He attended Pomona College and Harvard University, where he studied with the eminent Shakespearean scholar George Lyman Kittredge and obtained a Ph.D. in English philology. He eventually became Professor of English at Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California.
In his early career he focused on serious literature, publishing (in 1935) a biography of the lesser English poet Bryan Waller Procter and in 1940, co-editing (with Raymond F. Howes) a series of observations by contemporaries about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge the Talker. Virginia Woolf cited this work in an essay stating, "Two pious American editors have collected the comments of this various company , and they are, of course, various. Yet it is the only way of getting at the truth—to have it broken into many splinters by many mirrors and so select."