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Memorial Resolution: Richard P. Scowcroft



With the passing of Richard Scowcroft on October 8, 2001, the Department of English and the Creative Writing Program at Stanford lost a brilliant teacher and a much-beloved colleague, whose pioneering influence on the development of the Writing Program and on generations of students, many of whom are now established writers, was immense. At a memorial celebration of his life and work on January 19, 2002, Dick was honored not only by such renowned former students as Scott Turow and Tobias Wolff, but by other writers and colleagues who all remembered his wit and humor and generous critical intelligence with love and deep appreciation.

Dick Scowcroft was born in Ogden, Utah on June 26, 1916, to a Mormon family, the youngest son of eleven children, and this setting and inheritance were reflected, however obliquely, in all his novels. "I left Utah, but Utah never left me," he said. "I was born into the Mormon community and a Mormon family, and so there was no way, when I became a serious beginning writer, that I could not use that personal history."

But Dick's career was anything but provincial. As the first in the family to graduate from college -- he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Utah in 1937 -- his mother gave him the extraordinary graduation gift of an around-the-world trip. This happened, as Dick described it in a 1998 interview, because it was during the Depression and there were no jobs. His brother had asked him what he was going to do:

"I said I was going to get a job. This being 1937, there were no jobs. 'Well,' I said, 'I'm going to look for one.' 'Why don't you go round the world?' That was because I had never done it and thought it would be nice if I did. My mother gave me $500, as a graduation present, since I was the first to graduate from college. I bought a ticket for a round-the-world trip that was good for two years and could be broken at any point. I took this trip for two years and broke it up -- for three months in Paris, three months in Munich and then saw just about every country that I could in Europe."

When he got back, the Depression was still on and the threat of war had followed him all around the world. To kill time until war was actually declared, Dick applied to graduate school at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, and was accepted by all three, for the reason -- as he too-modestly explains -- that in those days "if you could pay to get in they would take you, no matter how late or what your background was." Dick chose Harvard -- as one of his teachers virtually commanded him to do -- and there, though he took a writing class, he mainly suffered through the brutal regimen of linguistics that was standard fare in English studies at Harvard in 1939 and through the war years. Besides five courses in such subjects as Gothic and Old High German, he passed three languages -- Latin, French, and German -- scarcely the preferred curriculum for one with an itch to be a writer. But, as luck would have it, a prize was offered at the end of his writing course to the person who showed most promise, and fortuitously Dick Scowcroft won it -- all $45 of it. "In a way, it changed my life," he said, and caused me to "stick around and take some more of this writing class, write myself a novel, and then take more classes, and, you know, if it looked like a Ph.D., work for a Ph.D." His son Philip writes that of all his honors and prizes -- and they were many -- this one, the Harvard Monthly Prize, had "the biggest impact on Father's life."

Thus was a novelist born -- and a scholar, for Scowcroft earned a master's degree in 1941 and the Ph.D. in 1946 (after many more linguistics courses). He wrote his dissertation on the treatment of women in 18th century fiction, and after getting the degree he was appointed a Briggs-Copeland Instructor for a year. His first novel, called Children of the Covenant, appeared in 1945 and caused no little stir in Utah by exploring the conflict between a Mormon heritage and modern society. In all, Dick spent eight years at Harvard, 1939 to 1947. Because of a tremor, he was granted 4F status and thus escaped the War, but many of those years were enlisted in teaching writing to Army and Navy students in Harvard's English A program directed by Ted Morrison. Because of the burden of this work (with a staff reduced from twenty to eleven) Dick took a relatively long time in getting the Ph.D. but they were enriching, as well as busy, years. He had as associates on the English A staff many people who went on to distinguished careers in writing or teaching, people such as Mark Schorer, G. Armour Craig, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Albert Gucrard, Jr., and Wallace Stegner (who published The Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1943). Many from this notable company remained Dick's life-long friends, and among their achievements was the production of, under the editorship of Ted Morrison, the best Freshman English anthology ever written, Five Kinds of Writing (1939). Though Dick arrived too late to be one of the editors, he used the book and helped edit another English A product, Readings for Citizens at War (1943).

