Mark Van Doren was born in Illinois in 1894, the son of a doctor. He and his brother, the literary critic and teacher Carl Van Doren, grew up on the family farm. Both Van Dorens attended Columbia University, where Mark also earned his PhD. He would go on to become one of Columbia’s most renowned professors, teaching there for nearly 40 years.

Van Doren helped shape the humanities curriculum at Columbia and the great books curriculum at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. At Columbia, he influenced a number of student writers, including John Berryman, Richard Howard, Allen Ginsberg, John Hollander, and Louis Simpson. Van Doren also published scholarly books on John Dryden, Shakespeare, and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as An Anthology of World Poetry (1928) and the essay collections The Noble Voice (1946), Introduction to Poetry (1951), and The Happy Critic, and Other Essays (1961).

Van Doren’s own poetry favored traditional forms; David Perkins in his A History of Modern Poetry noted that “[Van Doren’s] mind was balanced, sane, humorous, and detached, and his poetry was low-keyed.” A 1938 reviewer of The Last Look, and Other Poems found that Van Doren created “a domestic metaphysical verse at a very sensitive level, a heightened reality, a satisfying recognition of the gods inhabiting things.” Van Doren’s poetry collections include Spring Thunder (1924) and the book-length narratives Jonathan Gentry (1931), A Winter Diary (1935), and The Mayfield Deer (1941). His Collected Poems (1939) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1940.

Van Doren was married to the novelist Dorothy Graffe.