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Obituary: Professor Tony Tanner

THE EARLY death at 63 of Tony Tanner has robbed King's College, Cambridge, of one of its favoured sons, the university English faculty of its most perceptive reader, and lovers of English and American literature of their best guide.

Tony Tanner was brought up in south London. His father was a civil servant and his mother had trained as a teacher. Tanner's childhood was one limited by the Second World War and the austerity that it brought in its wake. He attended Raynes Park County Grammar School and, after National Service, matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge. He was one of an extraordinary cohort of undergraduates three others of whom (Jeremy Prynne, John Rathmell and Tony Spearing) went on to hold senior positions in the English faculty. Their teachers included two great Shakespearean scholars, A.P. Rossiter and John Brockbank, both of whom were to be lasting influences on Tanner.

The degree he undertook at Cambridge was largely the product of a union of I.A. Richards's methods of practical criticism and F.R. Leavis's historical moralism. Both for very different reasons situated English literature as the central discipline for a modern university: a discipline focused on close reading of the canon - the body of English literature from Chaucer to Eliot which recorded Arnold's "best that had been thought and said".

To read English at Cambridge in the late Fifties was to have the last opportunity to read the whole canon of English literature. The texts had been agreed for 30 years, the secondary literature was still modest and while history, sociology and anthropology could make contributions to the "central discipline of the modern university", the questions posed by both theory and popular culture had yet to be articulated.

Tanner has a strong claim to be the best reader ever produced by this particular formation and this is the underlying force of all his work. But, if Tanner was a compulsive reader and writer, he was also one of the finest talkers in the world; his conversation rippled with quotations taken from the whole range of English literature woven in and out of an absolutely contemporary speech devoid of pretension or pomposity. To speak with him for an hour was to be treated, whether the topic be English football, faculty gossip or the government of the day, to a wonderful literary lesson.

As for many others growing up in the austerity of post-war Britain, America had always beckoned as the promised land and his two teenage passions of jazz and boxing suggested that all routes led across the Atlantic. After a brilliant Tripos, he won a Harkness Fellowship which took him to Berkeley, California, in 1958. Here he was to encounter another lasting influence in his teacher Henry Nash Smith. He was also to meet his first wife Marcia Albright and discover the full force of post-war American literature and culture.

He returned to Cambridge in 1960 and to a Fellowship in King's, where the great Dadie Rylands was looking for a successor. To the then dominant Leavisite orthodoxy, King's was Cambridge's whore of Babylon: a haven of dubious sexuality and an enclave of metropolitan Bloomsbury. For Tanner, it was the last and most important part of his education. The Bloomsbury ideal of civilised behaviour stripped of its class hypocrisy became Tanner's settled faith.

It is difficult now to imagine a time when American literature was not taught in any English university. But to engage with American literature was novel, radical and daring when Tony Tanner began his doctoral study of the Transcendentalists. So impressive was the thesis and the subsequent book The Reign of Wonder (1965) that Tanner was appointed to a post in the English faculty just before the book was published. Throughout his career he maintained the role of evangelist for his adopted literature - advising, examining, lecturing wherever he could help American literature on to the syllabus. Almost all those in Britain who have taken courses or degrees in American literature owe him a considerable debt.

His next book, City of Words (1971), moved from the 19th to the 20th century and provided a comprehensive overview of contemporary American fiction. Throughout this period Tanner moved back and forth across the Atlantic and constantly flirted with the idea of settling there permanently, not least to rescue his beautiful wife from the cold and inhospitable Cambridge Fens. But when he finally did go to Johns Hopkins University in 1976, he had missed his moment. Not only had the marriage ended but the instant he arrived in Baltimore he was plunged into a deep depression and within six weeks had sent in an application for his old job at Cambridge.

The fact that the notoriously rancorous Cambridge English Faculty immediately re-appointed him says much both for the sweetness and gentleness of his nature and of his pre-eminent position as a critic of American literature. King's too, despite the fact that they had appointed three Fellows to replace him, also welcomed him back.

Nadia Fusini, his new Italian wife with whom he enjoyed a very happy and highly unorthodox marriage, and his young colleagues, who were bringing the good news from Paris, stimulated him to new endeavours of decidedly more European flavour. The result was an ambitious attempt to combine close readings of Goethe, Rousseau and Flaubert with a more theoretical approach in Adultery and the Novel (1979). But this period came to an end when the faculty sacked a junior colleague of his at King's.

There was an exodus from the college of his English friends and colleagues. The depression that had first afflicted him in Baltimore returned in even more vicious form and his drinking, which had already seriously damaged his balance and left him unable to walk without a stick, now dominated his entire life. Even his closest friends despaired of his condition. But Nadia Fusini's refusal to accept such defeatism and a period of psychoanalysis bought a quite unexpected end to both his suicidal drinking and depression.

Tanner now embarked on what he called his "posthumous life", a time of great happiness and achievement. Happily installed in King's, appointed in 1989 to a personal professorship, active as a revered elder of the tribe in both college and faculty, he found himself returning to the Great Tradition with books on Jane Austen and Henry James (Henry James, 1985, and Jane Austen, 1986). These books were not addressed to the "research community" (although they could be read with profit by them) but to students and readers who wanted to understand better these classic texts.

His greatest triumphs were reserved for last. Venice Desired (1992) looked at that fabled city through its literary representations from Byron to Thomas Mann, from Ruskin to Proust. It might have seemed difficult to surpass this superb interweaving of literature and history but Tanner's next task was his magnum opus - to provide prefaces to every one of Shakespeare's plays in the new Everyman library. All of Tanner's life and education had prepared him for this task and the results are magnificent - both accessible and learned. It was a comfort to him in his final illness that what he felt to be his finest work would be collected together in a single edition.

In that illness his wit remained undiminished and his dislike of bores undimmed. After four weeks in hospital he died back in his beloved King's with his wife, Nadia, his stepdaughter Barbara and his friend Stephen Heath by his side. With Tanner's death a whole era for King's, which began before the First World War with the opening of the college to non-Etonians, comes to a close. For the English faculty his death leaves precious few with direct links back to the founding fathers.

Paul Antony Tanner, English scholar: born Richmond, Surrey 18 March 1935; Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1960-98; University Lecturer, Cambridge University 1966-80, Reader in American Literature 1980-89, Professor of English and American Literature 1989-98; married first Marcia Albright (marriage dissolved), second 1979 Nadia Fusini; died Cambridge 5 December 1998.