Born in Minneapolis, Harry Levin was educated at Harvard University (where he was a contemporary of M. H. Abrams), graduated in 1933, and began teaching there in 1939, the same year he married Elena Zarudnaya. He became Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard in 1960, and retired in 1983. He continued to live near campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts until his death in 1994. He was survived by his widow Elena and their daughter Marina.
His course in "Comedy on the Stage" inspired Leonard Lehrman to write the paper, "The Threepenny Cradle," comparing the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera to Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. In the fall of 1969, in a production of Cradle directed by Lehrman, Levin was the sole patron. In 1970-1971 he encouraged, advised, and became a patron for two other Harvard productions by Lehrman: the U.S. premiere of Brecht's The Days of the Commune, and a triple-bill in memory of Blitzstein, which was attended by Leonard Bernstein. It was at that production that Levin invited Bernstein to become Norton Lecturer at Harvard, which he did, a year later.
In 1985, the American Comparative Literature Association began awarding the Harry Levin Prize for books on literary history or criticism and in 1997, Harvard University endowed the new chair (position) of Harry Levin Professor of Literature.