Norman Grabo (1930-2001)

With comments from Carla J. Mulford, David Shields, Robert Arner, J.A. Leo Lemay, Charles W. Mignon, and Annette Kolodny

From Carla J. Mulford, 16 March 2001:

Dear colleagues,

Our friend and colleague, Norman S. Grabo, died on March 15 in Greeley, Colorado. Prof. Grabo requested that there be no memorial service, but perhaps colleagues would wish to send me (or post to the list generally) some comments about his work and its impact upon early American studies. I’d be happy to gather up the comments for posting somewhere, perhaps on the SEA website, as our own memorial to this important scholar of early American literature and culture. We could at least send our comments to his department chair, so they might be shared with his colleagues there.

For those newer to the profession who might be unfamiliar with Norman Grabo’s career, I will add in here a version of the message sent to some friends and associates and passed on to me by a friend:
“Professor Emeritus Norman S. Grabo died yesterday, March 14, at his home in Greeley, CO. Professor Grabo taught previously at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, at the University of California, Berkeley, and as Distinguished Professor of English at Texas A&M University. He held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. An editor and critic of Early American literature, his published work includes books on the American writers Edward Taylor and Charles Brockden Brown. Professor Grabo came to the University of Tulsa as Chapman Professor of English in 1983 and retired in 1995.”
I believe Norman Grabo had been working these last years on a comprehensive and I think comparative history of colonial American literature. His work especially on Edward Taylor and Charles Brockden Brown has been immensely important to me.

From David Shields, 17 March 2001:

Carla’s news about the death of Norman Grabo is indeed sad. He was one of the distinctive prose stylists among American literary scholars. During his final years he completed a long narrative about the development of American literature. I believe that it is currently in the hands of one or another of the academic presses. A copy of the table of contents forwarded to me indicated that it incorporated much early Ibero-American material and ranged into the early 19th century.

A wit, possessed of passionate convictions about scholarship, Norman’s praise was fulsome and his criticism trenchantly direct. He spoke his mind without reserve. He criticized early Americanists’ inattention to the history of literary forms and chided many for obscurantism when using theoretical language in scholarship. He praised the field for breaking out of the preoccupation with English-language texts and the genealogy of American nationalism. We will know the full extent of his already substantial contribution to our field when his magnum opus is finally published.

From Robert Arner, 17 March 2001:

With all due respect to those who knew Norm Grabo better than I did, I want to put in my widow’s mite of praise here also. I first met Norm in Cal Israel’s kitchen at a conference on early American literature Cal had organized in, I believe, the fall of 1971. Norm was entirely gracious, even though I was somewhat argumentative, as young faculty will be.

Subsequently, I saw him too infrequently–maybe 8 or 10 times–the last time, I believe, at a conference organized by Leo Lemay on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Franklin’s death (1990 of course). Every time it was as though we were the best of friends meeting again. I cannot express how much he, together with Everett Emerson and Leo himself, created the sense that early American studies was a discipline AND a scholarly community, and this far beyond his published scholarship and commentary.

I feel a deep sense of personal loss about the death of a man whose smile, sense of humor, and friendly handshake were synonymous with early American studies for me during the 1970s and 1980s, before Carla and David and the others who have since made it so visible and viable a discipline came along.

From J.A. Leo Lemay, University of Delaware, March 19, 2001

Norm was my good friend. I met him in the fall of 1965 at UCLA where he often returned to see his friends, Phil Durham (with whom he studied as an undergraduate and who encouraged him to go to graduate school), Leon Howard (his teacher and PhD supervisor), and Bob Dent. As a graduate student, he had roomed with Phil and Bob, who were young faculty members.

I remember Everett Emerson’s pleasure in introducing Norm to Don Stanford at the first meeting of the MLA’s Early American Literature Group. Norm and Don were then the major Edward Taylor scholars.

Over the past decade or so I read several chapters of Norm’s major work in progress. One that I read that I thought wonderfully original was on early American criticism. From various prefaces and dozens of other sources Norm had gathered together more critical comments by early American writers than I knew existed, and Norm had done a wonderful job of analyzing the material. But of course the few chapters that I read were all excellent.

Another early memory was the MLA where he was introducing Annette Kolodny, at that time his graduate student. Norm, like his teacher Leon Howard, sometimes stayed up all night drinking and talking, and then performed brilliantly in the morning. Like Leon Howard and David Shields, he had a strong creative bent. Leon wrote (like Lewis Leary) limericks on American authors (I wish now I had collected them); and Norm wrote, played, and sang songs on circumstances and the profession–one of my favorites was the song on the UCLA parking lots.

After we became well acquainted, I always regarded Norm with affection.

From Charles W. Mignon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, March 22, 2001

Adding my note to the others: I met Norman as a young faculty member at a MLA in the sixties–more particularly, at one of Everett Emerson’s parties. He was, I believe, in the company of his mentor, an imposing older man with a heavily-lined face and neck like those of farmers who spend much of their time in the weather. At a later time (when I had become involved in editing) I remember talking with him about the explanatory notes to his edition of Taylor’s Treatise. Sitting with him at a session of the MLA was a confirmation of shared values in scholarship and editing: he and Everett Emerson and Tom Davis were major helps to me in editing Taylor’s Types. Once at a conference at Chapel Hill I did feel the sting of his wit, correcting me on a critical point about Homer’s Odyssey. But the time I felt the closest to him was at a ALA meeting in San Diego. It was a time when the profession was feeling the stress of the difficulties placing our graduate students in the job market. I was very anxious to have Norman’s advice about how best to deal with these difficulties and felt relieved to be able to corner him at the reception on the terrace bar at the Bahia resort. We talked dead earnest about the problems, and Norm told me that there was, beyond the usual methods, no magic answer. That’s when I realized that I was going to have to draw upon my own wits in finding ways to help; he had counseled me well. The last time I saw him he joked with me about those vanished notes for the Treatise–where HAD they gone?! Now I feel the same way about his parting.

From Annette Kolodny, University of Arizona, March 30, 2001

The death of Norman Grabo leaves a huge hole in the community of early Americanists. Not only did Norman help to forge that community, but his scholarship helped to set the highest standards of integrity and professionalism.  For those like me-who had the privilege of doing their graduate work under his direction-Norman was a friend and mentor of impeccable integrity and unbounded personal generosity.  Now, our challenge as an intellectual community is to preserve and publish what we can from the manuscript to which he had devoted himself over the last 20 years.  This massive undertaking was Norman’s attempt to offer a linguistically and culturally diverse comparative study of early American literary culture. Those of us who have seen portions of the manuscript know that it contains gems we cannot afford to lose.  I know I speak for many when I say that I will miss Norman’s great conversation, sardonic sense of humor, and even his sometimes execrable politics.

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