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Tribute to Irvin Matus


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0060   Tuesday, 26 April 2011

From:         Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Subject:     Tribute to Irvin Matus

Dear SHAKSPEReans,

I recall the first time I met Irvin Matus: it was in the Founder’s Room in the Folger Shakespeare Library. We were taking a break and having either tea or coffee, I don’t clearly remember which. He introduced himself and I myself. Then I am not sure if he asked me what I was working on – Lucrece – or excitedly said, “I’m working on the authorship question.” Well, I had had more than a few run-ins with Anti-Stratfordians and not wishing to engage in another, I tried politely to say that the authorship question was not something I was particularly interested in. I remember no more of what followed after that.

However, since that chance meeting, I developed nothing but the highest respect for Irvin Matus, a man so dedicated to scholarship, whether it was Shakespeare or the Brooklyn Dodgers, that little else matter to him. Over the years, there were stories that went around about where he was living at the time, what he was up to, or the state of his health.

I was unable to read my daily Washington Posts for ten days or so as I went through an especially trying time from which I arose as a phoenix after five to seven days of suffering. When I did start to catch up with my newspaper reading, I read in the Saturday, March 5, 2011, Washington Post a news obituary for Irvin Leigh Matus, who died on January 5, 2011, of a stroke at his apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, at the age of 69.

The Obituary was one of the finest I have read in the Post and I encourage anyone who is interested to go to the following link and read the entire story.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/05/AR2011030503875.html

Because I feel I owe such a debt of gratitude to Irvin Matus for his Shakespeare: in Fact and because I wish that when I met him in the Folger I had spent some time getting to know him better, for he was a remarkable man, I would like to quote from his Obituary that appeared in the Washington Post.

A Local Life: Irvin Leigh Matus, 69, penniless Shakespeare scholar who lived by his own design
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, March 5, 2011; 9:03 PM

Ever since arriving in Washington in 1985, Irvin Matus seemed to survive on little more than charm, wit and the kindness of friends and strangers.

He seldom had a paying job - mostly out of stubborn pride - choosing instead to spend the past 25 years as an independent scholar of the life and works of William Shakespeare. He showed up each day at the Library of Congress or Folger Shakespeare Library to conduct his research, then slipped away in the evening to cadge food from Capitol Hill cocktail receptions, striding in as if he were a congressman.

He lived in dozens of places as an itinerant housesitter and became known as something of a “man who came to dinner.”
“Invite him to stay the night,” a fellow Shakespeare scholar told The Washington Post last week, “and he might still be in your home a month later.”

Mr. Matus (pronounced MAH-tuss) traveled to England to explore the places Shakespeare knew, dug through archives and published two well-received books, but any similarities to other scholars ended there.

He was not affiliated with a university and had no academic credentials beyond a high school diploma. In 1988, just as he was putting the final touches on his first book, “Shakespeare: The Living Record,” Mr. Matus ran out of borrowed couches.

For several months, he spent his nights sleeping at a construction site behind the Library of Congress. In the morning, he would slip into the library, wash up, shave and comb his luxuriant head of hair, then go back to his research. Whenever people asked where he was living, he said, “the Hill.”

Two months after Mr. Matus died Jan. 5 of a stroke at his apartment in Silver Spring at 69, people who knew him are still puzzling over how a brilliant man whose scholarship was recognized around the world came to lead such an unconventional life, often just one step from destitution.

Without holding a full-time job, Mr. Matus cobbled together his own makeshift career, and made his life as memorable as that of any character upon the stage.

He wrote magazine articles for Harper’s and the Atlantic and went on to publish in 1994 a second book, “Shakespeare, in Fact,” which has come to be recognized as a near-definitive refutation of the argument that the works of Shakespeare were written by someone other than the historical Bard of Avon.

[ . . . ]

Mr. Matus appeared on panels across the country and was more than willing to charge into battle over the “authorship question,” defending Shakespeare from his modern-day doubters. He struck up friendships with many leading Shakespeare experts, including Samuel Schoenbaum of the University of Maryland.

“My husband thought he was a good scholar,” Schoenbaum’s widow, Marilyn, said last week of Mr. Matus. “But he was a really odd duck.”

[ . . . ]

Irv Matus was an easy guy to like: He was clean and meticulous, a good cook and could talk about anything - often at stupefying length. He got to know the guards and homeless people of Capitol Hill as easily as the lettered scholars he met in the libraries.

[ . . . ]

But over time, his personality would grate on some. When he housesat for people, he would rearrange their kitchens. Researchers at the Folger began to duck behind stacks of books when they saw him coming because they knew that if they stopped to say hello, Mr. Matus would still be talking an hour later.

Sometimes he washed dishes at restaurants in exchange for a meal - and at least once got into an argument because he thought he had done enough work for two meals, not just one.

[ . . . ]

Eventually, the homeless Shakespeare scholar found a subsidized apartment in Southwest Washington, where he lived for many years. He clipped coupons from secondhand newspapers and bought groceries with food stamps.

He took occasional jobs delivering documents and as a telephone solicitor, but he never lasted more than a few months. He tried to become a freelance researcher but found few takers.

[ . . . ]

Whether from inner confidence or an oversized chip on his shoulder, he steadfastly refused to conform to the standards of the workaday world.

[ . . . ]

Irvin Leigh Matus was born July 25, 1941, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He enjoyed the theater - his father ran a Western Union office in Times Square - but he didn’t care for Shakespeare early in life. Instead, he adored the Brooklyn Dodgers. At age 9, he named the family dog after Dodger centerfielder Duke Snyder, who died a week ago.

He had a younger brother, Paul, but during childhood was closer to his first cousin, Stephen J. Solarz, who served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1993.

As a teen, Mr. Matus was a friend of rock-and-roll deejay Alan Freed and became an aficionado of rhythm-and-blues music. After graduating from Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School in 1958, Mr. Matus studied commercial art at the Pratt Institute in New York before dropping out after one semester.

[ . . . ]

He was particularly interested in the “authorship question,” which is to Shakespeare scholars what creationism is to biologists: a persistent fixation of amateurs that no one trained in the field takes seriously.

[ . . . ]

For the past eight years, Mr. Matus lived in an apartment at a Silver Spring retirement community. He spent his time working on his Shakespeare Web site, willyshakes.com, and writing a history of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

[ . . . ]


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