OBITUARY : William Righter

K. W. Gransden
Wednesday 30 April 1997 23:02

When the English Department at Warwick University opened for business in 1965, there were five founder members: George Hunter and C.J. Rawson (who both moved to Yale) and three who stayed the course till they retired in the 1990s: Bill Whitehead, Bill Righter and myself.

Those were pioneering days. We all had to teach things we hadn't expected or weren't prepared to teach. Righter's interests, in some ways so wide, were in others highly selective - not for him the broad-brush epic and medieval foundation courses - and he contrived, with his disarming and civilised charm, to carve for himself early on a highly successful career in those areas where literature and philosophy meet, and in which he was to become an acknowledged authority.

He had, indeed, published his first and influential book, Logic and Criticism (1963), before joining the staff. As the link-man between the two departments of English and philosophy he taught courses involving both disciplines to carefully selected and highly responsive students, many of whom became stars.

In other ways, too, Righter stood out among the five of us: not because he was an American (so was Bill Whitehead) but because he had Europeanised himself in the most delightfully Jamesian and cosmopolitan way. He chose to live in London, commuting weekly to Warwick. Consequently he was not always to be found at some of our more tedious meetings. He was conspicuously his own man, and was virtually able to create his own programmes in areas where he was specially qualified. He was an expert in French literature, and throughout his years at Warwick he regularly taught courses in French and English comparative literature, setting side by side, for critical analysis, pairs of poems chosen from the two languages, a technique virtually invented at Warwick. It was in small groups, rather than in the larger lecture, that his talents best shone.

William Righter was born in Kansas City in 1927. He was educated at Harvard and at Oxford University. He then returned to the United States where he taught for some years at Cornell University. In 1960 he began to lecture at King's College, Cambridge, where he remained until his appointment to Warwick.

His second book was The Rhetorical Hero (1964), a study of Andre Malraux which brought together his understanding of French literature and of Malraux' work in philosophy and art criticism. Righter himself was something of a connoisseur of the museums and art galleries of Europe. His other books were Myth and Literature (1975), which enjoyed something of a vogue and became highly influential, and The Myth of Theory (1994), in which he scrutinised with learning and scepticism some of the current fashions in literary theory.

Righter retired from the university in 1993. His retirement party was an agreeable occasion: I recall a characteristically throwaway speech, in which he looked back with fond nostalgia on those early days when some of our new, younger colleagues had not even been born. He continued to keep in touch with the university and to contribute to conferences and seminars up till last summer. He leaves a widow, Rosemary, who is chief leader writer on the Times.

William Harvey Righter, English scholar: born Kansas City 31 August 1927; Reader in English and Comparative Literature, Warwick University 1965-93; married three times; died London 14 April 1997.

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