Born in Prague, Wellek was raised in Vienna speaking Czech and German; he studied literature at the Charles University in Prague, then taught at Princeton University and at Charles University. He was active among the Prague School linguists there before moving to teach in London in 1935. During World War II Wellek relocated to America, first to the University of Iowa and then to Yale University. In the United States he became a friend and advocate of the New Critics. With the critic Austin Warren, Wellek wrote the landmark volume Theory of Literature (ISBN 0156890844), one of the first works which systematized literary theory rather than approaching criticism in a more ad-hoc fashion. Later, beginning in the 1960s, Wellek defended the New Critics against the condemnation of their work in the name of a structuralist-influenced literary theory; so he is sometimes thought of today as a conservative literary scholar. Wellek's final work was a lengthy, multiple-volume history of literary criticism.
It is likely that he is the premier scholar of literature in modern times because he combined all-round mastery of the specialisms of modern literary studies, with encyclopaedic reading in several languages, clear writing, a humane vision and commitment to reason.
Ren Wellek's father moved from Prague to work as a government lawyer in Vienna, the capital of the massive Austo-Hungarian empire.
Sarah Lawall's "Ren Wellek and Modern Literary Criticism," CL 40 (1988), 3-24, is an excellent introduction to his conception of literary scholarship, which gives equal attention to criticism, theory and history.
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