Shimer College Wiki
Mark Benney
Mark Benney 1962.jpg

Full name

Mark Benney

Alternative names

Henry Ernest Degras

Presence at Shimer


Presence on Earth



Mount Carroll period faculty

Mark Benney, born Henry Ernest Degras, was a member of the faculty of Shimer College from 1959 to the end of the 1962-1963 academic year.[1] He subsequently wrote about his experiences at Shimer, and particularly with president Joe Mullin, in his memoir Almost a Gentleman.

Brief description[]

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Mark Benney (1910–1973), born Henry Ernest Degras, was an influential writer and sociologist in the mid-20th century. Almost entirely self-taught, he may have been the only University of Chicago professor ever to have no degrees at all. Born in the slums of Soho in London, Benney began his adult life as a burglar, but rocketed to fame with the publication of his first book, the memoir Low Company, in 1936. On the strength of his writing and analysis, Benney rose to prominence as a sociologist, and in the early 1950s he crossed to the US to work with prominent researcher David Riesman. With Riesman's support, he was hired by the University of Chicago, where he taught the social sciences component of the U of C's radical Great Books curriculum. After he was ousted from the U of C in the late 1950s, Benney was hired at Shimer College, where he taught until 1963. (from Shimer College Wiki)


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Benney was born in the slums of Soho in London in 1910, and was originally a burglar by trade. After serving a prison sentence, he reformed and became a noted British criminologist in the 1930s and 1940s, adopting his wife's maiden name of Benney. In the 1950s he moved to the United States, where he conducted various sociological studies and taught first at the University of Chicago and then at Shimer College.

According to the Florida Death Index, Benney died in Clearwater, Florida, on December 30, 1973. His date of death is listed as February 15, 1974 in the Social Security Death Index, but this appears to have simply been a delay in reporting.

Benney was married three times in the course of his life, first to Phyllis J. Benney ("Joan" in Almost a Gentleman), then to Jane Tanitsky ("J.") and finally to Sophia Voulis Benney ("Sophia") (1931-2007), who had been a student of his at the University of Chicago and who accompanied him at Shimer.

Early life and criminal career[]

Academic and literary career[]

Benney (then Henry Degras) married his first wife, Phyllis J. Benney ("Joan" in his memoir), shortly after being released from prison in 1937. In Almost a Gentleman, he recounts being asked by his publisher to pick a pseudonym, to avoid the risk of libel suits. He then went with his wife's elderly aunt to visit the graves of her family, where his gaze fell upon the tombstone of "Mark Benney," his wife's brother who had died as an infant in 1922, which he chose as his pen name.[2]

There was then a spare name, and a yeoman's name, in the universe, and a spare role in the family to which he was attaching himself. Mark Benney—it sounded well, an earthy, levelling kind of name. It would do well to represent that quiveringly sensitive, genteel, bowdlerized version of Harry, decked out with flowers of penmanship like a Shakespearean fool, who was about to venture forth begging for attention, for sympathy, for charity.[2]

With his rapid surge to literary fame after the publication of Low Company, Benney became increasingly identified with his pen name and ultimately came to use it exclusively, even though the marriage was itself short-lived.[2]

Benney subsequently married leftist writer and translator Jane Tanitsky, who took the last name Degras rather than Benney.


Works cited[]


  1. Benney 1966, p. 340.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Benney 1966, p. 48.


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