David H. Greene, Scholar of Irish Literature, Dies at 94
July 13, 2008
David H. Greene, a leading scholar of Irish literature and one of the authorized biographers of the playwright J. M. Synge, the author of “The Playboy of the Western World,” died on Wednesday near his home in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was 94.
The cause was pneumonia, his daughter Candy Moss said.
For nearly 40 years, Professor Greene taught at New York University, often in large classrooms packed with students soaking up his passion for Irish culture. He traced his patrilineal lineage to English settlers of Massachusetts in the early 1700s, but his mother was a native of Ireland.
“He was less proud of his Mayflower-like heritage than of his Irish-immigrant roots,” Ms. Moss said of her father. “He had a robust respect for Irish culture, and he spent years studying early Christian stone sculpture in Ireland, especially the high crosses of ancient times.” But Irish literature came first.
Peter Quinn, a novelist and chronicler of Irish America, said on Friday: “For Irish-Americans, his work was eye-opening. At a time when nobody in America was teaching Irish literature, he’s the one who opened that field of study.”
In 1959, with Edward M. Stephens, Professor Greene published “J. M. Synge: 1871-1909” (Macmillan), about the playwright, who was in the forefront of what many scholars call the Irish literary renaissance. The book details how Synge assimilated Ireland’s Gaelic heritage into robust and poetic drama.
Professor Greene was also editor of “An Anthology of Irish Literature” (New York University Press, 1971); “1,000 Years of Irish Prose” (Devin-Adair Company, 1952); and co-editor, with Dan H. Laurence, of “The Matter With Ireland” (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962), a compilation of George Bernard Shaw‘s writings.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Professor Greene brought his expertise to television as a lecturer on the WCBS-TV series “Sunrise Semester.” And every weekday afternoon, he was the off-screen expert for the original version of the CBS game show “Password,” immediately assessing contestants’ rapid-fire word associations.
David Herbert Greene was born in Boston on Nov. 4, 1913, one of four children of Herbert and Annie Roche Greene. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1936, a master’s degree a year later and a Ph.D. in 1939, all at Harvard and all in literature. After serving as a Navy intelligence officer in Britain in World War II, he was appointed to the English faculty at N.Y.U. He retired in 1979, but continued to lecture as a emeritus professor until 1985.
Besides his daughter Candy, of Manhattan, Professor Greene is survived by his wife of 69 years, the former Catherine Healy; a son, David, of Brooklyn; two other daughters, Judith Fields and Gail Greene, both of Manhattan; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson. Another daughter, Helen Carol, died in 1981.
In the mid-1930s, while a student at Harvard, Professor Greene was assigned to escort the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, who had been invited to speak on campus. They struck up a friendship that lasted for decades, resulting in a voluminous exchange of correspondence.
In 1966, two years after O’Casey’s death, Professor Greene arranged for the N.Y.U. library to buy 126 of the playwright’s letters. Those letters (not from his own collection) were all addressed to Jack Carney, an Irish union organizer in the early 20th century.
That purchase led to something of a literary dust-up in 1977, when Professor Greene refused to allow the publication or examination of the letters. The request had come from David Krause, a Brown University professor who was a biographer of O’Casey and editor of “Letters of Sean O’Casey.” Professor Krause, who had once been a student of Professor Greene, said the letters to Carney would help clarify O’Casey’s political thinking.
“My father refused on the basis that O’Casey had made statements about people who were still alive, statements that he thought O’Casey would not want repeated,” Ms. Moss said. The refusal was later partly overruled by N.Y.U.’s dean of libraries.
Three years ago Professor Greene donated his own trove of O’Casey letters to N.Y.U.