J.A. Leo Lemay (1935-2008)

J. A. Leo Lemay (January 17, 1935 – October 15, 2008)


By Carla Mulford and friends

J.A. Leo Lemay (January 17, 1935 – October 15, 2008) – a few words from Carla Mulford and friends

On the days after Leo Lemay’s death was announced, many kind people wrote thoughtful and good messages to me. I’ll offer below just a small sample of the lovely and numerous messages that came my way from friends, colleagues, and even from people I’ve not met, hoping that they will understand my wish to share our mutual sense of profound sorrow.

Bill Scheick’s eloquent testimonial captured my own experience.  Bill wrote on October 16, “Leo’s passing is a wounding palpable absence which no words can in any way mitigate.”

The SEA list has been silent about Leo since my announcement went out.  A testament to the poignant truth Bill captured for us all.

Yet I have been flooded with emails from friends and associates. Here is a sampling of some of the remarks offered me privately.

Sharon M. Harris, October 15: “What sad, sad news.”

Jeffrey Richards, October 15: “I enjoyed his company, relished his joie de vivre, and honored his enormous contribution to Early American Studies. It is hard to imagine MLA without him.”

Frank Shuffelton, Oct. 15: “Leo was one of the great scholars in our time of early American literature, and he was also one of the finest spirits of our profession. Praise from him for the quality of your work was a reward not easily matched elsewhere, and his sociability enlivened our encounters over the years. His MLA parties were highlights of the meetings (for me at least, but maybe I don’t get out enough), and I always ate better at meetings when I tagged along with Leo. We learned a lot from him, and he made our lives more fun. We will miss him deeply.”

George Boudreau, Oct. 15: “Sitting here in my hotel room in DC, I just got the incredibly sad news about Leo Lemay. I feel terribly sad, not just at the loss of a tremendous scholar and inspiration, but the loss of a friend. . . . I emailed Leo the other day, telling him I wanted to drive over next week once this conference was over. I didn’t hear back from him, but resolved to call next week, when I return to Winterthur. I waited too long.  I wish we had some cultural venue to gather together at a moment like this: shiva or an Irish wake or something. I guess I’ll just go out and order one of his famous martinis tonight, and remember a person I was happy and proud to know.”  George continued to write to me throughout the evening of Oct. 15.  One of his followups was this: “Dear Carla, . . . I keep thinking about the last time we had a drink together, just after I’d found the Jones document and the Junto information. We sat and talked about the Junto and Franklin (and martinis) for hours. G”

I wrote to our friend David Shields, who had written to say word had reached him about Leo’s death, Oct. 15. David wrote to me, “Carla . . . My hope is that Leo is still with us.” And I wrote back to David, “David, Leo IS still with us, just differently, now, living on through us. I was teaching my grad class this morning, teaching Jefferson. Leo would have loved the class, I’m sure. My guess is that he might have been passing on at precisely the time I was talking about him, explaining how unusual it was for anyone in his generation to study southerners. He’s with us, David, and he’s out of pain and frustration and consternation.” And David returned, “Carla, he indeed lives. That is what true scholarship is about. Memory as presenting what is needful. He made what was needful and so lives himself. Moreover he shaped our thoughts and lives about how to do what we do. His inimitable voice. No other person sounded like him. That’s what the future will not know, for I doubt there are many recordings.”

James (Jim) May, editor of the East Central American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (EC/ASCES) Intelligencer, wrote to me the evening of October 15 to ask for a memorial for the publication.  He noted, “I liked Leo’s judgment, the way he exercised it with salty skepticism, measuring cases from two or more sides . . . .”

Laura Stevens wrote to me on the evening of Oct. 15: “Leo epitomized scholarly graciousness, and I’m very sorry to know that I won’t be seeing him at future conferences. I’m especially glad now that I was able to see him at the last MLA.”

Joel Myerson wrote on Oct. 16: “I knew Leo for over thirty years and for many of those, his party opened MLA and mine closed it. We spent many an hour following our respective parties discussing everything from the various merits of Jack Daniel’s vs Wild Turkey to more weighty subjects. He’s one of the last links to a profession that was more inclusive, drank and smoked too much, and, in general, had fun.”

Betty Donohue wrote to me on Oct. 16: “Although I visited with him for only a moment, it was clear that he was an outstanding, warm, compassionate human being.”

Bill Pencak, a historian friend at Penn State wrote to me on Oct. 16: “Dear Carla – — I am so sorry to hear this — I only met Leo once, at a dinner Mike Zuckerman [historian at Penn] had about 20 years ago, but I still remember him, his great laugh, his conversation, and his geneal friendliness.. I understand why he was loved so much. Sincerely, Bill”

Zabelle Stodola, our recent SEA president, lost her dissertation mentor, Harrison T. Meserole, not all that long ago. She sent a wonderful and wonderfully apt reminiscence.  “Carla, So sad to hear about Leo’s death. I remember when Harry Meserole died I felt that my intellectual parent was gone. Our mentors see us through from being students to being colleagues: they watch us grow up and our relationship with them lasts decades. My favorite remembrance of Leo . . . is seeing him probably for the first time at one of the ALA Conferences in San Diego. Here was the big man, who did not suffer fools gladly (nor did Harry), in a bathrobe and flip flops making his way to the lovely hotel pool.”

