Born in Illinois, Van Doren was the fourth of five sons. One of his older brothers was Carl Van Doren, a famous biographer, who often collaborated with Mark.
Van Doren earned his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Illinois and then studied at Columbia University, earning his Ph.D. there in 1920. Upon his completion of the Ph.D., he joined the faculty of Columbia and became a notable professor, teaching and inspiring many future writers, including Allen Ginsberg and John Hollander. (Van Doren even testified on behalf of Ginsberg during his 1949 trial, helping Ginsberg avoid time in jail). In 1962, students of Columbia University established the Mark Van Doren Award to honor a great teacher every year.
In addition to writing poetry, Van Doren was also an editor and biographer. He served as both literary editor and film critic of The Nation for several years.