Of all the stars in the long line of distinguished teachers at Columbia College, none have shone more brightly than Mark Van Doren. Nationally famous as a novelist, playwright, critic, editor, and poet (his Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940), at the College Van Doren is also remembered as the quintessential great teacher. In his nearly four decades at Columbia, Van Doren introduced generations to Western literature and became a trusted friend and advisor to students and fellow teachers.
Born in Hope, Illinois, Van Doren came to Columbia just as the College was reinventing its curriculum after the war. Van Doren was at the core of the original band of young scholars who taught Erskine's General Honors course in the early 1920s. Years later, as a professor, Van Doren headed a crucial planning committee for Humanities A. Then he not only chaired the program during its formative phase, but continued to teach the course for seventeen years, remarking that it was the most fun he ever had with undergraduates. No less famous were his other courses-on poetry, Shakespeare, and Cervantes.
In the 1930s, Van Doren joined his former Columbia colleague Mortimer Adler in establishing the great books program at St. John's College in Annapolis, serving frequently as a visiting lecturer. After his retirement from full-time teaching at Columbia in 1959, Van Doren lectured at Harvard University. To the general public, Van Doren remained a great man of letters from a remarkable literary family. He served as literary editor of the Nation. The author of numerous short stories, novels, and plays, Van Doren was above all a poet and a teacher. As Thomas Merton said in a letter to Van Doren, "You always used your gifts to make people admire and understand poetry and good writing and truth."