Fliegelman, leading scholar in American literary, cultural studies, is dead at 58
Jay Fliegelman, the Coe Professor in American Literature and a leading figure in American studies, died on Tuesday, Aug. 14, at his home in Menlo Park. He was 58.
The cause was complications from liver disease and cancer.
Fliegelman, whose primary interest was in American literary and cultural history from 1620 to 1860, was one of the foremost scholars in the field of American studies. He is remembered for showing how almost any cultural artifact could speak to the most urgent and fascinating questions of American history.
"Jay was an extraordinary and unique kind of scholar. There isn't a school of thinking he belonged to. He created his own field of study within early American literature and cultural studies. Jay basically became an institution unto himself," said Ramón Saldívar, the Hoagland Family Professor of English and Comparative Literature and chair of the English Department.
"This past spring when 60 of his former students gathered to celebrate his work, it was evident that he was not just one of the most important scholars of his generation, but one of the great teachers of our time. He affected his students intellectually and emotionally in such a profound way that his passing will leave a great void in American studies."
His two books were groundbreaking works of scholarship, enormously influential in bringing an exceptional range of material into the study of early American literature and culture. Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800 considers how the rise of the novel, revolutionary politics, theology and the changing character of the family helped redefine the nature of authority. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language and the Culture of Performance examines American independence in the context of public speaking by tracing the development of a new American language and a new way of using it.
"These two books were masterpieces that effected a sea change in the way scholars understand the cultural genesis of the War of Independence," said George Dekker, professor emeritus of humanities and Fliegelman's dissertation adviser at Stanford. "His working premise as a researcher was that any popular or high-brow cultural artifact of the Revolutionary era—furniture, epistolary novel, school primer, political tract, elocutionary guidebook, you name it—might have a bearing on the zeitgeist out of which emerged the Declaration of Independence and eventually the new nation.
"Sometimes the connections that Jay uncovered would seem implausible on a first reading, but the cumulative effect was a paradigm shift in our thinking about the subject."
But perhaps the most penetrating preoccupation in the last two decades had been a person's relationship to objects—or, as Fliegelman put it, "the degree to which objects satisfy emotional needs"—and putting this issue in the context of early America. He was a noted book collector.
"The best thing about Jay is that there was no distinction between life of the mind and things more personal. Intellectual life was something he felt passionate about," said Nancy Ruttenburg, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at New York University and a former student of Fliegelman's.
Fliegelman showed that "the personal and intellectual were not opposites—they're one and the same thing," she said. "That's one reason he was so powerful for us. Our academic life was not separate from real life."
Fliegelman was working on a third book, Belongings: Dramas of American Book Ownership, 1660-1860, when he died. The book examines the psychology of possession and our emotional relationship to books.
In a 1996 News Service interview, Fliegelman described the 18th-century attitude toward belongings this way: "There was a sense that objects were preferred over people because they didn't leave you, they didn't talk back, and you could project a certain subjectivity and have an intense relationship with them, particularly with books," he said.
Fliegelman had an important collection of more than a hundred rare books. He specialized in "association copies"—copies of books owned by particular people, where the interest and value of the book lies in the intersection of text and owner. He owned Thomas Jefferson's copy of Milton's Paradise Lost, and the copy of Frederick Douglass' autobiography that the author gave to a British woman who purchased his freedom.
"To use colloquial language, this collection was simply mind-blowing," said Alex Woloch, associate professor of English and a friend. "It was almost impossible to have a conversation with Jay about his collection without coming away amazed.
"He was famous for bringing all sorts of material objects to class. He inspired countless students by redefining what a 'text' could be, and elucidating the connections between material culture—whether paintings, coins, books, furniture, tableware and so forth—and all sorts of written culture, from the most canonical American literature to pamphlets and sermons," said Woloch.
"Jay made Stanford's English Department into one of the—if not the—leading places to study early American literature, but for much of this time he was the only faculty member working fully in this field."
Fliegelman was especially gifted as a teacher. He received the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Associated Students of Stanford University Award for Outstanding Teaching and a University Summer Fellowship in recognition of his teaching.
According to Ruttenburg, "Teaching was absolutely his life. His primary sense of what he was here to do was teach and to mentor. Not only with those whose dissertations he supervised, but with any student who came into the classroom, and with junior faculty as well.
"He would give you a perspective on your work that you could not have possibly seen by yourself. He really brought our work into being," she said. "He would help you articulate it, bring it out of yourself. It had nothing to do with imposing his own ideas, ever."
Fliegelman expressed his own love for teaching even Stanford's youngest students: "There's a great pleasure in teaching freshmen because you're sort of being folded into their lives at a particular, powerful moment in which you can make a difference," he said in the 1996 interview. "And to some degree, you can 'convert' them to English. It becomes a way of trawling for majors."
The New York City-born Fliegelman received his BA magna cum laude from Wesleyan University in 1971 and his Stanford PhD in 1977. He joined the Stanford faculty the same year, and was chair of the English Department from 1994 to 1997.
As his health worsened, a celebration of his life and work planned for this fall was moved forward to May 20. Scholars from all over the country, on short notice, came to Stanford to honor their mentor. "He produced more Americanists than any other Americanist today," said Ruttenburg, one of the organizers of the event. "He was so instrumental in shaping the way his students understood the discipline, so instrumental in forming us as teachers and field specialists that what happened on May 20 we called a 'Jayfest' to celebrate his influence on us as scholars and teachers. What happened on May 20 was absolutely extraordinary."
"In many ways he made a field that was dominated by historians hip for lit people. He was one of a kind," said Assistant Professor Ed Larkin of the University of Delaware, who organized the event with Ruttenburg.
Christopher Phillips, receiving his PhD in June, praised his adviser during his diploma ceremony address to the English Department: "Jay had the power to worship through reading; he made things matter by looking at them, by talking about them, calling attention to them and being excited about them.
"To see him do these things was like watching wizardry, and he taught me—he taught many of us—to wield that power as well," said Phillips, now on the faculty of Lafayette College. "As English majors, we have the power to make things matter, to make people matter, through our well-trained attention; that's our gift to the world."
Fliegelman is survived by his wife, Christine Guth, an independent scholar and recent Humanities Center fellow, and sister Sara Benenson of Menlo Park. The family requests that no flowers be sent. The English Department will hold a formal memorial service at the beginning of the fall quarter.