By Lindsey Thornton
We are sad to announce that retired English Professor Thomas R. Edwards, Jr. died at the age of 77 on July 9, 2005. Professor Edwards taught at Rutgers from 1964 to 1993, and during those twenty-nine years he made his mark on the Department and on the thousands of students who learned how to read literature carefully and attentively in his classes. Friends and colleagues from the Rutgers community honored his life with a memorial at Kirkpatrick Chapel in September.
Professor Edwards majored in English at Amherst College, graduating summa cum laude, and went on to earn his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1956. He then taught at the University of California, Riverside before coming to Rutgers. At both Amherst and Harvard, he was involved with a new and successful method of teaching literature developed by Reuben Brower and based on “close reading,” a mode of interpretation that focuses on a rigorous and sensitive interpretation of the specific words that make up a piece of literature.
Colleagues admired Professor Edwards for his ability both to teach this mode of reading and to use it productively in his own scholarly work. In 1990, he received the Warren I. Susman Award, the highest honor for teaching at Rutgers. He was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others, during his professional career, and authored three scholarly books: This Dark Estate: A Reading of Pope; Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes; and Over Here: Criticizing America 1968-1989. His Imagination and Power was a 1971 finalist for the National Book Award. In addition to co-editing Raritan Quarterly, a journal he co-founded with Professor Richard Poirier, he wrote numerous published reviews of contemporary fiction. His most recent book was O’Brian’s World, a detailed companion to the popular sea novels of Patrick O’Brian that was a labor of readerly love.
Fellow Professor Emeritus Richard Poirier, a long-time colleague and friend, wrote a remembrance of him for the memorial that describes impressions from the five decades the two knew each other. Professor Poirier praised his personal qualities as well as his academic skills, noting that “as a teacher Tom was quite simply the most effective, most patient, the kindest and most inspiring I’ve ever known.” The two professors had taught together at Harvard before working together at Rutgers English and at Raritan. In an earlier essay celebrating Professor Edwards’s intellectual achievements, Professor Poirier wrote that his greatest accomplishments as a teacher and scholar came not just from his sharp intelligence but also from his even temperament. “I can’t think of an occasion when he asked that the attention of others should be redirected from an issue or a book or a problem so that the focus could be brought onto his participation, his personality, his needs, his feelings, his standards, his sense of plight,” wrote Professor Poirier. “This is as great a virtue as it is a rare one.”
Poet and Professor Frank Bidart spoke at the memorial service, and repeated some of the themes he too had developed in an earlier published appreciation. He had been one of Professor Edwards’s students, he wrote, an experience that shaped his life, in part because Professor Edwards “embodied the idea that thinking about and talking about literature was an activity – a project – congruent with the ambition and seriousness, the moral, psychic generosity, of the works we were studying.”
Also at the memorial, his daughter Sarah Edwards-Schmidt spoke of the wealth of knowledge her father shared with both friends and relatives, and of his dry wit and self-deprecating sense of humor. “Everyone thinks their father knows everything” she joked, “but in my case it was true.” She recalled relying on his knowledge, his memory, and his patience, and noted that those qualities made him an unbeatable opponent in Trivial Pursuit, which he loved to play and loved to win, along with all sorts of other games the family shared.
We are saddened by the loss of Professor Edwards, a man who made his mark on Rutgers English and all the people around him by combining intelligence and insight with kindness and modesty.
If you have memories of Professor Edwards that you’d like to share, please consider sending them to Friends of Rutgers English. We’ll append them to this article, where they will remain as a lasting tribute. Email us at email@example.com, or mail to us at Friends of Rutgers English, 510 George Street, New Brunswick NJ 18901.
I had a lot of great teachers as an undergraduate and graduate student at Rutgers: Francis Fergusson, Paul Fussell, Fred Main, Julian Moynahan and Alicia Ostriker to name a few (I’ll never forget Professor Ostriker using a pack of Marlboros to enlighten us about Blake’s view of the cosmos). But of all the teachers I had, Tom was the one who best led us into the heart of the work in front of us. He had this unpretentious way of rolling up his sleeves at the start of class. This was work, but like the work of an artist, approaching the material with respect. I only teach occasionally these days, but often when things are going well, I find myself rolling up my sleeves, and it takes me back to Dryden, Swift and Pope, and the excitement of those classes.
Rich Morahan, BA’66, PhD ‘71
I have only today had the occasion – a sad one indeed – to read on your web site that my dear friend and mentor, Tom Edwards, passed away last year. I studied with him at University of California Riverside and at Rutgers, the former between 1958 and 1963, when I graduated and, later, at Rutgers between 1964 and 1968, when I departed for other shores and activities. (Between 1963 and 1964 I had become stranded at Johns Hopkins and desperately begged him to help me escape, to which plea he replied, "Well, I'm going to Rutgers. Why not join me there?")
He helped me develop a love for literature that I have tried to deepen over the decades since I was his student, and to this day I fondly remember his quiet but firm style when I'm in the midst of a literary discussion. I sometimes wonder if he was a reincarnated Zen master. Like many of my fellow English majors, I was becoming captivated by New Criticism and, thumbing through the UCR stacks, reading what Empson, Eliot, Ransom, et al., were saying about words and writing. When I happened to slip some of their diction into a paper that I had written for English 23B, Tom's sophomore-level survey course (which Frank Bidart was also enrolled in), he most graciously commented, "This sounds strangely unlike you. Did you have any help in writing it?" I was ashamed that I did not acknowledge to him my modest "borrowing," and I have regretted that moral failure ever since: Tom, even at this terribly late date, please forgive me.
On another paper, he wrote, "This is awfully cavalier writing. A less kind term would be B.S." He wrote thoughtful, beautiful comments (in a beautiful hand and in complete sentences) at the end of papers, and I have aped his paper-grading style in my own teaching. I last saw him in 1985, when Paul Bertram and I visited him at his newly purchased New Jersey farmland, or house with attached acreage. I had gone there to ask him to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf that I might continue my studies at Harvard in Sanskrit, to which of course he most generously agreed, probably the reason why I was accepted.
Prior to this visit I had last seen him in 1967 when, having arrived drunk, I asked him at a genteel gathering at his and Nancy's house if I could "crash" there. Putting a Billie Holiday record on the turntable, with his usual grace he said, "Sure." As I collapsed in a stupor on a divan, his daughter Sarah, then I think about seven-years-old, approached me and asked me who I was and what I was doing there. Sarah, Tom, I'm happy to report that I am still trying to figure that out.
Bon voyage, my dear friend. We love you still. Best regards,
Richard W. Arthur, GSNB '64-'68