Professor Derek Brewer
Windeatt, Barry, The Independent (London, England)
Obituaries Scholar of medieval literature who led the field of Chaucer studies after the Second World War
Derek Brewer, Emeritus Professor of English at Cambridge, was the founding figure in the post-war study of Chaucer and, through the publishing firm that he invented and guided, he contributed more than any other individual to furthering modern research into the early literatures and cultures of these islands. He worked tirelessly to promote the study of English language and literature in Britain and abroad. As a long-serving Master, Brewer also proved to be the pivotal figure in the post-war history of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He was an irrepressibly positive and genial personality; his humanity and kindness as a teacher, scholar and publisher changed many lives.
Born the son of a clerk with General Electric, Brewer was educated at the Crypt Grammar School, Gloucester, and went up to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1941 to read English. His degree was interrupted by service in the Second World War from 1942 as an infantry officer. He saw action in Italy, 1944-45, and this was the beginning of a life-long affection for its land, culture and people.
Returning to Magdalen he was tutored by C.S. Lewis, whom he always recalled with fond admiration. From 1949 until 1964 Brewer was Lecturer in English at Birmingham, and here he met and married Elisabeth Hoole in 1951. Already with a growing family, they spent the years 1956-58 at the International Christian University in Tokyo. To pioneer English Literature courses so soon after the war in a still largely unmodernised Japan showed a characteristically venturesome and generously open spirit.
During the happy years in Birmingham came the books that first made Brewer's name, as well as friendships that were to last a lifetime. However, in 1964 he accepted an invitation to take up an unadvertised lectureship at Cambridge; he loved to recall how he later sat at a meeting next to F.R. Leavis who, unaware of Brewer's identity, railed at this latest instance of the English Faculty's wickedness. From then until retirement, the Brewers' careers were in Cambridge, with Derek promoted to a readership in 1976 and personal chair in 1983, and Elisabeth a lecturer at Homerton College.
It was never in Brewer's character to decline a request for help or an invitation: he delivered countless visiting lectures, returning periodically to Japan; he was twice chairman of the English Faculty and chaired or contributed to innumerable committees in college, department and university. Libraries he cherished and for 13 years he chaired the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library, where he facilitated acquisitions of several important collections. Always, he displayed the courtesy of making time for everyone, and often seemed most generous with his time when busiest.
Brewer's unique worldwide reputation as a medievalist stemmed from an unusual publication pattern that reflected his ambition as a scholar-critic and literary historian to reach out to his readership in an exchange of ideas. From 1953 onwards, continuously in print, there was the latest revised version of his critical book on Chaucer (appearing variously as Chaucer, An Introduction to Chaucer and A New Introduction to Chaucer) just as there was always in print the latest version, equally important to him, of one or other book that considered the poet in the context of the 14th century (Chaucer in His Time, first published in 1963, was followed by Chaucer and his World, 1978).
Alongside these volumes came a stream of essays and notes (nearly 170 items, 70 since "retirement"), many of which became classics and pioneered new lines of enquiry on a variety of medieval and later literary topics. He was an early champion of Tolkien.
This double focus, of producing relatively accessible books in conjuction with more academic …
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Publication information: Article title: Professor Derek Brewer. Contributors: Windeatt, Barry - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 4, 2008. Page number: 32. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.