Lewis P. Simpson (1916-2005)

By Hobson, Fred | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Lewis P. Simpson (1916-2005)


Hobson, Fred, The Southern Literary Journal


The death of Lewis P. Simpson in April 2005 brought to an end the career of the scholar called by Eugene Genovese "our greatest cultural historian of the South." That career spanned the second half of the twentieth century and extended into the twenty-first, for Lewis Simpson, well into his mid-eighties, was still producing the magisterial essays that had defined his work from the beginning. A native Texan, he spent his career as professor of English at Louisiana State University and--after 1965--as co-editor of the Southern Review, that literary quarterly founded in the 1930s by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, then restored by Simpson after a quarter-century hibernation. When I first met Lewis Simpson, about 1980, I was taken by his Texas accent and his self-effacing, easy-going demeanor; he might well have been the small town Texas lawyer and county judge his father had been. But, early on, I found in his essays a total commitment to intellectual life; his was, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, "one of the great instances of the life of the mind lived to the utmost." I always saw in Lewis Simpson's essays a mixture of elegance and subtlety--an intriguing critical habit of introducing a subject, then retreating from it, holding it in abeyance while he introduced still another subject, then in the end tying everything together in a manner that was immensely satisfying.

Lewis Simpson did not begin to produce his greatest work until he was in his late fifties: The Dispossessed Garden: Pastoral and History in Southern Literature appeared in that decade, The Brazen Face of History appeared when he was in his sixties, and two of his finest works, Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on Lost Causes and The Fable of the Southern Writer, were published when he was in his seventies. He is well known for his contributions to southern letters--he appeared in these pages on several occasions--but his interests far transcended the U.S. South. His first notable book, in fact, was The Man of Letters in New England and the South (an earlier edited work had been The Federalist Literary Mind), and he was always fascinated by the extent to which the southern and New England "minds"--so at odds in many particulars--also shared much in common. …

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