Beloved teacher Booth transformed study of literature
Wayne Booth, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature and one of the 20th century’s most prominent and influential literary critics, died at his home in Chicago on Monday, Oct. 10.
With the publication of The Rhetoric of Fiction in 1961, Booth transformed the study of literature by combining technical and ethical analysis, a technique that remains important to narrative theory today. His subsequent work, above all, The Company We Keep, published in 1988, became the touchstone for ethical criticism within literary studies.
Bill Brown, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature and Chairman of the department, described The Rhetoric of Fiction as “the single most important American contribution to narrative theory—a book that continues to be read, taught and fought about. In person and in print, Wayne Booth demonstrated how significant the act of literary analysis could and should be.”
For more than four decades, Booth was one of Chicago’s most distinguished scholars.
“The University prides itself on its capacity to sustain an intellectual community, and no one surpassed Wayne Booth in his commitment to that ideal,” said James Chandler, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor in English Language & Literature. “His teaching, his collegiality, his scholarship—it was all about keeping good intellectual company, about creating the discursive circumstances in which it could flourish. That’s what he meant by what he sometimes called ‘rhetoric in the good sense.’”
Booth also was enormously respected as one of the University’s great teachers. Since 1991, the University has honored exceptional graduate students with the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
“Wayne Booth was not just an amazing literary critic. He exemplified the University at its best for so many of us. He was deeply devoted to the College and to the Humanities core,” said David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities.
Born Feb. 22, 1921, in American Fork, Utah, Booth served on a mission for the Mormon Church before receiving a B.A. in 1944 from Brigham Young University. After his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, he married Phyllis Barnes in 1946, and the couple moved to Chicago to pursue graduate studies. He received a Ph.D. in English from the University in 1950.
He was an Assistant Instructor and Instructor in English Language & Literature at Chicago from 1947 to 1950, prior to appointments he accepted at Haverford and Earlham colleges. In 1962, he returned to Chicago to be the George M. Pullman Professor in English Language & Literature. He served as Dean of the College from 1964 to 1969, guiding the institution during a critical period of reorganization.
“Wayne Booth served as Dean at a time of great social change in the history of American universities. He provided strong leadership of the academic affairs of the College, defending with special conviction Chicago’s ideals of general education. He was proud of the fact that, as he once put it, ‘nowhere else has liberal education been taken so seriously,’ and he urged the University to recruit more dedicated scholar-teachers who cared deeply about those educational values,” said John Boyer, Dean of the College.
He was a literary critic and a critic of literary critics. For many years he co-edited the quarterly journal Critical Inquiry and frequently contributed to other journals in literary criticism.
In The Rhetoric of Fiction, which adapted Aristotelian theory to consider the reader and the ways in which literary texts themselves shape the audience they require, he explored the ethical effect of certain narrative techniques in a range of classic novels.
The book won the Christian Gauss Prize of Phi Beta Kappa in 1962, and the David H. Russell Prize of the National Council of Teachers of English in 1966.
Booth also wrote Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (1979); A Rhetoric of Irony (1974); Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (1974); and Now Don’t Try to Reason with Me: Essays and Ironies for a Credulous Age (1970). In 1988, Booth wrote an influential book on the ethics of fiction, The Company We Keep.
A beloved teacher, Booth was honored with the University’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1971. In 1986, the American Association for Higher Education named Booth one of six college and university professors who were “making a difference in higher education.”
During his career, he was awarded Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities and Ford Faculty fellowships; served on the Commission on Literature for the National Council on Religion in Higher Education (1967-1970); and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Booth also was President of the Modern Language Association from 1981 to 1982.
He continued writing throughout his life, experimenting in satiric essays and fiction as well as autobiography. Two of his post-retirement works, The Art of Growing Older (1992) and For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals (1999), were well received beyond the academy. In For the Love of It, he challenged the idea that an amateur merely dabbles in an art or skill that should be performed only to the highest standards.
Booth, who took up playing cello at age 35, argued that the passionate enjoyment and sharing of such pursuits is fulfilling in itself.
Surviving Booth are his wife Phyllis; his daughters Katherine Booth Stevens and Alison Booth; his sons-in-law Robert Stevens and David Izakowitz; and his grandchildren Robin Booth Stevens, and Emily Booth Izakowitz and Aaron Hersh Izakowitz.
A funeral service for family and friends was held at Bond Chapel on Saturday, Oct. 15. A University memorial service is being planned for early 2006.