Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 2, No. 126. Sunday, 5 May 1991.
Date: Sat, 4 May 1991 13:22:40 -0400
From: Roy Flannagan <FLANNAGA@OUACCVMB>
Subject: The death of Fredson Bowers
I have just heard through another email list (C18-L) that Fredson Bowers
died April 11th, just before he was to address a distinguished
gathering of bibliographers at a conference in New York. As his pupil
at the University of Virginia in the early Sixties, I will miss his
advice, his wisdom, his intellectual toughness and his great common
sense, both publicly, in his editorial work and his writing, and
personally, in his letters to me. He is one of the few human beings for
whom I would use the French adjective *formidable*. He was feared,
sometimes hated, sometimes mocked in fear, always held in awe. He was a
legend, his name enough to invoke hushed tones on buses at the MLA
convention. He singlehandly re-built the English Department at the
University to the national prominence it enjoys today, hiring only the
best, seeking and obtaining endowed chairs, knowing to the penny what
his budget was at the same time he never ceased looking for talent and
supreme intelligence. In his private life, he lived an Horatian ideal,
in an open neoclassical house that overlooked a vista that would have
made Capability Brown proud to have designed it. In his versatility, he
judged dog shows and wrote books about show dogs, he wrote for many
years a classical music column for the best newspaper in the state, and
he could talk on any subject, usually with authority. He was a great
debater. He had the sharpest mind and the strongest intellect of any
academic I have ever known. His classes were sharply focused, taking
the whole semester to cover ten Donne poems or three acts of *Hamlet*.
In his course on Shakespeare's tragedies, I needed to be so sharp for
the examination I stood on my head in the hall outside the classroom,
just in order to get the blood circulating in my brain, only to get the
second-highest grade in the class (after Barbara Mowat): that was the
kind of peformance he inspired. Though Mr. Bowers was legendary also
for his ruthless culling of people whom he did not think measured up to
the best standards, I have never had reason not to think him fair and
unemotional in all his most important decisions.
Mr. Bowers (it was the reverse snobbery of "the University" to call all
those who had PhDs "Mr." or "Mrs.") had not only the strongest intellect
I have ever seen, he had a keen sense of elegance and decorum, even of
beauty, all of which were personified in the wife he wooed very late in
life, Nancy Hale, herself a fine writer, a kind of American Simone
DeBeauvoir in her manner and bearing.
Mr. Bowers abhorred sentimentality. When I wrote him expressing sorrow
for his loss of Nancy Hale, he wrote back but never mentioned his
bereavement. Life was for the living and for work, which gave meaning
to life. His not mentioning what he felt was characteristic, because
his feelings were not as important to the world as his ideas.
Mr. Bowers admitted some of his compromises in letters to me in his
normalizing usage in some texts. The compromises were humane rather than
intellectually lazy. They represented decisions on behalf of the
reader's understanding, never compromises with quality. He never
compromised in questions of quality.
He would not have wanted to be wept over, but he would have wanted the
enormous scope of his achievements appreciated. I am afraid that I
have failed him, in that I have done both today.