OBITUARY : S. Gorley Putt

Hans Kornberg
Monday 08 May 1995 00:02

The death of Gorley Putt, two months short of his 82nd birthday, has removed from the Cambridge scene a prominent member of an increasingly rare species - a bachelor don of the university whose college is his home and his family. For nigh on 30 years Putt's upright, astonishingly youthful figure was usually to be seen at the centre of any festive occasion; he was the one Fellow of Christ's College who seemed to know and befriend every undergraduate and whose "mini- combinations", in which he dispensed wit, wisdom and good wine in his rooms late into the evening, were legendary.

But Putt's gregarious, somewhat Pickwickian manner scarcely concealed his other great love - a burning passion for the English language and its literature, which caused him to write authoritatively on the works of Henry James (in A Reader's Guide to Henry James, 1966, and A Preface to Henry James, 1986), to secure election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1952 and to utter comments on contemporary linguistic fashions that were always trenchant and elegantly phrased but never malicious.

Gorley Putt (he discouraged the use of his first name Samuel) was born into a seafaring family in Brixham, the year before the outbreak of the First World War; his father, Poole Putt, was drowned in 1918 when his ship was torpedoed. A voracious reader even as a schoolboy at Torquay Grammar School, Gorley Putt succeeded in gaining a Devon County Major Scholarship to Christ's in 1930; this also marked the beginning of what, in his autobiography, Wings of a Man's Life (1990), he called "my lifelong love affair with my college". After graduating BA with First Class Honours in both parts of the English Tripos, he engaged in research in English drama for a year before gaining a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in 1934. This prestigious award, which enabled him not only to acquire, at Yale University, the first of his two MA degrees but also to travel widely throughout the United States, founded his abiding affection for America; it also initiated his connection with the fund whose employee he later became for nearly 20 years. Putt vividly recounted his experiences, and those of other Commonwealth Fund Fellows, in his View from Atlantis (1955).

On his return from the US in 1936, Putt joined the BBC as a Talks Assistant, initially in London and subsequently in Bristol. However, after a year in post, Putt felt increasingly unhappy at what he termed "the flurried unrewarding anonymity" of his job; it was with relief that he resigned and, after a brief period of freelance literary reviewing, took up a one- year Lectureship in English at University College, Exeter. This was followed by a brief period as warden of a student hostel and Secretary of the Appointments Committee at Queen's University, Belfast.

However, the Second World War intervened and, in 1940, Putt found himself in the uniform of an Ordinary Seaman; he remained in the Royal Navy until, with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, he returned to Exeter in 1946, as Warden of Crossmead Hall and Tutor for Overseas Students.

Putt's naval service had encompassed both convoy duty in a 1917-vintage destroyer (which he chronicled in his first book, Men Dressed as Seamen, 1943) and, from 1941 on, work as an officer in Naval Intelligence, stationed at Bletchley Park; he had also stood (unsuccessfully) as Liberal candidate for Torbay in the 1945 election.

After three years at Exeter, Putt was appointed Warden of Harkness House, London, the British base for the Commonwealth Fund's Fellowship programme; he became the first non-American Director of the fund's Division of International Fellowships in 1966. He also initiated a highly successful programme of European / United States Fellowships; his services in fostering international friendships were recognised by his appointment as OBE in 1966 and as Cavaliere of the Italian Order of Merit in 1980.

A change in the fund's policy led Putt to leave Harkness House and to accept the full-time Senior Tutorship of his old college, Christ's, in 1968; he held this office until his retirement in 1978. These years were marked by great changes in collegiate life: the early period was perturbed by much student unrest; the latter saw the admission of women into the hitherto all-male society. That the college survived these events with good-humour and to ultimate benefit is no small tribute to Gorley Putt's patience, kindness and understanding. His lasting memorial will be the affection of generations of young men and women whom he befriended, encouraged and helped.

Hans Kornberg

Samuel Gorley Putt, English scholar: born Brixham 9 June 1913; Talks Assistant, BBC 1936-38; Warden and Secretary, Appointments Committee, Queen's University, Belfast 1939-40; RNVR 1940-46; Warden and Tutor to Overseas Students and Director, International Summer School, University College Exeter 1946-49; Warden, Harkness House 1949-68; FRSL 1952; Director, Division of International Fellowships, Commonwealth Fund 1966-68; Chairman, English Association 1964-72, Vice-President 1972-78; OBE 1966; Fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge 1968-95, Senior Tutor 1968-78, Praelector 1976-80; died Oakington, Cambridgeshire 24 April 1995.

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