James Gray Watson: 1939-2010

By Weston, Ruth D.; Bonner, Thomas, Jr. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

James Gray Watson: 1939-2010


Weston, Ruth D., Bonner, Thomas, Jr., The Mississippi Quarterly


JAMES GRAY WATSON (JUNE 16, 1939-MARCH 30, 2010) WAS BORN IN Baltimore, completed undergraduate work at Bowdoin College, and earned the M.A. and Ph.D. in English at the University of Pittsburgh. He taught English for over forty years at the University of Tulsa, ending his career there as the Frances W. O'Hornett Professor of Literature. He was recognized as one of the world's leading scholars in William Faulkner, whose works he examined in a series of books, articles, and lectures; and he was recently at work on the writings of Peter Matthiessen. He enjoyed repeating the story of how he was introduced to Faulkner's works while a student at Bowdoin, when he was given a copy of As I Lay Dying as he recovered from a lacrosse injury. In addition to his international academic reputation, Jim's extraordinary commitment to his students and to the University of Tulsa earned repeated recognition. He was Outstanding University Professor (1982); he earned the Certificate of Honor from the Multicultural Affairs Committee (1991) and the Arts and Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award (2002); and he was Undergraduate Research Challenge Mentor of the Year (2007). He also shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for literature by providing lectures and other civic services about town, for example, serving on the board that selected Eudora Welty as the recipient of the 1991 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, given annually by the Tulsa Library Trust. In his honor, the University of Tulsa has established the James G. Watson Endowed Professorship of English.

I first came to know Jim when I was a graduate student at the University of Tulsa in the 1970s, and then in the 1980s he became my dissertation director. He was an outstanding teacher and mentor, a fierce defender when there was need, a warm and generous supporter and friend. After his untimely death from pancreatic cancer, the memorial service on campus was an appropriate celebration of the life of a Man of Letters. The faculty processed in full regalia, and his students came too. Appropriate scripture readings by the Dean of Chapel alternated with collegial tributes and remembrances. There were passages from Faulkner and Matthiessen, but also from poets--Hopkins, Whitman, MacLeish, Emerson--that recalled Jim's delightful facility for recitation. He demonstrated that facility during the last experience I had with him, which now provides a capstone to the kind of vigorous discussions of literature that I remember enjoying with him. It was after the stroke he suffered in 2009 had damaged his eyesight and I had been called to teach his graduate seminar "Writing the American South." He sat in on one class and, unable to see the text well, quoted several authors from memory. …

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