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David H. Greene, author, Irish literature scholar; at 94

DAVID H. GREENE DAVID H. GREENE
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dennis Hevesi
New York Times News Service / July 17, 2008

NEW YORK - 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 July 9 near his home in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was 94.

The cause was pneumonia, his daughter Candy Moss said.

For nearly 40 years, Dr. 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 the 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," Moss said of her father. "He had a robust respect for Irish culture, and he spent years studying early Christian stone sculpture in Ireland."

Peter Quinn, a novelist and chronicler of Irish America, said: "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, Dr. 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 poetic drama.

Dr. Greene was also editor of "An Anthology of Irish Literature" (New York University Press, 1971); "1,000 Years of Irish Prose" (Devin-Adair Co., 1952); and coeditor, 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, Dr. Greene brought his expertise to television as a lecturer on the WCBS-TV series "Sunrise Semester." And weekday afternoons, 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 PhD in 1939, all from Harvard University 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 NYU. He retired in 1979 but continued to lecture as a professor emeritus until 1985.

Besides his daughter Candy, of Manhattan, Dr. Greene leaves his wife of 69 years, Catherine (Healy); a son, David of Brooklyn; two other daughters, Judith Fields and Gail, both of Manhattan; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

In the mid-1930s, while a student at Harvard, Dr. 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, Dr. Greene arranged for the NYU 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 Dr. 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." Krause, who had once been a student of Dr. 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," Moss said. The refusal was later partly overruled by NYU's dean of libraries.

Three years ago Dr. Greene donated his O'Casey letters to NYU.

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