OBITUARY:Professor Sir James Sutherland

Click to follow
The Independent Online
James Sutherland was not only one of the century's foremost 18th- century scholars but a link with the heroic days of English as a university discipline.

Born in 1900 in Aberdeen, he was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and University before going to Merton College, Oxford, where he was a pupil of David Nichol Smith who had himself been taught by George Saintsbury in Edinburgh. The first volume of Saintsbury's History of Criticism and Literary Taste had been published in 1900. Nichol Smith had also been a colleague of Sir Walter Raleigh, first holder of the Chair of English established in Oxford in 1904. The succession and the developments to which James Sutherland belonged could hardly be more clearly marked than by these coincidences.

In an inaugural lecture as Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature, "The English Critic", delivered at University College London in 1952, Sutherland firmly stated his own position at a time when he saw a present danger that criticism was no longer content to be, in Pope's phrase, "the Muse's handmaid", but aspired to become an independent activity. He found the English critical tradition exemplified in qualities characteristic of the work of four writers: the "urbanity" and "sedate cheerfulness" of Dryden's essays; the independence, openness and interest in literary biography of Johnson; the personal immediacy of Hazlitt and the connoisseurship of George Saintsbury. In 1952, when the young were much excited by the moral earnestness of F.R. Leavis, the intensive analyses of Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn (1947), and the systematic theorising of Wellek and Warren's The Theory of Literature (1949), this was a bold declaration of faith, likely to lead, as it did in some quarters, to charges of dilettantism.

Sutherland knew that he was being unfashionable but he never wavered in his belief that criticism should be a humane and social activity, addressed to and meeting the interests not only of academics and initiates but of men and women who lived in the world. His work, available in more than 20 books, demonstrates that this aim could be achieved without the slightest compromise of academic integrity.

Literature for him was a very important part, but only a part, of life itself and it is characteristic that his first major book, Defoe (1937), dealt with a man who had been deeply engaged with manufacturing, politics, and journalism before, at the age of 59, he wrote Robinson Crusoe, a great popular work. Sutherland's biography was seminal in encouraging the explosion of interest in Defoe that has occurred in recent years and he himself returned to the subject with Daniel Defoe: a critical study (1971).

It is typical too that Sutherland's contribution to the great "Twickenham" edition of Pope was The Dunciad, a satirical epic which reaches out in every couplet to the minutiae of contemporary cultural and political life. Sutherland's commentary will always be indispensable to any reader struggling to maintain his foothold in this magnificent but sometimes rebarbative poem.

The work on Defoe and Pope, together with the magisterial English Literature of the Later Seventeenth Century (1969), is at the centre of Sutherland's achievement. But he ranged widely and excelled in work which explained the conventions and background necessary to literary appreciation, notably A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry (1948).

As a lecturer he was always meticulously prepared, informative, lucid, mindful of the needs of his audience and possessing, as he said of Hazlitt, "the secret of communicating his enjoyment and stimulating his readers", rousing their appetite. When, as a student, I first met him in 1949, I was impressed by his spare, elegant, well-dressed and somewhat formidable figure. And of course he was formidable, but never unapproachable, and he had a laconic and sometimes self-deprecating humour that was immensely appealing.

Sutherland was in demand as a supervisor of postgraduate students, especially from the United States where he was well known. Between 1947 and 1970 he held visiting professorships at Harvard, Indiana, the University of California, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and New York and was Clark Library Fellow at UCLA.

In the later part of his career he received many honours. He became an FBA in 1953 and was awarded honorary doctorates at the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Liege. He was invited to give several distinguished lecture series, including the Alexander Lectures in Toronto (On English Prose, 1957) and the Clark Lectures in Cambridge (English Satire, 1958). He was knighted in 1992.

But his laurels were not for resting on. As late as 1986 he puplished The Restoration Newspaper and its Development, a complex and fascinating interweaving of historical information with a study of how news was gathered and presented by rival groups at a time when it was the constant aim of government to control and manipulate the supply of information. Work on such fugitive material necessarily demands a grasp of minute detail and constant recourse to badly printed texts, often available only on microfilm. To produce such a study in one's eighties and to do so with such triumphant success is an astonishing accomplishment. But the final publication, coming as recently as 1992, was an incisive attribution study on Swift, contributed with the greatest kindness and generosity to a festschrift for an old student.

James Sutherland's life had a shape and a unity that it is wonderfully satisfying to contemplate. He was fond of quoting Hazlitt's remark that his function was "to feel what is good and give reasons for the faith that is in me". Sutherland did this through a long life and he will be remembered with great affection and gratitude by former students and colleagues. But he will be remembered also by many thousands of people who have little academic interest in literature but who enjoy and keep returning to The Oxford Book of English Talk (1953) and The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1975) which he compiled and which continue to have great success in the world. This is as it should be.

John Chalker

James Runcieman Sutherland, English scholar and teacher: born Aberdeen 26 April 1900; Senior Lecturer, University College London 1930-36; Professor of English Literature, Birkbeck College 1936-44; Editor, Review of English Studies 1940-47; Professor of English Language and Literature, Queen Mary College 1944-51; Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature, University College London 1951-67 (Emeritus); FBA 1953; Public Orator, London University 1957-62; Kt 1992; married 1931 Helen Dircks (died 1975), 1977 Mrs Eve Betts; died Oxford 24 February 1996.