Obituary: Professor Max White
Thursday 17 December 1992
WHEN Max White retired from the Chair of Italian at Leeds University in 1984, the hard-pressed university thought that 'freezing' the chair might be a useful economy measure. Many Italianists and former students pointed out that White had built the department on solid foundations; he and it were held nationally in such high esteem that it could not be diminished, and the post was duly filled.
After leaving school, White worked for the Midland Bank. War and active service in the Royal Artillery took him to Africa and Italy with a radio transmitter on his back and the poems of Leopardi in his pocket. He then went to Downing College, Cambridge, where Part I of the English Tripos gave his literary studies breadth and rigour. He also played and wrote music, ran societies and edited the Griffin with distinction. He graduated with a First in Italian in Part II and committed himself to an academic career.
Perhaps because of his war experiences, Max White loved order, method and continuity. He liked to have a feeling of belonging and being recognised, which is one reason why his career was marked by long periods in only two universities.
He spent 14 years in the department at Manchester, where he was able to make good use of his wide range of interests. Here he wrote his meticulously researched Zaccoria Seriman and the 'Viaggi di Enrico Wanton' (1961). With Kathleen Speight, he founded the Manchester University Press Italian Texts Series, which was an imaginative and widely acclaimed innovation in Italian teaching. His scholarly edition of Verga's Pane Nero and Other Stories (1962) was the first volume in the series and was quickly prescribed for use in the United Kingdom and abroad. He also wrote articles on modern Italian music for the journal The Music Masters which reveal deep insights and often very personal reactions, in interesting contrast to the apparently more detached scholarship of his work on 18th- century literature.
One of the most important features of White's Manchester period was his rapidly developing interest in the graphic arts. He lovingly collected illustrated books and prints. He cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship with the Whitworth Gallery and produced, with Charles Sewter, what may be his most enduring scholarly achievement, I Disegni di GB Piazzetta nella Biblioteca Reale di Torino (1966) and a series of articles on other works by the artist which have been widely cited in recent research.
In 1964, White moved to Leeds as Senior Lecturer in Italian, taking over from Frederick May, who had moved to Sydney.
May was in every way the antithesis of White - eccentric, devoted to the theatre and contemptuous of administration and routine. His departure, and that of another staff member, left a grossly understaffed department in considerable disarray. White methodically introduced his own kind of order with a minimum of fuss. He reformed the syllabus and recruited new staff. He moved the department from a run-down house into the Parkinson Building, near the Brotherton Library. His bibliographical knowledge was enormous, and he devoted much time to developing a balanced Italian collection in the library to provide a sound basis for present and future research. Gaps were made good by the systematic perusal of antiquarian catalogues. Leeds has White to thank for its fine resources for teaching and research in Italian.
In the department, he built up a collection of recordings of music and literature and a photograph collection of art and architecture. White could never teach a text as though it existed in a cultural or even a visual vacuum. Lectures on Dante were illustrated by photographs of medieval Florence, and we all knew when White was teaching Metastasio; the corridors resounded to the music of the Court of Vienna.
White was deservedly promoted to a personal professorship in 1968 and an established chair in 1973. The burden of administration reduced his research output, for he was conscientious and meticulously careful. He expected the same care from colleagues, whom he trusted to learn by a process of osmosis rather than by precept. He preferred to work through consensus rather than by the exercise of authority. His love of tradition and order inevitably made the late 1960s and 1970s, with their sit-ins and confrontations, a painful period for him. His engaging charm and affability masked a sensitive nature which abhorred confrontation.
Colleagues and students who sought Max White's help invariably found it forthcoming. His immediate response to a request would usually be followed up later by a wealth of biographical or bibliographical information. His range was encyclopaedic. His influence on my own development was considerable, and many of the department's former students now teach Italian in schools and other institutions. He is remembered with affection and gratitude.
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