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Michael Davitt Bell papers

Identifier: MC-86

Scope and Contents

The Michael D. Bell Papers contain papers documenting his professional life as an academic, both as an educator and a scholar. The collection also includes a personal scrapbook from the year before his death, when he was on medical leave from Williams College. Bell was a scholar of Modern British literature, especially fiction, eighteenth through twentieth centuries, American literature, and American Studies. The collection provides an opportunity to gain insight into Bell's pedagogical paradigm, and the way he approached literary genres and their relation to American culture and society. The collection comprises papers relating to pieces he authored, published or presented, as well as a sizable compilation of lectures from courses he taught while at Harvard and Williams. His years at Princeton, however, are noticeably absent.


  • 1962 - 1997

Conditions Governing Access

The Michael Davitt Bell Papers is open for research. Researchers are encouraged to contact Special Collections staff prior to a visit.

Conditions Governing Use

In consultation with Special Collections staff, reproductions may be made upon request. Material in this collection may be subject to copyright.

Biographical / Historical

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 1986, 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.

Bell authored numerous articles and reviews, edited three books, and contributed to volumes such as The Columbia Literary History of the United States and The Cambridge History of American Literature. He 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.


10.5 Linear Feet (7 boxes)

Language of Materials



Organized into five series: I. Education and Early Career, II. Williams Teaching, III. Scholarship, IV. Journals, and V. Personal and Professional.

Physical Location

Library Shelving Facility

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Sophie and Cathleen Bell (daughters of Michael Davitt Bell), January 2006.

Processing Information

Processed by Annabel L. Kim, June 2005.

Processing Information

Where possible, the organization Bell created for his papers has been maintained. His folder titles have also been retained, and any comments or categorizations not included in the original labels have been enclosed in square brackets. Bell was inconsistent in how he labeled his files. At times, he was quite general and not particularly concerned with maintaining the integrity of a folder (i.e. a file folder labeled "English 216 past classes" had lectures and syllabi from English 208 instead), and at other times, he was precise, specifying a single lecture from a course as the contents of a folder.
Michael Davitt Bell papers
Nash, Katie
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Williams College Archives & Special Collections Repository

Sawyer Library
26 Hopkins Hall Drive
Williamstown, MA 01267