David J. DeLaura: 1931-2005

By McCarthy, Patrick J. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

David J. DeLaura: 1931-2005


McCarthy, Patrick J., Nineteenth-Century Prose


Professor David J. DeLaura, long a Board member of Nineteenth-Century Prose and one of the truly outstanding scholars in the field, died suddenly last April at the age of 74. At the English Departments of the University of Texas (Austin) for a decade and the University of Pennsylvania for a quarter-century he distinguished himself in several ways. He became noted as a dedicated, award-winning teacher revered by his students, and at Pennsylvania served as departmental head, holder of the Avalon Foundation Professorship and, remarkably, university Ombudsman. We personally remember him as a man of great personal charisma, a friend and advisor to fellow scholars, and a man of wisdom and judgment.

In the following pages we shall not deal with his academic career or with, for example, his considerable services to the profession Our editor has thought it altogether fitting that Nineteenth-Century Prose recall his publications in the field so as to pay tribute to him as the remarkable scholar he was. His writings touched on a wide range of literary figures from Coleridge, to Hardy, and on to T.S. Eliot, but he gave special attention to studies of Thomas Carlyle, John Henry Newman, Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and John Ruskin. The number of his publications is impressive enough, over forty, but the figure is of less moment than his central achievements. They include his splendid study Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England and the major articles that flank it, some so multi-valent and thoroughly researched that they might readily have been monographs. His reviewing, too, would be thought remarkable in any age and discipline.

Religion, it is not too much to say, was the principal underlying interest of his investigations--religion as it was thought and written about by major prose writers of the period. Himself a Roman Catholic of a non-conservative cast, he saw religious thought in the writers he studied as the informing, crucial, and interlinking force of their work. First and always, however, he was a student with a passion to learn and an equal passion to get things right. That was the impulse behind his first scholarly publication, on "Anouilh's Other 'Antigone.'" Both a translator for the American stage and an editor of a popular edition were implicated in distorting the substance and hampering the dramatic effect of Anouilh's version of the Greek play. In his meticulous, thorough way Professor DeLaura made his argument in the authoritative tone we were to become familiar with over the next forty years.

DeLaura first showed himself a scholar of the first rank in 1969 when his lengthy and surprising article "Carlyle and Arnold" appeared in PMLA. Though we knew of Carlyle's pervasive influence over the younger man, we more readily recalled Arnold's dubbing him "a moral desperado," who in preaching earnestness to an earnest nation was "carrying coals to Newcastle." Then to Kathleen Tillotson's insight that Arnold had heeded "the voice of Carlyle" more than others thought, DeLaura brought an array of detailed proof of the extent Arnold had heeded that voice. Over a long career Arnold demonstrated "a persistent ambivalence, one-half of it a remarkable bulk of conscious and half-conscious borrowing of ideas and key expressions, the other half something very close to concealment of his influence." "A classic," said Ruth apRoberts of the essay, and it deservedly won the first William Riley Parker prize as best essay of the year.

Though two other articles and reviews of four books were also published in 1969, DeLaura turned to a larger study. Again, the same amassing of close detail, skill in spotting connections, echoes, and adumbrations sometimes decades apart, and an ear for nuance and awareness of contexts were all deployed in his most ambitious undertaking. In it, he traced the interconnected beatings of three major figures, John Henry Newman, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater. Against a background of rising utilitarian values and scientific humanism, all three figures had sought, in their different but connected ways, to adapt traditional religious culture to the needs of the later nineteenth century. …

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