William Lyon Phelps, Educator, Literary Critic and Author
William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943) was an American educator, literary critic and author. He served as a professor of English at Yale University from 1901 to 1933. His works include: "Advance of the English Novel" and "Essays on Modern Dramatists."
William Lyon Phelps ... once gave an examination in English literature just before Christmas break. He asked his students to discuss poet Gerard Manley Hopkin's "sprung rhythm" technique. One young man handed in his exam reading, "Only God knows the answer to your question. Merry Christmas." Professor Phelps returned the paper after Christmas with the note, "Happy New Year. God gets an A-you get an F."
--Donna E. Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services
North Carolina State University Commencement, Raleigh, North Carolina
May 20, 2000
|William Lyon Phelps at Yale|
William Lyon Phelps’ career was a long and distinguished one. He began as a young and dynamic instructor at Yale in 1890’s. He was very athletic and played the then brand new game of baseball. He also loved golf and lawn tennis. He studied the works of novelists such as Tolstoy and Turgenev, and in his first year as a Yale instructor, offered a course in modern novels. This course got attention from the international press, which did not endear him to his tenured Yale peers. This was the first time the name William Lyon Phelps became widely known.
The young instructor agreed to give up the course for a few years since the media attention was unwelcome to the University. Instead he taught it outside the official curriculum by popular demand of his students. When the attention had died down, he was appointed Lampson Professor of English Literature at Yale. His lecture courses became the most popular and well attended on campus and his school spirit at sporting events was infectious.
William Lyon Phelps became known throughout the world as a leading literary scholar, educator, author, book critic and preacher. He was an engaging and incandescent orator who drew large audiences wherever he spoke. He lectured on the famous Town Hall Lecture circuit nationwide. In the summer of 1922, the pastor of the Huron City Methodist Episcopal Church asked him to preach there regularly during the summer. He had already been preaching there on occasion, but now his Sunday afternoon services began to attract such large numbers of people that the little church was expanded twice, in 1925 and again in 1929, to accommodate the crowds. Frank Hubbard and his wife Elizabeth made contributions to the church, which made the new construction possible.
At the height of Billy’s popularity, between 800 and 1,000 people attended his summer services at Huron City. Billy wrote in his autobiography that the pews would seat 600 people and an additional 400 people could be seated using folding chairs. Some first hand accounts tell of overflow crowds who would sit outside the packed church, listening through the windows.
In 1938, LIFE Magazine sent a reporter and photographer to Huron City to do a portrait of the man they considered to be "America's foremost promoter of the humanities." (LIFE - December 5, 1938 edition) This article and photos are a priceless documentation of the Phelps' Huron City lifestyle. In March of the following year, Phelps' beloved wife and lifelong companion Annabel passed away following a stroke. Billy Phelps returned to Huron City that summer for a final visit, but the memories of his wife Annabel were too strong. He met with his niece, Carolyn Hubbard Parcells and asked her to take the house, since she would inherit it later. William Lyon Phelps lived in New Haven until his death in 1943.
—From Huron City History (October 2003)