Amy Winans wrote on Oct. 16: “I remember attending a couple of Leo’s parties at MLA over the years. What a generous, caring soul he was – always reaching out to those who were still finding their way.”

Steven Thomas wrote to me on  Oct. 16: “I only had the chance to meet him two times (the first time thanks to you), and each time, I was impressed by his humor and his seemingly rigorous circumspection — two qualities that seemed connected and maybe even causal of each other.”

Alfred Bendixen, founder of the American Literature Association, wrote to me Oct. 17, when he heard: “I am very sorry to hear this. I am among those who benefitted from his wisdom and generosity – Alfred”

And this is what I wrote awhile back: “Leo’s third volume of his magisterial biography of Franklin is out this week, a fitting tribute to his loving care in articulating the myriad details of Benjamin Franklin’s life. Leo considered this volume to be his best so far (and the first two won awards!). It is the most thorough accounting yet of Franklin’s important years negotiating with the frontier peoples, Philadelphians, and the London establishment. It is thoroughly researched and offers much new information. Leo was a best friend, co-conspirator in the fostering of early American studies, and our boon companion when it came time to open up the annual MLA gatherings with a bottle or two of Wild Turkey. I’ll continue Leo’s MLA tradition, but not at this year’s MLA meeting, which I will take off as a year of rest and reflection on our good friend, one of the tiny group of key scholars who (amidst a great deal of adversity) founded the Division of American Literature to 1830 and made the journal Early American Literature possible.”

Joel Berson, someone unknown to me, wrote to me on October 17 to share with me something that he’d written for another list.  Part of his message read: “I too am saddened to learn of the death of Leo Lemay, although I never met him in person. When I was researching for an article on my discovery of an antecedent (published in a Boston newspaper 6 months earlier) for Franklin’s so-called “Drinkers Dictionary”, Leo was very generous in his help and time, offering me several suggestions which substantially improved my article. (My email archives have nearly 20 exchanges of messages with him, over a period of 8 months.)”

Lisa Herb Smith wrote to me on Oct. 17: “He was a true example of a generous man. I’m so glad I got to stop by his office and chat with him this past summer.”

Ernest Sullivan II wrote to me on Oct. 19: “I guess that because I have known Leo for 40 years, I just assumed that he was a permanent fixture in my life and world. I am truly sad.”

Many, many thanks to all who wrote me. If you didn’t find your message to me mentioned here, perhaps it’s that I found your remarks so personal I couldn’t share them easily. Please send your thoughts to the SEA list or directly to Susan Imbarrato, who will see that your remarks are mounted on the SEA website “In Memoriam” link.

A final remark.

Leo was buried on Monday beneath a lovely, maturing pin oak, still full of its changing leaves, green-gold, yellow-red. The morning had been chilly, with frost on the multi-colored fields of the valleys I passed on the way down to Newark, Delaware. I thought of Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” By the time I arrived in Delaware, the sun was bright, and it was one of those lovely days you wish would last forever. There was a celebration of Leo’s life. At the very end of the day’s events, Leo’s son, John, made some remarks and read a letter from Benjamin Franklin to his dear relative, Elizabeth Hubbert. For those who are unfamiliar with the letter, perhaps you’d like to read it:
Philadelphia, February 22, 1756.

Dear Child,

I condole with you, we have lost a most dear and valuable relation, but it is the will of God and Nature that these mortal bodies be laid aside, when the soul is to enter into real life; ’tis rather an embrio state, a preparation for living; a man is not completely born until he be dead: Why then should we grieve that a new child is born among the immortals? A new member added to their happy society? We are spirits. That bodies should be lent us, while they can afford us pleasure, assist us in acquiring knowledge, or doing good to our fellow creatures, is a kind and benevolent act of God— when they become unfit for these purposes and afford us pain instead of pleasure—instead of an aid, become an incumbrance and answer none of the intentions for which they were given, it is equally kind and benevolent that a way is provided by which we may get rid of them. Death is that way. We ourselves prudently choose a partial death. In some cases a mangled painful limb, which cannot be restored, we willingly cut off. He who plucks out a tooth, parts with it freely since the pain goes with it, and he that quits the whole body, parts at once with all pains and possibilities of pains and diseases it was liable to, or capable of making him suffer.

Our friend and we are invited abroad on a party of pleasure — that is to last for ever. His chair was first ready and he is gone before us. We could not all conveniently start together, and why should you and I be grieved at this, since we are soon to follow, and we know where to find him.

