Obituary: Professor Geoffrey Moore
Saturday 20 March 1999
His career as a writer and teacher of literature, particularly of poetry, developed in the 1950s; in Britain this was a parochial decade marked widely by an unexamined assumption of the supremacy of English literature and, indeed, of all things English. Moore challenged the innate snobbishness of a cultural establishment who, in their ignorance, were at best indifferent and at worst dismissive of the vibrant culture across the Atlantic.
He had spent the years of the Second World War in the Air Ministry and, subsequently, in the RAF. After the war, he studied English Literature at Emmanuel College in Cambridge and, early in his career, sent clear signals of a mind that stretched beyond the boundaries of these shores.
Moore spent part of 1946 at the Sorbonne, where he met Samuel Beckett. Shortly after graduation, he travelled across the Atlantic to teach. He spent periods at, among other places, the University of Wisconsin (Madison), Tulane University, the University of Kansas and Harvard. At other times he lectured in many parts of the world, from Europe to India; his was, in this sense, a life lived on an international scale.
It was in the United States, however, that he found his subject. He established two crucial notions that have shaped the way in which we now perceive America. First, he identified and heard a distinctive "voice" that was uniquely American and that was not dependent on, or a pallid imitation of, any European model. He also recognised the significance of going beyond the conventional boundaries of academic subjects to focus on the interdependence of knowledge. This approach led to the notion of "American Studies" which simultaneously recognised the distinctiveness of the US, and transcended a narrow categorisation of knowledge into traditional "subjects".
The emphasis on an approach through "studies" rather than through traditional disciplines created the potential for a radical rethink of how culture is conceived and consequently, of the way in which undergraduates are taught. The fact that this perception is now commonplace in many academic fields is a direct consequence of the work of Geoffrey Moore and other pioneers, most notably his colleague Marcus Cunliffe who, in 1955, brought Moore to the newly established Department of American Studies at Manchester University.
Moore was never a narrow academic, however. He worked first for a radio station in New Orleans and subsequently as a talks producer at the BBC, reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement, and in latter years for the Financial Times. He also cultivated an enormous range of literary acquaintances and friends including Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Harold Pinter, Robert Lowell and James Baldwin.
In that sense, he was something of a rather old-fashioned "man of letters", eschewing the turgid neo- professionalism that has become prevalent in literary studies in contemporary academia. He was an enlightened consumer of American culture rather than a producer of joyless, technical analysis.
In 1962 Moore was appointed the G.F. Grant Professor of American Literature at Hull University and established there the Department of American Studies which he led for 20 years. From that base, he created an innovative programme which integrated perspectives from a variety of disciplines and which, in addition, required students to spend a year in the US. That this is now the norm in other departments of American Studies is due, in great part, to Moore's vision.
In some respects, students were at the heart of his achievement. The bulk of his writing was aimed at producing anthologies: crucial documents in the dissemination of American literature at undergraduate level. The most notable were The Penguin Book of American Verse (1954) and American Literature: a representative anthology of American writing from colonial times to the present (1964). These volumes remain arguably the best anthologies of their kind, with the most sensitive and insightful of commentaries.
As a teacher, Moore had a ready wit and a particular talent for creating enthusiasm for the rhythms and dialects of American poetry. I was a postgraduate student in Hull in the early 1970s and I am unable to read e.e. cummings or John Berryman except through the cadences of Geoffrey Moore's "voice". Anecdote, deviation and diversion marked his supervisions, and if these sessions were not always exactly relevant, they were consistently exuberant and enjoyable. He brought great wit, style and colour to the sometimes grey corridors of academia.
Perhaps at the heart of his personality was a nonconformism and a persistent Bohemianism which coexisted, at times uneasily, with his professorial role at the heart of the academic establishment. Throughout his life, he was a free spirit, a restless cosmopolitan for whom the international environment, the overseas conference, airport lounge, hotel room, visiting lectureship, was what passed for home.
If there was some personal sadness in this rootlessness, it nevertheless made him a delightful companion. It was a rare occasion in which one left Moore's company without a sense of life affirmation, whether that was derived from discussions of literature, tales of academic perfidy, sagas of pursuit of the opposite sex, comic discourses on the incompetence of traffic police, or surreal descriptions of residence in a variety of health farms.
Inevitably, his unconventional style sometimes irritated colleagues in the more conventional world of academia. He was not a traditional professor in scholarship or administration but he was an inspirational figure, not least because he breathed the air of the New World and shared his joy of it with those around him.
Geoffrey Herbert Moore, scholar of American literature, writer, poet, broadcaster and teacher: born Mitcham, Surrey 10 June 1920; Assistant Professor of English, Tulane University 1949-51; Rose Morgan Professor, University of Kansas 1954-55; Lecturer in American Literature, Manchester University 1955-59, Senior Lecturer 1960-62; G.F. Grant Professor of American Literature, Hull University 1962-82 (Emeritus); married 1947 Pamela Munn (died 1998; one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1962); died Oxford 5 February 1999.
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