Poet, critic, scholar, and editor Morton Dauwen Zabel was born in Minnesota Lake, Minnesota. He earned his BA from St. Thomas Military Academy, MA from the University of Minnesota, and PhD from the University of Chicago.
Zabel was an important force in mid-20th century American letters. As associate editor of Poetry from 1928–36 and full editor for one year after, Zabel helped shape the early years of the magazine under Harriet Monroe. He was noted for his close friendships with poets, writers, and editors such as Edmund Wilson, Louise Bogan, Allen Tate, and Horace Gregory. He published many reviews, essays, and critical pieces in journals such as the New Republic, Partisan Review, Nation, and Southern Review, among others. In 1937, his anthology of literary criticism, Literary Opinion in America, helped distill prevailing literary attitudes; it went through many editions and was republished in 1951 and 1962. His other books of criticism include Craft and Character: Texts, Method, and Vocation in Modern Fiction (1957) and The Art of Ruth Draper: Her Dramas and Characters (1960). He also wrote introductions for collections by Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and many others.
Though he lived and worked in Chicago for much of his life, Zabel spent two years (1943–45) in Brazil as the first chair of North American literature at the National University of Brazil. He taught at numerous institutions, including Loyola University Chicago, Northwestern, Notre Dame, and the University of California-Berkeley. From 1947 until his death, he was a professor at the University of Chicago. In Zabel’s obituary for the New York Review of Books, poet Marianne Moore declared, “Honesty and probity are faint terms for Morton Zabel’s trenchant exactitude. Capacity for friendship does not even suggest his chivalry in two senses—toward individuals and to letters.” Zabel’s papers are held at the University of Chicago and the Newberry Library.