Philip Kolb chose Proust’s correspondence as the subject for his Ph.D. thesis (Harvard, 1938). He little realized it was an open-ended subject that would need twenty-one volumes and over fifty years to complete. Kolb was born in Chicago on August 29, 1907 and he began his study of French at Culver Military Academy when he was sixteen.
The year of 1935-36 he studied in Paris as a French government fellow. In that year he met Madame Mante-Proust, Marcel Proust’s niece and only heir. He also met many of Proust’s remaining friends. World War II interrupted his academic career at its beginning. The day after Pearl Harbor he was ordered to report for duty. The four subsequent years he served as an officer in Naval Intelligence in Miami, London, and Brussels. He received decorations from the United States and Belgium for his service. In the fall of 1945 he joined the faculty at the University of Illinois, planning to remain one year. However, he soon discovered the rich resources of the University of Illinois Library and decided it would be a good place to continue his work on Proust’s correspondence. It was a wise decision. In 1949, the University of Illinois Press published his first volume, La correspondance de Marcel Proust, chronologie et commentaire critique. The French Academy awarded it a prize in 1951. Following that, Madame Mante-Proust and the publisher Plon asked him to edit Proust’s entire correspondence, and he agreed to do so. The stipulation was that the letters be dated, fully annotated, and presented in a chronological order. The first volume of the Correspondence appeared in 1971, the year of Proust’s centennial. In 1983 the French Government awarded Kolb the Legion of Honor. In 1985, the prestigious Société des Gens de Lettres awarded him its coveted medal. Besides his research, Professor Kolb taught French literature from the Middle Ages to the present day, and directed numerous Ph.D. theses on Proust and other authors.
As with Proust, death overtook him at work. He was finishing proof on the twenty-first and last volume of the Correspondence. He died on November 7, 1992.