Born in 1862 in Mansfield, Connecticut, Cross graduated from Yale University (B.A. 1885) and served as principal of Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut for a short time around 1885 before returning to Yale as a graduate student, earning a Ph.D. in English literature in 1889.
Cross, who became a well-known literary critic, was Professor of English at Yale University and the first Dean of the Yale Graduate School, from 1916 to 1930. Along with Tucker Brooke, Cross was the editor of the Yale Shakespeare; he also edited the Yale Review for almost 30 years. He wrote several books, including Life and Times of Laurence Sterne (1909) and The History of Henry Fielding (1918), and several books on the English novel.
After retiring from Yale, Cross was elected governor of Connecticut as a Democrat in 1930 and served as Governor for four two-year terms, from 1931 to 1939. He was defeated in 1938 in his attempt to gain re-election for a fifth term. He is credited with passage of several items of reform legislation during his tenure of governor, including measures related to the abolition of child labor, governmental reorganization, and improved factory laws.
Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, Connecticut and Connecticut's Wilbur Cross Parkway were named in his honor, as was the Wilbur L. Cross Medal for outstanding achievement in professional life, awarded by Yale. The first campus library at the University of Connecticut (then Connecticut State College), built with bond revenues authorized during Cross' governorship and opened in 1939, was named for Cross in 1942.
As Literary Figure, Not Politician, University of Connecticut Advance, November 12, 2002