John Seelye (1931-2015)

Testimonials and Messages


By Gordon Sayre

One of our most creative, prolific, and witty scholars in Early American Literature, John Seelye, passed away on April 20th in Gainesville, Florida. He taught at Berkeley, UNC Chapel Hill, Connecticut, and Florida over his long career.

I came to know his work when I read his two monographs Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American Life and Literature, and its sequel Beautiful Machine: Rivers and the Republican Plan. Prof. Seelye knew both New England and Virginia colonial literature inside and out, but he was never overawed by the piety or prowess of these authors. His satiric remarks about John Williams, Mary Rowlandson, and John Smith stuck in my head for years. His witty, allusive style of critical writing is something I’ve tried to emulate. He also wrote the encyclopedic study of the ideologies and symbolism of Plymouth Rock, entitled Memory’s Nation, and edited/introduced many many volumes of the Penguin classics and other works of literature in mass market editions.

Gordon Sayre
University of Oregon


By William Heath

I, too, mourn the death of John Seelye, and can only echo Gordon Sayre’s comments on his life and work. Prophetic Waters is one of the truly inspired works on early American history and literature. Written with wonderful flair and rare insight, Seelye makes the early American writers come alive as few can. His paragraphs on Thomas Morton alone are priceless.

William Heath, professor emeritus, Mount Saint Mary’s University


By Robert Daly

He was quick-witted, teasing, and genuinely kind. Like many, I shall miss both a good writer and a good human being.

Bob Daly
University at Buffalo


By Carla Mulford


I was deeply saddened when I learned from Gordon Sayre that John had passed away in April.

Bob Daly’s remarks reminded me just now of John’s gentle wit and supportive demeanor, his twinkly eye, his always warm and genial smile.

John was friends with Leo Lemay, who introduced me to John while I was still a graduate student. John and Alice were always there opening up and often closing Leo’s MLA parties in the later years of those events. I knew John as a much admired mentor to my friend Jeffrey Richards, who wrote of John in the acknowledgements to his important first book, Theatre Enough, that “For longer than he had reason to, John Seelye steadfastly put my feet to the fire at those times when they got coldest.”

My special memory of John Seelye is of his generosity during my earliest years as a PhD candidate. John gave me, while I was still writing my dissertation, a 1793 Paris edition, ex-libris, of Joel Barlow’s Vision of Columbus with the “Conspiracy of Kings” added to it. It’s a beautiful copy. I was stunned by the gift, the first relatively rare book that I then owned. John was spending the year on a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society, and, he said, he remembered having a great conversation with me about Joel Barlow and so “picked up this little book for you” while haunting the used book stores in New England.

Since then I have added to the once little library, but John’s gift holds a very special place in my memory, because of its generosity and goodwill that I go forward with my work. Like Bob Daly and Leo Lemay and Everett Emerson, John was one of the really *very* few who expected greatness from the women students then entering the profession in greater numbers.

I found an obituary online. I thought those who didn’t know John might like to know more.

The recollection (in the obituary) by Lee Jacobus captures John in his earlier career, and the condolence by John’s colleague Mark A. Reid, shows that John had a wonderful knack of finding just the right book for a young person to spend a lifetime treasuring.

We never have a chance to say goodbye, do we, except here, perhaps. Hard to see such generous scholars passing on.

All good wishes,
Carla Mulford

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