Michael D. Bell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1941. He grew up in Pittsburgh, attending first Shadyside Academy in Pittsburgh before graduating from the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1963 and went on to earn his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1969.
He was a teaching fellow in English at Harvard from 1964 to 1968, taught English at Princeton from 1968 to 1975, when he came to Williams College, where he taught English and American Civilization (which became American Studies), chairing the American Studies Program from 1985 to 86, and the English department from 1987 to 1994. From 1981 until his death, he was the J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature, and Eloquence. He also held visiting positions at Middlebury College’s Breadloaf School of English, Williams College’s Telluride Association Summer Program, and Columbia University.
He authored numerous articles and reviews, edited three books, and contributed to such landmark volumes as The Columbia Literary History of the United States and The Cambridge History of American Literature , was a member of the editorial boards of major journals in his field, and was an influential scholar of American literature. He also published three books: Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England (1971), The Development of American Romance (1980), and The Problem of American Realism (1993). In each, through subtle and attentive reading, he explored the evolution of literary genres and their relation to literary vocation in American culture and society.
Bell was committed to the goals of a liberal arts college and was a member of the advisory committees for the American and Afro-American Studies programs, served on numerous College committees, and chaired the Committees on Undergraduate Life and Academic Computing. Among his various fellowships and awards, he was a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, received a fellowship and a Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Bell was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, and his essay, “Magic Time – Observations of a cancer casualty,” which was published in the December 1996 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, describes how he came to accept his approaching death with grace and humor. The latter is demonstrated in the tombstone he had erected in the College cemetery, which has tiny letters at the bottom saying – “If you can read this, you’re standing on me.” It was, as he put it, his last joke.Sources for the biographical note:
Williams College – Memorial Minute (meeting of the Williams College Faculty), speech by Steve Fix, 14 May 1997.
“Michael D. Bell,” Echo, Ligonier, PA, 16 April 1997.
“Area native, literary scholar Bell dead at 56,” Tribune Review, Greensburg, PA, 11 April 1997.
“Magic Time – Observations of a cancer casualty,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1996.