Notes & Comments: December 1998

New Criterion, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Notes & Comments: December 1998


James W. Tuttleton, 1934-1998

The death of James Tuttleton last month was an incalculable loss to The New Criterion. It was, first of all, a deep personal loss: Jim was a close friend of the editors, and his wise counsel and stately, companionable presence will be profoundly missed. His death also deprived The New Criterion of one of its most commanding writers. A specialist in American literature who had taught at New York University since 1968, Jim Tuttleton ranged with articulate authority over the vast expanse of American literature, from the work of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irving to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, and (a figure of special interest) Henry James. He also wrote with penetrating insight about more contemporary figures: Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot (another revered figure in the Tuttleton pantheon), Ralph Ellison, and Louis Auchincloss.

Nor did Jim confine his attention to fiction and poetry. Some of his most memorable work deals with what the critic Lionel Abel called "the intellectual follies": the insights and excesses, the wisdom and extravagance of other critics. Jim was often admiring. In essays on Edmund Wilson, for example, or the work of the great nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman, he displayed an enviable gift for capturing the specific gravity--the distinctive inflection of individual sensibility--that stamped the work of a particular critic.

But Jim was also often the opposite of admiring. He brought enormous patience and rhetorical skill to the task of exposing the fraudulent, the intellectually bogus, the morally bankrupt in literature and criticism. As the academic profession of literature in our time has slid more and more deeply into a pit of fatuous word play, nihilistic pseudo-theories, and a repellent obsession with perverse sexuality, Jim became ever more adept at transforming distaste into lively and devastating criticism. Whether the subject was deconstruction, the feminist assault on literary studies, or simple misrepresentation of the historical record, he could be counted on to provide an exacting anatomization, laying out with wit, clarity, and formidable but ever discreet erudition the intellectual failings and moral pathologies of the subject under discussion.

Jim's first piece for The New Criterion, a review essay about the nineteenth-century feminist writer Margaret Fuller, appeared in December 1984, two years after we began publication. In the succeeding fourteen years, he wrote more than sixty pieces for The New Criterion--more, we believe, than he wrote for any other publication. His work appeared in many other places as well: in a number of specialist academic journals and also The American Scholar, Commentary, The Times Literary Supplement, Chronicles, The Hudson Review, The Yale Review, and The Wall Street Journal. He published two editions of Washington Irving's works, one for the Library of America, the other for The Complete Writings of Washington Irving. His book The Novel of Manners in America (1974) is widely recognized as a definitive study. In Vital Signs: Essays on American Literature and Criticism (1996) and A Fine Silver Thread: Essays on American Writing and Criticism (1998), he collected--generally in substantially expanded form--some of his most important essays. The Primate's Dream, a new collection of essays on race and American literature, will be published posthumously in the spring of 1999 by the house of Ivan R. Dee.

Jim Tuttleton was a critic on the side of truth. He had a profound faith in our ability to uncover the truth and, consequently, a profound conviction that criticism that sought to evade or deny the truth had reneged on its most fundamental mission. One of his most ambitious essays, "Simon Schama, Francis Parkman, and the Writing of History"--written for The New Criterion's special tenth anniversary issue in September 1991--highlights this theme. …

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