Retired U professor renown in poetry, literature dies at age 89

Leonard Unger was one of a few people who developed an approach to looking at poetry called New Criticism.

Derrick Biney

Leonard Unger, an English professor, internationally renowned scholar of British and American verse, literary critic and poet, died of an undisclosed illness Thursday at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis. He was 89.

Unger had a keen sense of humor and was a very witty person, said retired professor of language and literature Peter Reed.

Unger served as a mentor to Reed, who is 70, as well as some other professors in the English department, he said.

Professor of language and literature Peter Firchow said he was drawn to Unger by his enormous knowledge of poetry.

He said Unger brought a certain tradition – a way of reading poetry – with influences from the 17th century and all the way back to ancient Greek poetry.

Unger was one of a few people who followed and developed an approach to looking at poetry called New Criticism, which closely examines and analyzes poetry, Firchow said.

“If you take an English course today, you are likely to come across this approach,” he said

Unger was one of the dominant intellectual forces in the department, Firchow said, and the best students tended to go to his classes.

“If you were a student into literature in the 1980s, (Unger) was a teacher you had to take,” said Richard Cretan, a former student.

Unger was a brilliant and kind person, he said. Although Unger’s reputation preceded him, he remained a “down-to-earth person,” Cretan said.

Cretan said Unger had the ability to look through the charade of government and see deeply into society, academia and literature. This was part of his gift to students, he said.

Aside from his contributions to the literary world, Unger was a devoted family man and loving parent, Reed said.

Born in 1916 in New York City, Unger grew up primarily in Nashville, Tenn. He was a graduate of Vanderbilt University (Bachelor of Arts, 1937; Phi Beta Kappa); Louisiana State University (Master of Arts, 1938), and the University of Iowa (Ph.D., 1941).

Unger began his career at the University in 1947 and retired from the English department after more than 43 years in 1989.

When he joined the English department, it ranked in the top two in the country, with a faculty roster that included such notable figures as Joseph Warren Beach, Allan Tate, Saul Bellow and Robert Penn Warren, according to an obituary put together by Firchow, Allan Powers and the Unger family.

Leonard Unger is survived by his wife, Sherley Glasscock Unger; his son Thomas Unger and daughter-in-law Phyllis; his daughter Amy and grandson, Isaac Unger. His daughter Anne died in 1974.