In 1945 Wallace Stegner came to Stanford and a year later established the Creative Writing Program and became its director. But, since he wanted to teach only half a year, he needed someone to take over the other half. He unhesitatingly -- and without any search -- chose Dick Scowcroft to be that person, who followed him to Stanford in 1947. Together, Wally Stegner and Dick Scowcroft built the Writing Program into the influential and widely respected operation it is today. Dick served as Associate Director of the program until 1971 when, on Wally's retirement, he was made Director. But during this whole period he taught not only writing but many literature classes, and directed many dissertations. With his usual witty self-deprecation, Dick claimed no expertise in the literature he expounded or any particular scholarly know-how over the dissertations he supervised -- acknowledging status only as a writer. In fact, however, he was a man of wide reading and great critical discernment, immensely popular as a teacher of literature (particularly of the 18th century) and immensely respected, and much in demand, as a scholarly guide to students working for the Ph.D. But he was wont to describe his role in Department matters as that of an accidental tourist, one given jobs because he just happened to be there, to fill a kind of faute-de-mieux need. Ridiculously false, of course -- he was valued because he was a priceless asset in the Department -- but it is probably true that he was overworked. This is how he might put it:

"I didn't really like directing dissertations. And for an odd reason, I did a lot of them. Yvor Winters, who was our leading Americanist here, limited himself in the subjects he would direct, so if there was one he didn't like, I generally got it. And sometimes that was a real joke, and I became a sudden expert in Thoreau or Emerson. While he was away, he switched to me one of his very bright students who was going to do a dissertation on Melville (not Moby Dick, which I had indeed read, but Pierre, which I'd not even heard of). She said, 'Read the introduction to it, you don't need to read the book. I know all about it.' And then Wally was an Americanist, but was away much of the time, so I would either take his students on entirely, or take them on while he was out of the country, which he often was. So I became a sort of orphanage for American novel dissertations."

Another slot that Dick had not prepared himself for or anticipated was the chairmanship of the English Department, a position he held from 1976 to 1978. He had gone "knowingly," as he said, into the administration of Creative Writing, but "the English Department thing was a total surprise to me." His description of the appointment process is like a scene from one of his novels: "I was to meet Dean Lew Spitz. Full Professors were to be interviewed by him, and I had an appointment to go over and talk to him, and I had my little list of people to recommend -- and people not to recommend: and so I went over and saw him, and he said, 'Let's go and have lunch.' I said, 'Fine,' and we went to the Faculty Club. I remember he wasn't much of a drinker, but he said, 'Let's have a drink.' I said, 'Fine,' so we had a drink. I said, 'How's your search coming along for the chairman. And he said, 'We've found him -- You.' I said, 'Oh, no,' and he said, 'How about another drink?' As I say, it was totally unthought of, unplanned." But once again, we remember Dick Scowcroft's tenure as chairman as one of the most relaxed and efficient and entertaining periods in the history of the English Department.

In spite of this busy life of teaching and administration, Dick continued to write novels. First Family appeared in 1950, A View of the Bay in 1955, Wherever She Goes in 1966, The Ordeal of Dudley Dean in 1969, and Back to Fire Mountain in 1973. These are social novels, full of wit and humor. Scott Turow, one of Dick Scowcroft's eminent students, called his mentor "a very fine novelist and a comic writer of the first rank" and lamented that "his work was not valued as highly as it should have been." Bliss Carnochan refers to him as "a sociologist of the family," and indeed family relationships -- the confrontation with Mormon Puritanism, for example, in people terms -- bring such authors as Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf to mind as writers Dick Scowcroft would feel a comfortable kinship with.

