James A. Levernier (1949-2021)

James A. Levernier (1949-2021)

Testimonials and Remembrances

Messages from the SEA community upon hearing the sad news on the SEA listserv from Professor Stodola that Professor Levernier had passed away.
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From Professor Zabelle Stodola:

James A. Levernier, 1949-2021

With profound sadness I pass on news of the death of my friend and colleague James A. (Jim) Levernier. He and I taught together at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for over thirty years. Although his name may not be (as) familiar to recently trained early Americanists, it is very familiar to previous academic generations in the field he helped to open up. He exemplified the best of the profession: a master teacher, a brilliant researcher, and one of the most decent, generous, and loyal human beings I have ever encountered.

Jim obtained his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975 and wrote his dissertation on Indian captivity narratives under the direction of Hennig Cohen. The two of them went on to edit The Indians and Their Captives (1977), a prescient collection that has stood the test of time surprisingly well. In the late seventies and early eighties, he edited other book-length early American texts and then, with Douglas R. Wilmes, compiled the three-volume reference work American Writers before 1800: A Biographical and Critical Dictionary (1984) with individual entries by several hundred scholars. Decades before internet searches, this invaluable work became a go-to resource for basic information. It even garnered a review in the (London) Times Literary Supplement (if I remember rightly), the gist of which was skepticism that the chosen writers and works represented anything valuable about Americanness, Authorship, or Literature!

In 1993, Jim and I co-authored one of the first book-length monographs on the Indian Captivity Narrative, The Indian Captivity Narrative 1550-1900. While Jim remained interested in captivity narratives throughout his career, his later research focused on Phillis Wheatley. His articles “Phillis Wheatley and the New England Clergy” (Early American Literature, 1991) and “Style as Protest in the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley” (Style, 1993), among others, were instrumental in showing Wheatley to be a far more complex, intellectual, and political author than many scholars acknowledged at that time.

He continued to probe topics on Wheatley in a series of conference papers including “Phillis Wheatley and Christianity” (2011) at The Hospitable Text: New Approaches to Religion and Literature, held in London, and “Phillis Wheatley and Science” (2012) at the Northeast American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (NEASECS) Conference. In 2021, he was deeply gratified that Honoree Fanonne Jeffers referenced his work on Wheatley at the virtual SEA Conference.

Jim chaired panels and read papers at many different conventions, but he was an especially frequent presence at the early American sessions organized at the American Literature Association Conferences, at the biennial SEA Conferences, and at the annual Northeast American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Conferences. He and I often attended NEASECS together which gave us the opportunity to combine scholarship with visits to colonial sites in New England. Early Americanists from the 1990s to the early 2000s who were new to the field will also remember him taking the time to encourage and support junior faculty and graduate students whenever and however he could.

Perhaps even more impressive than Jim’s scholarship was his devotion to teaching. One of his students—now a successful lawyer—said this: “Dr. Levernier stands apart in that he produced exceptional scholars not only among obviously bright and talented students, but also from those students whose potential everybody else doubted.” Indeed, he was a master teacher as skilled at holding forty American literature survey students spellbound as mentoring English Honors students one-on-one for their long projects. Students would follow him from class to class, sometimes regardless of what particular course he was teaching that semester. His work on Phillis Wheatley prompted him to apply Critical Race Theory to a range of courses from American Literature and African American Literature surveys to Honors seminars like The Alternative American Canon.

In 2011 I nominated Jim for the annual UALR Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching, and he won not only at the College level but at the University-wide level, which carried a purse of $10,000.  In my nomination letter, I identified master teachers like Jim as being life-changing, humane, generous, scholarly, and inspirational. He recognized the challenges faced by the mostly non-traditional undergraduates that he taught and provided all kinds of extra support both academic and personal. He was particularly committed to mentoring students in the McNair Scholars Program at UALR, one of the federal TRIO Programs sponsored by the US Department of Education to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But Jim was not only defined by professional expertise. A Renaissance Man of sorts, he was a devout Catholic; a diehard Democrat; an avid fisherman; a master gardener; an excellent cook; a collector of duck decoys, samplers, quilts, pocket watches, primitive antique furniture, crocks, oriental rugs, and Blue Willow china (among other items); a loving owner of dogs; and an enthusiastic traveler. He also possessed a wicked sense of humor.

After forty-five years of teaching, Jim retired from UALR in 2020 and was in the process of permanently relocating to his house in Merrill, Wisconsin, which he inherited from his parents. He is survived by his brother-in-law, two nephews, a niece, other family members, and many, many friends.

Zabelle Stodola
Professor of English Emerita
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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By Ralph Bauer

Dear Zabelle,

Thank you so much for alerting us to this sad news and for the very thoughtful tribute! Jim was a wonderful scholar and person. I’ve been a great admirer of his work and have very fond personal memories of his generosity and good spirit.

Ralph

Ralph Bauer
Professor of English and Comparative Literature
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, College of Arts and Humanities
President, Society of Early Americanists (2021-23)
University of Maryland
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By Dan Williams

Jim Levernier had a great impact on my life.  He was one of the first people to take an interest in my work and career, and his support and encouragement were deeply meaningful to me. He offered his help at a time when I needed help. I was a newly minted PhD with few contacts or prospects, and I had taken a lectureship overseas.  I doubted whether I would be able to establish a career for myself in the publish-or-perish academic world, especially since I had started working with non-canonical texts.  I wrote Jim and asked if I could submit some entries for American Writers Before 1800, which he was editing.  He responded immediately—not only inviting me to submit but also welcoming my work with little known texts, which had only recently become available through the Readex series of Evans on microcards.  Those entries in American Writers Before 1800 were my first publications.  To receive Jim’s letters of effusive encouragement seemed literally like a lifeline, and I have always felt great gratitude for his assistance.  I am saddened by his passing but also blessed by the memory of his help and friendship.

Dan Williams
Honors Professor of Humanities and Director of the TCU Press
Texas Christian University
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By Reiner Smolinski

Thank you, Zabelle, for posting your warm obituary of James Levernier. He was all that and more you showed him to be in your tribute. I met him at a conference in Little Rock, AR, way back in 1991, and was touched by his kindness to reach out to young upstarts like me in EAL. We had a long talk about his work on captivity narratives, and he took me for a walk with his dog. I had never experienced such warmth from a senior scholar and am sorry that he has passed away so shortly after his retirement.

He will be missed by all who knew him in person or through his groundbreaking work.

Reiner

Reiner Smolinski, Ph.D.
Professor of English Emeritus
Department of English
Georgia State University
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