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Stanford Report, January 5, 2000

Literary critic, author and 'great humanist' Ian Watt dies


Internationally acclaimed literary critic and author Ian Watt died on Monday, Dec. 13, after a long illness. At the time of his death he had been at the Menlo Park Place nursing home for a year.

Professor emeritus of English at Stanford, Watt was the author of numerous articles and several books on literary theory, most notably The Rise of the Novel and Conrad in the Nineteenth Century.

Born March 9, 1917, in Windermere in England, Watt was educated at the Dover County School for Boys and at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he earned first-class honors in English.

Watt joined the British Army at the age of 22 and served with distinction in World War II as an army lieutenant in the infantry from 1939 to 1946. He was wounded in the battle for Singapore in January 1942 and listed as "missing, presumed killed in action." In fact, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and remained a prisoner of war until 1945, working on the construction of a railway that crossed Thailand ­ a feat that inspired the Pierre Boulle novel Bridge Over the River Kwai and the film version by David Lean.

More than 12,000 prisoners died during the building of the railroad, most of them from disease, and Watt was critically ill from malnutrition for several years.

"There was a period when I expected to die," Watt told the San Francisco Examiner in a 1979 interview. "But I didn't know how sick I was until they gave me some of the vitamin pills that had just come into the camp. I remember being very surprised that I was considered sick enough to receive vitamins."

During his illness, Watt read all of Shakespeare's plays and the works of Dante and Swift.

When he returned home, Watt found that his family and friends were uncomfortable talking about the war years and his absence.

"It was the same when I met my old teachers and my old school friends," he would write years later. "They hadn't really changed, but I had, and they didn't know it, but I did. They wanted to hear about my time as a prisoner of war, of course, but not in enough detail to understand it, and so I got off the conversational hook with a few funny stories."

Watt returned to Cambridge after the war for graduate work, earning his doctorate in 1947, and went on to study at the University of California-Los Angeles and Harvard University. In 1952 he became an assistant professor of English at the University of California-Berkeley, where he taught for 10 years. He also taught at the University of British Columbia and at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, where he was the first dean of the new School of English Studies.

Watt came to Stanford in 1964. He was chair of the English department from 1968 to 1971, when he was named the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of English. He also chaired the Program in Modern Thought and Literature. Watt held several research fellowships, including Guggenheim Fellowships in 1959 and 1972.

"Ian was a towering intellectual presence in the English department and one of the great humanists at Stanford," said Albert Gelpi, professor of English. "I also knew him as a colleague and as a kind of avuncular and very dear friend to me as a somewhat younger faculty member."

Gelpi added that Watt guided the English department through the turbulent days of the late 1960s and early '70s with "great humor, dignity, grace and leadership."

"He gave leadership to the department when the campus was filled with protest marches and student resistance and anti-war feeling," Gelpi said. "I will always remember that when there was a department meeting to discuss a department response to the invasion of Cambodia, Ian proposed that the whole department go on strike and participate in the general movement on campus against American policy. And we did go on strike."

Barbara Gelpi, professor of English, recalls the welcome Watt provided when she came to Stanford in 1969.

"I found Ian awe-inspiring not because he was full of his own dignity, but simply because he was so learned," Barbara Gelpi said. "He was chair of the department and as a young person off the tenure track, I found him to be a very good friend. Although he didn't seem like a feminist, he actually made the English department a very congenial place for me and other women to work."

In 1957 Watt published The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, which explored the connections between social change in 18th-century England and the emergence of the novel as a distinct genre. It quickly became a classic for students of that literary form.

"The Rise of the Novel was not reviewed at first in a way that would suggest it would become a classic, although Irving Howe gave it high praise when it came out," said Bliss Carnochan, professor emeritus of English and former director of the Stanford Humanities Center.

"The effect of the book was more cumulative, over time, than it was immediate. It helped shift the attention of literary criticism from the older, so-called New Critical style, which emphasized poetry, to a new habit of sociological and cultural criticism, which was more likely to emphasize the novel, and which survives to the present."

Watt's book Conrad in the Nineteenth Century was published in 1979 and hailed as another landmark in literary scholarship. He also was the author of Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe.

In 1972 Watt was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Two years later he delivered the Alexander Lectures at University College, University of Toronto, taking as his subject "Four Western Myths." In 1980 he gave the Christian Gauss Seminar in Criticism at Princeton University.

In 1980 Watt was named founding director of the Stanford Humanities Center, a position that he held until 1985.

The spring 2000 volume of the Stanford Humanities Review, which is headquartered at the Humanities Center, will commemorate Watt's work with a special issue titled "Critical History: The Career of Ian Watt." Eighteenth Century Fiction, a journal based at McMaster University in Ontario, also is publishing a special issue about Watt's work, "Reconsidering The Rise of the Novel."

Watt's papers are collected in the Stanford archives, and Carnochan said they offer unique insight on his work.

"Ian was enormously careful," Carnochan said. "He revised and revised and wouldn't let anything into print until he had worked it over many times and was more or less satisfied with it. To read over a page of his manuscripts is to see visibly and graphically the astonishing extent of his revisions."

Watt is survived by his wife, Ruth Mellinkoff Watt of Stanford; son George Watt of Bangkok; daughter Josephine Reed of Salt Lake City; and granddaughters Alison and Joanna.

No services are planned, at Watt's request. Friends may make donations to the charities of their choice. SR