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A. Walton Litz (1929-2014): Eminent Poundian

Ronald Bush

St. John’s College, Oxford


A. Walton Litz died on June 4, 2014 in Princeton New Jersey, where he had taught for almost forty years. Poundians will remember him as chief editor of a 1990 edition of Pound’s Personae and of Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose: Contributions to Periodicals, of which more below. Substantial as these two achievements were, however, Litz’s contributions to our understanding of Pound and more generally of modern literature in England and America extended far beyond them, and put him at the center of modernist scholarship for a generation.

A younger contemporary and friend of both Richard Ellmann and Hugh Kenner, Litz belonged to what from 2014 seems (as much as he would dislike the magniloquence of the phrase) a heroic age of modernist studies. An undergraduate at Princeton in 1947-1951, Walt (as he was universally known) sat at the feet of modernist writers (John Berryman and -- his great mentor -- R. P. Blackmur) and then entered an academy that only after World War II recognized modernist writing as a legitimate subject of historical study. A few years after Ellmann finished the Yale dissertation (1947) that would become Yeats: The Man and the Masksand Kenner, also at Yale, submitted (1950) a thesis that would become Dublin's Joyce, Walt spent three years as a Rhodes Scholar and D.Phil. student at Merton College, Oxford working on Joyce’s manuscript drafts, many still in private hands. At Oxford he looked up Harriet Shaw Weaver, the onetime editor of the Egoist and longtime patron of Joyce. She invited him to tea, and to his astonishment he found himself bicycling back into town with the notesheets of Finnegans Wake. These became the basis for his 1954 graduate D.Phil., published in 1961 by Oxford University Press as the groundbreaking genetic study, The Art of James Joyce: Method and Design in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Walt’s book, like his subsequent work on Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, belongs to a moment when the modernist archives were just entering the public domain and the modernists’ reputations remained in flux. And like Kenner and Ellmann he was by temper and training superbly equipped to answer that moment’s challenge. Not only was he blessed with an exquisite critical sensibility honed on Blackmur’s conversation, he had also inherited an old-fashioned scholarly ambition that allowed him to absorb and assess the vast archives of a great age of writing with skill and expedition. And as had transpired in his encounter with Weaver, his admirably disinterested intellectual curiosity and easy social skills led again and again to his being invited by the descendants and executors of his heroes to help facilitate the transfer of priceless papers into the great libraries of England and America, thereby opening new windows onto modernist literature. Doing research for Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens (1972) (one of the most sensible books ever written about that enigmatic poet), Walt became the confidant and advisor to Stevens’ daughter Holly in matters regarding her father’s papers.

The same qualities that characterized Walt’s scholarly midwifery also marked his celebrated career as a teacher. As one of Walt’s graduate students, I account myself the beneficiary, along with dozens of other academics spread across the U.S., Canada, and the UK, of Walt’s lifelong eagerness to put people who had something to say to each other in the same room, partly to advance one or another of his modernist projects and partly out of the sheer pleasure of the ensuing talk. Walt taught at Princeton from 1956 until his retirement in 1994, and as early as 1972 he won a national teaching prize (the E. Harris Harbison Award for Gifted Teaching, awarded by the Danforth Foundation). In 1977 he was promoted to Princeton’s oldest chair (the Holmes Professorship), and he served as the chair of the English department from 1974-1981. At other times in his tenure he also headed the University’s nationally recognized Council of the Humanities and the program in Creative Writing. As a graduate supervisor, he knew what work still needed to be done and what unpublished materials were waiting to be addressed, who had published recent interesting work and what Ph.D. candidate (it seemed anywhere in the world) was nearing the end of a relevant dissertation. (Walt regularly also taught at Columbia University and at the Bread Loaf School of English, and in 1989 spent the year as the Eastman Professor at Balliol College, Oxford.) The attribute that invariably impressed itself on those who worked with him was “generous.” In their Princeton “Memorial Resolution,” two of his contemporaries summed up his ongoing pedagogical delight by describing him as: “A colleague of almost extravagant intellectual generosity, he appeared tireless in making nominations, writing recommendations, reading manuscripts, pointing out opportunities, suggesting helpful revisions, making useful introductions, giving away editorial projects and bright scholarly ideas.” “Litz was a past master of the art of university politics, which he practiced with such effortless aplomb as to render it nearly admirable.”

There is no space here to list all of Walt’s scholarly publications, which ranged from a monograph on Jane Austen to a major edition of the poetry of William Carlos Williams. But perhaps a representative episode might suggest the expansive and cooperative flavor of his achievement and his deep involvement with Pound studies. During the early 1970s Walt at first advised and then joined forces with the wealthy, freewheeling director of Garland Publishing, Gavin Borden, together conceiving what at first seemed an impossibly ambitious plan for facsimile editions of entire modernist archives. Their first focus was James Joyce. During 1974-75 and guided by Walt’s advice, Borden secured crucial permissions for the series from the Joyce Estate, then managed by the Society of Authors, and enlisted Michael Groden, a student of Walt’s who had just finished a Ph.D. thesis that would soon become Ulysses in Progress (1977), to compile a detailed list of extant Joyce MSS later published by Garland as James Joyce’s Manuscripts: An Index (1980). Walt then encouraged Groden to take the reins of the project while he stayed on as one of its associate editors, and in 1977-79 Garland produced in 63 volumes the James Joyce Archive, marking a watershed in Joyce studies and establishing itself as one of the anchors of contemporary modernist scholarship.  Meanwhile, Litz and Borden went on to envision a similar project to reproduce the papers of Ezra Pound, which not too long before had been installed with Mary de Rachewiltz’s assistance at the Beinecke Library at Yale. The project ultimately foundered because of editorial differences with Yale, but might have radically transformed the study of Pound in the 1990’s. Out of it, however, Garland produced the 11-volume series of Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose in 1991, this time with Litz on the masthead along with two other former students, James Longenbach and Lea Baechler, all aided by a gang of younger scholars including Tim Redman and Lawrence Rainey. Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose made available to scholars and students everywhere reproductions of every entry in the Gallup bibliography -- resources previously available only to a handful of scholars within commuting distance of university libraries wealthy enough to have purchased runs of the obscure magazines in which Pound published. Above all it made available the texts of forgotten Italian publications Pound produced during the thirties and forties, on which much of the most interesting recent commentary on Pound has been based. 

In 1991 Gavin Borden tragically died in his early fifties from salivary-gland cancer, ending what had seemed the almost limitless possibilities of a budding cooperation and playing a significant part in the downward spiral that soon afterwards ended Walt’s working life.