Robert Ernest Spiller was a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania from 1945 to 1967, acting dean of the Annenberg School of Communications from 1963 to 1964, and pioneer in the study of American literature. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 13, 1896 to William Gibson Spiller and Helen Constance Newbold Spiller. After graduating from the Phillips Brooks School in 1913 he entered the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a B.A. in 1917. After graduation he served with the University of Pennsylvania Medical Corps during World War I. Afterward, he returned to Penn to complete his graduate work, earning an M.A. in 1921 and Ph.D. in 1924. From 1920 to 1921 Spiller served as an Instructor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He then joined the faculty at Swarthmore College as an Instructor of English and was promoted to Professor of English in 1934. He returned to the University of Pennsylvania in 1945 as the Felix E. Schelling Professor of English, a position he held until 1967 when he was named Professor Emeritus.
Spiller is credited with helping to earn scholarly respect for American literature, which had been considered the less-distinguished partner of English literature. As chair of the Modern Language Association’s American Literature Group, he was one of the founders of the scholarly journal American Literature and was editor from 1932 to 1939. Spiller published many books and articles on American literature, most notable among them being Literary History of the United States (1948), which was considered the foremost text on American literature, and The Cycle of American Literature (1955), which was translated into fourteen languages.
Spiller was a leading figure in the development of American studies programs at both domestic and international colleges and universities. In 1955 he served as president of the American Studies Association, the oldest scholarly organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, and helped found its scholarly journal American Quarterly. He was also chair of the Department of American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania.
Robert Ernest Spiller married Mary Scott in 1922 and had three children: William Scott, Constance Newbold (Mrs. T. J. Johnston), and Mary Miles. He died on August 24, 1988, survived by his second wife, Anna Moss Wright Spiller, whom he married in 1975, and his eldest daughter.