B. F.

By David Shields

J. A. Leo Lemay

Leo Lemay embodied what it meant to be a scholar.  He labored industriously to collect texts, facts, things that preserved the cultural memory of the language, the country, and the region that he loved. The scope of his efforts had the heroic range of the master bibliographers of American literature—Evans, Shipton, Stoddard—encompassing centuries and spanning the Atlantic and the North American continent.  There was something large and original about his ambition.  He did not choose to follow in the footsteps of that sect of cultural genealogists who traced American civil religion from the Puritans.  Instead he explored the archive, recovering lost literatures, and demonstrating that Annapolis and Williamsburg were as vibrant centers of literary activity as Boston.  I always thought of him as a reincarnation of William Camden, that early humanist scholar in England, who led the Society of Antiquaries, and gave to his country a past that it had lost whose richness it had  never suspected.  Men of Letters in Colonial Maryland was the greatest chorography of early American Literature, a collection of lives, writings, chronologies, and political circumstances that supplied a back story for a place that gave it a wit and liveliness that no colonial history ever supplied.  It is a useful and generous book—one filled with facts and lacking a tendentious argument—inviting readers and writers to make use of its findings as they wished.  And many—I think of the novelist John Barth particularly—did.

Places mattered to Leo.  Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia particularly.  But as important as places were lives.  He was fascinated with those persons who aspired to be writers.  How writing connected with working, marrying, establishing households, projecting political desires became the chief concern of his inquiries.  Over the course of his career he gave us the lives of a number of fascinating figures: the physician & clubman Dr. Alexander Hamilton, the amorous Virginia planter Robert Bolling, the eloquent Latin master of Annapolis, Richard Lewis, Maryland’s poetic laureate, Ebenezer Cooke, the Virginian historian Robert Beverly.  But two men’s lives interested him more than any other: Captain John Smith’s and Benjamin Franklin’s.  Both careers exemplified for Leo how to live large in the world. Neither man rested content with what they had been born into or in the expectations of the society they inhabited.  Both were infected with dreams of a richer possibility, one that made greater use of the mind, the imagination, the will, and the heart.  Neither man was content simply with his own betterment, but strove to make his countrymen and women more happy and secure.  Leo’s own sociability, his generosity, his provoking humor, his “larger than life” personality were reflections of what he learned from his study.  His scholarship shaped his sense of how life should be lived and work done.

I did not have the privilege of studying with Leo.  Yet scholarship enables the thought of the learned to find disciples out in the world.  I attest to that truth, for Leo’s writings were one of the fundamental influences on my work.  In the first month of my first job, I wrote to him asking a question.  Much to my surprise he wrote back with a ready answer.  And so began a correspondence which for much of the 1980s was weekly in frequency.  For a long time he was the only senior scholar interested in my work.  He remained throughout his life my greatest encourager.  I am not the only one in this room who can say that.  He encouraged man.

Only great scholars avoid becoming footnotes in the sands of time.  Leo Lemay will be one whose work survives as an essential component of a way of understanding the early American past.

David Shields
Editor, Early American Literature 1998-2008

By Frances McConnel

My friend Judith Moore, who chairs the English Department at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, has sent me the notice of Leo’s passing as well as some of the remembrances of his friends and colleagues and I wanted to add my own.

Judith and I knew Leo in Anchorage, Alaska, when she was visiting from college and I was a teenager. Leo was a soldier at Fort Richardson and he had joined the Unitarian Fellowship attended by our little gang of mostly teenaged, larval-stage intellectuals. He said he had joined it because he’d heard that of all the local churches it had the prettiest women and the best parties. Leo was a wonderful addition not just to the parties, but to our lives. He was a great favorite. He was brash, appreciative, funny, and game for just about anything. His mind was greased-lightning. He was eager to please and to be pleased. Discovering I wrote poetry, he organized a reading of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, though I was too self-conscious to be anything but part of the audience.

I don’t remember if he left Anchorage before or after I did in 1960. I was married to my high school boy friend by then and pregnant and intent on at least one quarter at the University of Washington, where one of my few serious ambitions was to study with Theodore Roethke, an idea Leo cheered on. (Unfortunately, because of babies and poverty, I had to make do with extension courses until after Roethke died.)

In the early 70s, Judith and I connected with Leo again at MLA. Both of us had recently gotten our Ph.Ds in English Literature and I was looking for my first job. Leo took us out to a meal and invited us to his famous party and after that, whenever one or both of us were at MLA, he would do the same. I don’t have to explain the pleasures of these get-togethers—it has been moving to read the other remembrances of Leo and to know how much he was appreciated and in how many ways. I will miss those occasions. I had been looking forward to connecting with him in San Francisco at this year’s MLA and had begun reading the first volume of The Life of Benjamin Franklin so I’d be prepared. Now I read it for his voice, the voice of a gentleman and a scholar, though I regret you can’t get onto the page his laugh. Just for that laugh, I was polishing my question about his take on Sarah Palin.

Frances Ruhlen McConnel
Claremont, California
Retired from the University of California, Riverside.


J. A. Leo Lemay: A Sketch,” Finding Colonial Americas: Essays Honoring J.A. Leo Lemay, Edited by Carla Mulford and David S. Shields

“A Tribute to J. A. Leo Lemay,” Early American Literature 35 (2000): 1-4.

UDaily, University of Delaware:

Critics acclaim Prof. Lemay’s ‘Life of Benjamin Franklin’ ”
Ben Franklin—facts and fallacies

Library of Congress: “Ben Franklin: A Documentary History”; TITLE: Benjamin Franklin: A Documentary History; Webcast Library of Congress, 03/09/2006

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