In memoriam: Richard Lehan, 93, authority on American naturalism and former English department chair

March 15, 2024
Sean Brenner I UCLA

Professor Emeritus Richard “Dick” Lehan, a former English department chair and a member of UCLA’s faculty for more than half a century, died Feb. 27 at the age of 93.

A leading authority on American realism and naturalism, he wrote at least 10 books, including two — “The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History” and “Realism and Naturalism: The Novel in an Age of Transition” — that are recognized as among the most important works on those topics.

“Dick was the embodiment of that exceptional combination of an eminent scholar, a stellar teacher and a great colleague,” said Ali Behdad, UCLA’s John Charles Hillis Professor of Literature, who worked with Lehan for three decades. “He had a capacious mind and a vast knowledge of the novelistic form that enabled him to study and analyze incisively a wide range of complex literary, cultural and historical issues.”

One recurring subject of Lehan’s scholarship was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 2001, he appeared in a PBS “American Masters” documentary about the novelist.

“I’ve always been interested in the way literature intersects with the culture,” Lehan said in an interview for the program, explaining his longstanding fascination. “It seems to me that Fitzgerald has been the most brilliant analyst of the American culture, the man who was able to see all of the opportunities that America offered, particularly to the young and to the ambitious.

“And at the same time, he saw the impediments that were also in the way of that kind of success, of that kind of glittering gold. And it strikes me that no one has really quite come to grasp with the essence of America in the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald did.”

Prior to arriving at UCLA in 1962, Lehan taught at the University of Texas, where he earned the Bromberg Award for Distinguished Teaching. He was similarly honored at UCLA in 1970, receiving the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

“He was a most erudite teacher who dazzled his undergraduate and graduate students alike with his vast knowledge of American, British and French novels,” Behdad said.

Lehan, who served as chair of the English department during the early 1970s, also won numerous awards for his scholarship, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978. He was on the editorial boards of journals including Twentieth Century Literature, Contemporary Literature and the Journal of Modern Literature; and from 1965 through 1985 was, at various times, a co-editor, associate editor or editorial board member of Nineteenth-Century Fiction. In addition, he served on the executive committee of the Modern Language Association’s American literature division.

Richard D’aubin Lehan was born Dec. 23, 1930, in Brockton, Massachusetts, to Ralph and Mildred Lehan. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he was a member of the college’s first graduating class in 1952. Lehan remained connected with Stonehill throughout his life, eventually serving on the board of trustees and academic policy committee, among other roles.

He went on to earn a master’s degree from Boston College and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.

Lehan is predeceased by Ann (Evans), his wife of more than 60 years, and his son, Teddy. Survivors include his sister, Brenda MacDonald, sister-in-law, Claire Lehan, and his nieces and nephews. Donations in his memory may be made to the Edward Scott (“Teddy”) Lehan scholarship fund at Stonehill College.

Read the Newsroom story.

Pictured above: In 2001, Richard Lehan appeared in a PBS “American Masters” documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald.