the 19th century.

Phelps taught at Yale for 41 years before retiring in 1933. From 1941 to 1943 he was the director of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

Books by William Lyon Phelps

Essays on Modern Novelists  Cover image

Essays on Modern Novelists

History Biography Literature Literary Criticism Short Works

The book is a collection of essays dedicated to several writers, Phelps had seen as remarkable/promising. Some are of English expression; some are foreigners, remarkable, nonetheless.