George Dekker, scholar of British and American literature, dies at 75

A gifted administrator as well as a scholar, Dekker brought to his work “care, industry, candor and the ability to tell the truth.”

George Gilbert Dekker, known for his work in Romantic and early modern British and American literature, died Feb. 25 at Stanford University Hospital of complications from open-heart surgery. He was 75.

George Dekker (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Dekker is the author of books exploring the works of Ezra Pound, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the American historical novel and Romantic tourism.

He was also a tireless administrator for Stanford, serving as associate dean of graduate policy in the 1990s, during which he worked to maintain and raise high standards in graduate education, championed diversity and fought to open opportunities for women in all fields.

“George Dekker was one of Stanford’s finest citizens, a scholar of wide range, a skillful memoirist, deeply committed to the university, and without the least pretense. In other words, a very rare bird,” said Bliss Carnochan, professor emeritus of English and director of the Humanities Center from 1985 to 1991.

According to William Chace, president emeritus of Emory University and a scholar of modern English, Dekker was a man who “had no truck, as he might say, with pretense or self-inflation or the finer arts of spin and deception.”

“He made his way and his career in the academic world but did not believe it could give him any more dignity or luster than what he had himself produced, book after book, class after class, and student after student,” said Chace, a former vice provost and professor of English at Stanford.

Dekker was born on Sept. 8, 1934, in Long Beach, Calif. He attended Tulane University in New Orleans, then received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1955 and 1958, respectively. He received an MLitt from Cambridge University and attended Trinity College, Dublin, before receiving his doctorate from the University of Essex in 1967. He taught American literature in Welsh and English universities.

At the new University of Essex he was dean of the School of Comparative Studies – one of the chief planners of its programs of interdisciplinary and comparative study of literature, history, social science and fine arts. He came to Stanford in 1972 and taught at Cliveden, then Stanford’s British campus, in 1981.

‘A quiet and tenacious contrarian’

“Always something of a quiet and tenacious contrarian, he began his scholarly career with a book on the poet Ezra Pound, this written in England against the advice of older scholars who informed him that Pound was inappropriate as an academic subject,” Chace said of Dekker’s first book, Sailing After Knowledge: The Cantos of Ezra Pound (1963). “He ended his career by crafting a memoir of his days fighting fires in the Northern California woods.”

In between were other books: James Fenimore Cooper the Novelist (1967), Coleridge and the Literature of Sensibility (1978), The American Historical Romance (1987) and The Fictions of Romantic Tourism: Radcliffe, Scott and Mary Shelley (2005).

Dekker chaired the English Department twice, from 1978 to 1981 and in 1984-85. He was twice elected to the Advisory Board of the Academic Council. He frequently served as a Humanities and Sciences representative to the Faculty Senate. He also served on the Senate Steering Committee.

Dekker was appointed to the Joseph S. Atha Professorship in Humanities in 1988. He received a National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellowship in 1976-77 and a research fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, in 1982. He was a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center in 1997-98.

Charles Kruger, formerly vice provost and dean of research and graduate policy, appointed Dekker to the new position of associate dean of graduate policy in 1993.

Kruger called it “a marvelous choice because George is a great guy,” adding that Dekker had a “significant influence on the university.”

“He reached out to people in different roles – students, staff and faculty. He was very good in seeing how all of these people need to work together to have the very best possible university environment.”

Worked as a firefighter

Dekker began Touching Fire, a memoir of his teenage days as a firefighter: “Beginning to recall and record my Forestry summers helped me survive to tell this tale. I began writing it in 2002 while recovering from stomach cancer and knowing that, statistically, I had only a 20 percent chance of living more than a couple years.”

Although he admitted the relevance his firefighting experiences might have on “the challenges of academic life” might not be immediately apparent, he noted, “Universities are not emergency organizations: the fewer alarms and wailing sirens sounded, the better they carry out their appointed mission. Yet they do suffer their own kind of emergencies from time to time and then have an urgent need for, yes, teamwork, leadership, and professional dedication.”

Robert Polhemus, then chair of the English Department, speaking at a retirement party for Dekker in 2003, extended the comparison: “George was a firefighter – a real firefighter in his youth – and he has been putting out destructive fires ever since. But he has quietly lit fires, constructive fires, too.”

Calling Dekker a scholar who writes “elegantly, sensibly, clearly and profoundly,” Polhemus described his colleague as “a man and professor whose actions are better than his words, who does more for you and everyone than he says he will do. Someone who can get you to do the right thing, who can make you feel smarter than you really are, who can give you insight into yourself and others. Someone who can get a bunch of people to act positively and responsibly.”

According to Chace, “For the decades of his life at Stanford, he became in the eyes of many the conscience of the English Department. He represented its best values – of good teaching, solid research and wholly engaged civic duty – but he never became a ‘company man.’ By his manner and his integrity, he reminded everyone around him that, at the end, universities are only people and universities work best only if those people bring to their work what he always brought to his: care, industry, candor and the ability to tell the truth.”

Dekker is survived by his wife, Linda Jo Bartholomew of Palo Alto, and four daughters by a previous marriage: Anna Allegra Dekker of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England; Clara Joy Dekker of Wivenhoe, England; Ruth Siobhan Dekker of Redding, Calif.; and Laura Daye Dekker of London; and seven grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for the spring.