Obituary: David Fleeman
Friday 29 July 1994
DAVID FLEEMAN was the greatest Samuel Johnson scholar of his time, and like his great hero he was serious, honest and strenuous; he disdained the frivolous or perfunctory, and if criticism was called for could be as blunt as the Great Cham. Like Johnson too, he sought and demanded proof; you could imagine him kicking a stone and saying 'I refute this' if confronted with theory unsupported by fact. But he too was loyal to those he loved, grateful to those who helped him, and had the gift of wit, original and forcefully expressed; if rare, it was spontaneous, and lit up his normally serious countenance.
He was born in Holme upon Spalding Moor in 1932, and brought up in that bleak but beautiful part of the East Riding of Yorkshire where the Ouse joins the Humber. His father was the village schoolmaster and lay preacher; David became a choirboy and thus absorbed the language of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer before he was conscious of it, tones he instantly recognised when he first met Johnson. By this time he had gone to Pocklington School, an old-fashioned public school, where learning by heart was still in force. Most people encounter Johnson through Boswell, but it was a bond between the two of us that we had both met Johnson first directly, I The Rambler, he the sombre last number of The Idler, which struck him 'like a sledgehammer'. That first impression never left him.
From 1951 to 1956 he was at St Andrews University, first reading modern languages, then English, where the influence of Richard Logan strengthened his interest in the 18th century as a whole. He graduated with a First and the class medal. Then he went into the Army, becoming a sergeant in the Education Corps; it was there, teaching recruits to the Household Cavalry, that he married Isabella Macaskill, whom he had met when they were both at St Andrews. Released in 1958, he spent a year schoolmastering, but then applied to do a B Litt at Oxford. There he came under the influence of Herbert Davis, whose class in practical printing he attended, and the legendary LF Powell, who suggested a comparison of the 'standard' Johnson edition of 1825 with the original text. Fleeman found 50 superfluous commas in the first chapter of Rasselas alone. This settled his thesis subject, and his future.
He was happy at Oxford, and only lured away briefly when the chance was offered him to explore and catalogue the riches of the collection of Donald and Mary Hyde at Four Oaks Farm, New Jersey. Between them David and Isabella Fleeman completed the task of cataloguing the collection, and were able to explore the other libraries of North America. But Fleeman was too independent to want to become librarian in residence at Four Oaks Farm, and he returned to Oxford to become English tutor at Pembroke, Johnson's old college. There he remained for the rest of his life, becoming Librarian in 1968 and Vice-Master in 1991-93. He was an energetic member of the English faculty with more than his fair share of pupils, and was junior proctor in the university in 1976- 77. In the latter year he became joint editor of Notes & Queries. All this was achieved despite ill- health; in 1979 a kidney transplant gave him a new lease of life, which only failed in recent weeks.
Inevitably, Johnson was the ground-bass to all this. Fleeman became President of the Johnson Society in 1971, and in 1984 organised the great conference at Pembroke on the bicentenary of Johnson's death. Fleeman's early papers show his fascination with the details of the texts, notably his study of Johnson's proof-corrections (a rare survival). His modestly titled Preliminary Handlist of Documents & Manuscripts of Samuel Johnson (1967) is far more, and the Johnson entry in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature was of legendary excellence. He studied Johnson's earnings, prospectuses and proposals, contributed the article on the Dictionary to the 1984 National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, edited A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland for Oxford in 1985 (a happy task since his wife came from the Hebrides).
But behind all this, and all his many other tasks, lay the compiling of what must be the definitive bibliography of Johnson. In February this year he gave a moving address on this to the Oxford Bibliographical Society. If, he reflected, the details of analytical bibliography were foremost in his work so far, it was always with an eye to the underlying demand for an authentic text. It was this that made him insist on 'old spelling' for his Penguin Complete Poems in 1971, and led to the memorable controversy with the Yale 'modernised' texts. Getting at the man himself, the 'biographical bias' was what mattered. 'It was this,' he said, 'which led me to think that an account of the emergence of Johnson's thoughts into the form in which we now meet them might serve instead of yet another 'critical biography'.'
Fleeman's bibliography of Johnson, which must be completed and published, will be all that and more. It will be a monument to a life of notable integrity, combative sometimes but always generous, recorded with gratitude by pupils and colleagues beyond number, and beyond them again by all those today, and in years to come, to whom Samuel Johnson is and will be a living and still potent figure.
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