The Death of Sargent Bush , Jr. 1937-2003
by Philip Gould and David Shields
Sargent Bush, Jr. died on October 8 th , 2003, from an onslaught of metastatic melanoma. A well-known scholar of early American literature, Sarge graduated from Princeton University in 1959 with a BA in English (magna cum laude). Like the New England Puritans whom he so passionately studied, Sarge experienced “conversion” very early on in life, and switched careers. He left the world of banking and began his graduate work at the University of Iowa where he worked under the renowned American Renaissance scholar John Gerber. Sarge received his PhD degree in 1967, and after teaching briefly at Washington and Lee University, he accepted a position as assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he’d been recruited by the famous Melville scholar Merton Sealts. He very quickly moved up the academic ranks, later serving as chair of the English Department (1980-83) and also as Associate Dean for Humanities in the College of Letters and Sciences (1989-94, 1999). In 1997 he was named the John Bascom Professor of English. Throughout his professional life, Sarge felt a profound loyalty to the UW, and the time and energy he devoted to its service was extraordinary.
As many of us in early American studies know, Sarge’s scholarship was characterized by historical depth and bibliographic precision. He was truly interdisciplinary before interdisciplinary was cool. After writing a doctoral thesis on Hawthorne (He had wanted to write on Michael Wiggelsworth, he once confessed, but did not believe that at the time “literary studies was ready for it”), he began working seriously on Puritan literature. Over the next three decades he published important work on such first-generation figures as Thomas Hooker, John Cotton, and John Wheelright. His first book was The Writings of Thomas Hooker: Spiritual Adventure in Two Worlds (University of Wisconsin Press1980), and also co-edited The Library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 1584-1637 (Cambridge University Press, 1986), the place that trained many early Puritan ministers who came to New England. While re-reading a review on the Hooker book by Robert Middlekauf in Early American Literature , I was struck by the high regard his colleagues held for his sensitivity to the textures of Puritan language. Recently, Sarge’s monumental edition of The Correspondence of John Cotton (2001) was published through the Omohundro Institute. His intellectual and scholarly interests were quite broad, however, and he published as well on nineteenth-century figures like Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Willa Cather.
Sarge’s reserved demeanor hid from view his intellectual and spiritual passion-indeed he was probably a lot more like the Thomas Hooker he wrote about than anyone ever knew. This extended as well to his teaching and mentoring of students at the UW. His graduate courses on American poetry, for example, or the Puritan narrative tradition were always quite popular, and his teaching in general was adorned with a rich allusiveness that flowed easily back-and-forth between the colonial and antebellum periods. Like the ministers whom he studied, he believed in the sanctity of the written word, and he coupled that belief with the necessity of knowing your audience when communicating with them. He shunned abstraction and vagueness; he gained converts (like myself) through both precept and living example. His intellectual passion and sense of purpose were infectious. In the classroom, moreover, Sarge was much more of a radical (albeit in his tweed jacket and tie) than his professional colleagues imagine; in his early career, he was of a cohort of scholars that helped to legitimize the study early American literature. Colleagues at the UW may have taught courses on the American Renaissance; Sarge taught courses like “Franklin and Thoreau.” And for such an outwardly dignified man, he could shake up a lecture course of 400 UW freshmen-as I once witnessed as a teaching assistant for him-by playing the Village People’s song “YMCA” to make a point about poetic meter and rhythm.
Sargent Bush, Jr. felt a devotion to his religious faith, his family, and his profession. He also had a passion for religious music, the outdoors, and the Boston Red Sox. When I saw the Red Sox fall to the Yankees, yet again, I couldn’t help but think he was watching the same game with me yet from Another Room. For me, as for so many others, he was a source of stability and guidance-a Rock amidst what the historian William Bradford called this “uncertain world.” He is survived by his wife Cynthia and his two sons, who are mourning their loss. So are the others who had come to know him.
Sargent Bush, Jr., John Bascom Professor of American Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, died on October 8, 2003. Educated at Princeton and the University of Iowa, he was one of the greatest expositors of early New England’s intellectual history. While his fame as a scholar lies as an interpreter and editor of the theological and political writings of the first generation N. E. Puritan divines, particularly Thomas Hooker and John Cotton, and the antinomian John Wheelwright, he wrote on a broad range of authors and subjects, including Longfellow, Twain, and Cather. He was the greatest expert on early American epistolary writings, a remarkably talented textual editor capable of bringing order to the notoriously difficult manuscript letters of John Cotton, and an intellectual historian who invariably assumed a transatlantic frame of reference. He had an especially deep understanding of Reformed Christian pneumatics, the dynamic co-operation of psyche and the soul. He collaborated in writing the history of the library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the institution that trained many of the early New England Puritans. He also edited the journal of Sarah Kemble Knight. At the time of his death he was working on a study of Robert Keayne’s notes on the sermons of John Cotton in the 1640s.
A personable yet professional man, Sarge Bush will be sorely missed by the community of Early Americanists. “A great tree has fallen in Zion.”
Dr. David S. Shields
Editor, Early American Literature
McClintock Professor of Southern Letters
Department of English
University of South Carolina