W. JACKSON BATE stands as one of the leading biographers and humanists of the 20th century. His John Keats (1963) and Samuel Johnson (1977) remain standard, authoritative, and popular. Both attracted the highest scholarly accolades. He received the Pulitzer Prize for each, an award until then given exclusively to biographers of American subjects. The Johnson study received the National Book Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award.
Securing a scholarly hat trick still unequalled, Jack Bate won the Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa three times, for the Keats biography, for The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955), a penetrating study of Johnson's moral and critical thought (what Bate once characterised as "Johnson-without- Boswell"), and for The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970), originally given as the Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto. The germ of the last study, the possibly intimidating pressures of past great achievements, he first published in 1964.
Thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of graduates still regard him as the best, most generous teacher they experienced. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and people in business, even though they did not receive degrees in literary studies, remark on the lifelong impact of his teaching. Bate was fond of quoting Johnson's statement in the "Life of Gray", that by the "common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices" must poetical honours finally be decided.
His legendary course "The Age of Johnson" often drew several hundred students for 25 lectures, half of which Bate devoted to a sympathetic, detailed portrayal of Johnson's life and work, fusing the two without resorting to reductively biographical interpretations. In the late 1960s, the student "Confidential Guide" to courses, often flippantly critical, simply called him "the great Bate".
Bate's work sustained the directly human element of literary study - the relation of literature to felt experience and life. He thought formalistic studies valuable, but chiefly as they served larger ends. He loved Keats's idea of an "immortal freemasonry" of great expressive spirits who might act as guides or friends, as sources of hope, to the individual faced with life's difficulties and tragedy. His concept of the humanities was broad, encompassing philosophy, linguistics, religion, history, music, and art. In all their Western traditions he was thoroughly versed. Late in life he worried about increasing academic specialisations. "The humanities," he remarked to John Paul Russo in a 1986 interview,
are always digressing and they can be used . . . for any purpose. But what is misused in the sciences is the result, whereas the approach in the humanities can be infinitely diverse, and wayward, perverse as well as diverse, foolish, trivial, as the result of airy opinion, impulse, caprice, and can be twisted by . . . envy, rivalry, prejudices of all kinds. Johnson
says the first step in greatness is to be honest. If there can be simply a facing up to the essentials of common experience, the humanities can almost in a moment shake themselves into sanity.
Born in Mankato, Minnesota, Bate attended public (state) schools in Richmond, Indiana, where his father served as school superintendent until the election of Roosevelt in 1932. A hit-and-run car severely injured him at the age of four. He lost so much blood it was feared he would die. The accident affected his sympathetic nervous system; as a young man he underwent a "sympathectomy", a severing of parts of that system. The procedure precluded military service.
A concentrator in English at Harvard but unable to receive a scholarship, Bate washed dishes to pay his tuition. His senior (final year) honours essay on Keats's phrase "negative capability" secured for him a permanent place in Romantic studies. …