Obituary: Professor W. Jackson Bate
Saturday 31 July 1999
Securing a scholarly hat trick still unequalled, Jack Bate won the Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa three times, for the Keats biography, for The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955), a penetrating study of Johnson's moral and critical thought (what Bate once characterised as "Johnson-without- Boswell"), and for The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970), originally given as the Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto. The germ of the last study, the possibly intimidating pressures of past great achievements, he first published in 1964.
Thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of graduates still regard him as the best, most generous teacher they experienced. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and people in business, even though they did not receive degrees in literary studies, remark on the lifelong impact of his teaching. Bate was fond of quoting Johnson's statement in the "Life of Gray", that by the "common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices" must poetical honours finally be decided.
His legendary course "The Age of Johnson" often drew several hundred students for 25 lectures, half of which Bate devoted to a sympathetic, detailed portrayal of Johnson's life and work, fusing the two without resorting to reductively biographical interpretations. In the late 1960s, the student "Confidential Guide" to courses, often flippantly critical, simply called him "the great Bate".
Bate's work sustained the directly human element of literary study - the relation of literature to felt experience and life. He thought formalistic studies valuable, but chiefly as they served larger ends. He loved Keats's idea of an "immortal freemasonry" of great expressive spirits who might act as guides or friends, as sources of hope, to the individual faced with life's difficulties and tragedy. His concept of the humanities was broad, encompassing philosophy, linguistics, religion, history, music, and art. In all their Western traditions he was thoroughly versed. Late in life he worried about increasing academic specialisations. "The humanities," he remarked to John Paul Russo in a 1986 interview,
are always digressing and they can be used . . . for any purpose. But what is misused in the sciences is the result, whereas the approach in the humanities can be infinitely diverse, and wayward, perverse as well as diverse, foolish, trivial, as the result of airy opinion, impulse, caprice, and can be twisted by . . . envy, rivalry, prejudices of all kinds. Johnson
says the first step in greatness is to be honest. If there can be simply a facing up to the essentials of common experience, the humanities can almost in a moment shake themselves into sanity.
Born in Mankato, Minnesota, Bate attended public (state) schools in Richmond, Indiana, where his father served as school superintendent until the election of Roosevelt in 1932. A hit-and-run car severely injured him at the age of four. He lost so much blood it was feared he would die. The accident affected his sympathetic nervous system; as a young man he underwent a "sympathectomy", a severing of parts of that system. The procedure precluded military service.
A concentrator in English at Harvard but unable to receive a scholarship, Bate washed dishes to pay his tuition. His senior (final year) honours essay on Keats's phrase "negative capability" secured for him a permanent place in Romantic studies. However, Harvard was still riddled with social prejudices, especially against a Midwest boy poorly dressed and with manners considered sloppy. Though graduating summa cum laude, he could not obtain a graduate scholarship until Douglas Bush insisted on something, and $400 was awarded. Bate won several university prizes as a student, including the Boylston Essay Prize. He received his BA in 1939 and his PhD in 1942. He was elected a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows.
There he met Alfred North Whitehead, who influenced his career strongly, as did Bush and J.L. Lowes. Bate's doctoral thesis became The Stylistic Development of John Keats (1945). He delivered the Lowell Lectures, published as From Classic to Romantic (1946), a work pioneering the shift in taste from the 18th century into Romanticism. Bate insisted on studying the two together and thought curious the boundary that divided specialists in neoclassical literature from those in romanticism. He wrote articles on Bishop Percy's Reliques and Hazlitt. He was among the first modern scholars to revive interest in Hazlitt's criticism.
He included Hazlitt in his anthology Criticism: the major texts (1952), a book kept in print until 1997. Its lengthy introductions, published as a separate volume in 1959, form perhaps the best short history of criticism in the West - not as detailed as George Saintsbury's nor Rene Wellek's, nor as complete as James I. Wimsatt's, but more engaging and cleaving with insight to essentials. His view of recent critical theory was not so much hostile as regretful that it seemed to ignore the links between living and reading and had tied itself into academic knots over fine distinctions that meant little outside a group of initiates communicating in jargon-filled prose.
He edited or co-edited four volumes of periodical essays for the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. He edited Burke for the Modern Library. In 1983 he edited with James Engell Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. His own Coleridge (1968), while not a full-scale biography, remains in the judgement of many experts the best introduction to Coleridge's diverse achievements and difficulties. As with all he wrote, it is eminently readable. Bate said this book, growing out of seminars he taught with Professor David Perkins (the nursery of several books by other seminar participants), gave him more trouble to compose than longer studies. In 1986 Bate and Perkins published an anthology, British and American Poets: Chaucer to the present.
Bate chaired the Harvard English Department for nine years and the Degree Program in History and Literature for three. He proposed the first woman to receive an honorary degree at Harvard, Helen Keller, and supported the appointment of several women to a department previously all male. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, as well as the Cambridge Scientific and Saturday Clubs. He received numerous honorary degrees.
For health and personal reasons he declined a one-year appointment to the Goldsmiths Professorship at Oxford in the early 1980s. His British acquaintances and friends included C.M. Bowra and Kathleen Tillotson. He dedicated the Johnson biography to Geoffrey Tillotson. He was a life- long friend of the Johnsonian scholar and collector Mary Hyde, now Viscountess Eccles, with whom he also served on the Editorial Committee of Johnson's works.
Walter Jackson Bate, English scholar: born Mankato, Minnesota 23 May 1918; Associate Professor of English, Harvard University 1949-55, Professor of English 1955-62, Chairman, Department of English 1955-62, Abbot Lawrence Lowell Professor of the Humanities 1962-80, Kingsley Porter University Professor 1980-86 (Emeritus); died Cambridge, Massachusetts 26 July 1999.
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
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