Professor Gwin J. Kolb

'Wise and happy' Johnson scholar


Gwin Jackson Kolb, English scholar and book collector: born Aberdeen, Mississippi 2 November 1919; Professor of English, University of Chicago 1949-89, Chair of the English Department 1963-72, Chester D. Tripp Professor Emeritus in the Humanities 1989-2006; married 1943 Ruth Godbold (one son, one daughter); died Chicago 3 April 2006.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson's celebrated oriental tale, takes the hero to Cairo, where he visits a school of rhetoric. One lecturer in particular, a sage who seems to be both "wise and happy," inspires in Rasselas a "veneration due to the instructions of a superiour being". Yet at the end of their encounter, the prince leaves the professor disillusioned by the gap between rhetoric and reality.

Gwin J. Kolb - who spent a professional lifetime editing, teaching, and collecting Rasselas - was in substance what Johnson's sage merely appeared to be. A truly wise and rationally happy man, he translated principles into practice, thereby inspiring admiration and devotion in three generations of students, colleagues, and scholars. Like his friend the writer Eudora Welty, he believed in decorum: as the occasion demanded, he could be correct or quirky, reserved or relaxed, deliver an incisive commentary on William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life or take ribald delight in John Cleland's Fanny Hill. In all things he exemplified and exalted the power of the human voice.

Gwin Kolb grew up in the Deep South during the Depression. Despite the pressures of genteel poverty, Kolb's mother fostered his innate love of learning: as he recounted in later life, she bought The Lincoln Library of Essential Information on the instalment plan, paying for it by selling eggs and milk. The taste for acquiring and imparting "essential information" remained with Kolb throughout a lifetime of scholarship and teaching. At Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, Kolb found both his vocation and his future wife, Ruth Godbold, a devoted companion and collaborator.

The loyalty that marked Kolb's personal life also defined his public career: after serving for three years in the US Navy (1942-45), he began his graduate studies at the University of Chicago and never left. A newly minted PhD, he joined the faculty of the Department of English in 1949 and rose steadily through the ranks, retiring in 1989 as Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities. During this 40-year period, Kolb served the university in a variety of capacities: departmental chairman, head of the undergraduate Humanities Division, residential master and member of countless committees.

This impressive record of service is also a record of Kolb's costly but endearing inability to say "no". Nevertheless, he found time to begin the transformation of his doctoral dissertation on Rasselas into a fully-fledged scholarly edition of the work, and to collaborate with his senior colleague, James H. Sledd, on a study of Johnson the lexicographer. Dr Johnson's Dictionary: essays in the biography of a book appeared in 1955. Kolb spent the following year in England on a Guggenheim fellowship, during which he acquired one of his treasures, a fourth edition of Johnson's Dictionary. Kolb enjoyed telling the story of the hapless bookseller who, having no idea that Johnson's revisions made the fourth edition as valuable as the first, responded to Kolb's murmured "What a pity it's not a first" with a substantial reduction in price.

The joint authorship of Dr Johnson's Dictionary was characteristic: all of Kolb's major endeavours involved unusually close collaborations. Rasselas and Other Tales, published in 1990 as Volume XVI of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, bears his name alone, but the acknowledgements end by crediting "my wife Ruth, who has sustained and shared my labors for over forty years". Ruth Kolb also played an important role in the making of Johnson on the English Language, Volume XVIII of the Yale Edition, which was co-edited with Robert DeMaria and published in 2005. These two volumes are Kolb's most enduring scholarly monuments. His collaborative work as editor also extended to the distinguished journal Modern Philology, which he co-edited with Edward Rosenheim.

In 1955 Kolb received the University of Chicago's Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. He was also teacher and adviser to scores of graduate students - and an important influence on many junior scholars as well, whose first steps he guided with a light yet steady hand.

In all of his dealings Kolb was both scrupulous and generous. As he would have wished, the definitions come from Johnson. Scrupulous: careful; vigilant; cautious. Generous: noble of mind; magnanimous; open of heart. As Kolb once confessed, the Great Cham in the flesh would have terrified him - but in the spirit, he set the standard for a life devoted to literae humaniores.

Bruce Redford

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