Samuel Hynes

b. 1924 – d. 2019

Samuel Hynes was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1978.

Samuel Hynes remembered – by Jeffrey Meyers

Warrior and literary critic

Samuel Hynes, one of only twelve American Fellows of the RSL, had two professions – Marine fighter pilot and professor of English – and wrote several superb books on both war and literature. Born in Chicago, he grew up in Minneapolis. Still in his teens when he enlisted in 1943, he served in the Marine torpedo bombing squadron, survived 78 aerial missions in the Caroline Islands and Okinawa, won the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in combat and reached the rank of major. Recalled to military service, he also flew combat missions during the Korean War in 1952-53. A persuasive speaker, he provided the authoritative commentary for all seven episodes of Ken Burns’ World War II documentary The War (2007).

Supported by the postwar G.I. Bill, Hynes earned his bachelor degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied with Robert Penn Warren, and his doctorate at Columbia.  He was an inspiring teacher at Swarthmore, near Philadelphia, at Northwestern and as the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton. Hynes passed his rented Hampstead flat on to me when I had a grant year, and warned me that I would not finish my biography of Wyndham Lewis because I’d hate him too much. Inspired by his admonition I felt challenged to complete the book, and actually came to admire, even like, the feisty and contentious Lewis.

Hynes edited works by and about Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett, T. E. Hulme, Rebecca West, George Orwell and Graham Greene. His wide-ranging, impressive, influential books, written in a clear and graceful style, are The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry (1961), an edition of Hardy’s poems for Clarendon Press, 4 volumes (1982-95), The Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968), Edwardian Occasions (1972), The Auden Generation (1976); and Flights of Passage: Reflections of a World War II Aviator (1988), A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (1990), The Soldier’s Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (1997), Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood (2003), The Unsubstantial Art: American Fliers in the First World War (2014), On War and Writing (literary responses to modern warfare, 2018). He published more books in his nineties than most academics produce in their lifetimes. His memoirs match the best book on the Korean conflict, Burning the Days (1991), by the fighter pilot and novelist James Salter.

Hynes’ dominant theme, like Wilfred Owen’s, was “War, and the pity of War” in the tormented twentieth century. He was interested in the way great modern writers have “shaped the ways in which we think and feel about war”. He portrayed flight training, intense camaraderie, romantic liaisons, tedium and exhilaration, the fear and thrill of combat, the wonder of flying and the death of friends. He wrote that “war is not an occasional interruption of a normality called peace; it is a climate in which we live”. He was not a fierce warrior, but a kind, humane and gentle man.

Jeffrey Meyers has received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters “to honor exceptional achievement”.

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