But it is probably true that at Stanford Dick Scowcroft will be remembered as much for his teaching as for his fiction. Again Scott Turow, now the author of five justly acclaimed best-
sellers, gives a testimony that is representative rather than extraordinary: "Dick Scowcroft was the best teacher of writing I ever saw. As many in this room know, that is a mouthful said about a wildly challenging occupation, where neither raw intellect nor concrete examples can be guaranteed to move younger writers to a plateau of better understanding of what they are about. What Dick Scowcroft offered was unremitting toughness in his judgment, but wrapped 'in a velvet glove.' It was not merely that he was kind. Never competitive. Never patronizing. Never superior. Somehow when Dick told you the truth it was a compliment -- because it meant you could face the truth and improve." That is an extraordinary tribute from a student to a former teacher! To back up his words, Scott Turow -- who attended Stanford as a Mirrielees Fellow from 1970 to 1972 and taught here as a Jones Lecturer from 1972 to 1975 -- endowed the Richard Scowcroft Fellowship in Creative Writing.

In 1948 Dick married Anne Kendall, a Radcliffe Ph.D. whom he had first met in 1943. By 1947 they had both received their degrees and both, in the fall of that year, had taken teaching positions, Anne at Vassar and Dick at Stanford. But Dick remedied this unsatisfactory arrangement in his first quarter off in the spring of 1948 by returning to New England and getting engaged. That July, as son Philip tells us, Anne took the train across country and was met in Oakland by Dick, after which the couple took the ferry across the Bay, stopped in Redwood City, and were married at the County Courthouse. When asked if he were impressed with the success of their three sons -- Mark (a professor specializing in medieval Irish literature at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.), Roger (an attorney in private practice in Salt Lake City), and Philip (a professor of mathematics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT) -- Dick, an adoring father and husband, gave a characteristically witty, acerbic, and wholly honest reply:

"Not impressed so much as pleased. Not really surprised by it. With two Harvard Ph.D. parents who became teachers, they didn't have much choice. Once we had our degrees, Anne taught at Vassar and I came to Stanford. After our marriage (a step we could afford to take when I found a small, cheap house, without a phone or a mailbox or an address, way up the road on Page Mill Road), Anne taught intermittently at Stanford. In those days, wives of faculty weren't welcomed gladly -- they were wage slaves called in at the last minute to fill unfilled spots -- Anne taught American literature, Shakespeare, whatever, and was paid at a TA's salary. Maybe if our boys had been girls they wouldn't have chosen the academic life, but both Mark and Philip knew almost since birth that they were going to be academics, and their whole lives have been directed toward that goal. At the same time Roger determined that that was the last thing he would do and so he followed his very different path. However, he did teach a few times when he was working for his MA in journalism. Then he switched to law and has been practicing quite a few years."

Anne died suddenly of a stroke in May 1991, a double shock because Dick's health had been seriously in decline for several years after his retirement in 1979 and he had always supposed he would go first. Shortly before Thanksgiving 1986, Dick underwent surgery for colon cancer. The operation was a success -- no cancer since then -- but he suffered "catastrophic post-surgical problems" that shut down his kidneys and put him in a coma for a couple of months. No one expected him ever to come out of it. But he did! It was a Lazarus event, and thereafter, for something like fourteen years before his death, Dick was the delight of his friends and admirers as they gathered round, over gin and tonics or something equally festive, and heard him recount the deliciously sharp, funny, gossipy, sometimes slyly off-color events of his, and his colleagues', lives. He was a gloriously entertaining friend and companion, and -- in spite of pain and dialysis (three times a week for years) he maintained his high spirits so that one almost forgot how much sheer courage it took. Bliss Carnochan testifies that "he was probably one of the strongest people I've ever run into. He had enormous resilience and courage." Bliss, like many others, saw the Dick Scowcroft of the late years as "the same witty, irreverent, charming guy" he'd known before.

Dick Scowcroft died on October 8, 2001 at his Stanford home at Pearce Mitchell Place -- almost to the very end still climbing the stairs to his second-floor apartment. He was an exemplary human being and, it is fair to say, loved by all who knew him.


Wilfred Stone, Chair

Lawrence V. Ryan

Charles N. Fifer