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Oct. 11, 2005 Press Contact: Julia Morse
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Wayne Booth, Professor Emeritus of English, 1921-2005

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Wayne Booth

Wayne Booth, George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English at the University of Chicago and one of the 20th century's most prominent and influential literary critics, died at his home in Chicago on October 10.

With the publication of The Rhetoric of Fiction in 1961, Booth transformed the study of literature, with a combination of technical and ethical analysis that remains important to narrative theory today. His subsequent work, above all The Company We Keep in 1988, became the touchstone for ethical criticism within literary studies.

Bill Brown, current Chair of Chicago's English Department, described The Rhetoric of Fiction as "the single most important American contribution to narrative theory—a book that continues to be read, taught, and fought about. In person and in print, Wayne Booth demonstrated how significant the act of literary analysis could and should be."

For more than four decades, Booth was one of the University of Chicago's most distinguished scholars.

"The University of Chicago prides itself on its capacity to sustain an intellectual community, and no one surpassed Wayne Booth in his commitment to that ideal," said James Chandler, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor of English Languages and Literature. "His teaching, his collegiality, his scholarship—it was all about keeping good intellectual company, about creating the discursive circumstances in which it could flourish. That's what he meant by what he sometimes called 'rhetoric in the good sense.'"

In addition to his scholarship, Booth was enormously respected as one of the University's great teachers. Since 1991, the University has honored exceptional graduate student teachers with the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

"Wayne Booth was not just an amazing literary critic. He exemplified the University of Chicago at its best for so many of us. He was deeply devoted to the college and to the Humanities core," said David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor in Humanities, and English Languages and Literatures, who added that Booth was teaching a section of an undergraduate humanities class, Human Being and Citizen, at the age of 84. "He was a passionate and inspiring teacher who elevated the Socratic teaching method into a fine art."

Born on February 22, 1921, in American Fork, Utah, Booth served on a mission for the Mormon church before receiving a B.A. in 1944 from Brigham Young University. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he married Phyllis Barnes in 1946, and the couple moved to Chicago to pursue graduate studies. He received a Ph.D. in English in 1950 from the University of Chicago.

He was an assistant instructor and instructor of English at the University of Chicago from 1947 to 1950, when he became an assistant professor at Haverford College. In 1953, he was named professor of English and head of the English department at Earlham College. In 1962, he returned to Chicago to be the George M. Pullman Professor of English.

He served as Dean of the College, the University's undergraduate division, from 1964 to 1969, guiding the institution during a critical period of reorganization.

"Wayne Booth served as Dean at a time of great social change in the history of the American universities. He provided strong leadership of the academic affairs of the College, defending with special conviction Chicago's ideals of general education. He was proud of the fact that, as he once put it, 'nowhere else has liberal education been taken so seriously', and he urged the University to recruit more dedicated scholar—teachers who cared deeply about those educational values," said John Boyer, Dean of the College. "But Wayne also sought to improve social cohesion on campus, to reduce attrition among first- and second-year students, and to strengthen our relations with our alumni. Wayne understood that the University is a community in which we should support each other in doing our very best work, and the place was far better off for his dedication to our common values and common cause."

The papers from the first of the Liberal Arts conferences he organized during this period were published under the title The Knowledge Most Worth Having. He also played an important role in moderating conflict during the student unrest concerning the Vietnam War.

He was a literary critic, and a critic of literary critics. He was co-editor for many years of the quarterly journal Critical Inquiry and a frequent contributor to other professional journals in literary criticism.

"Booth was a most unusual man, full of convictions and full of doubt, all of which were expressed with exceptional frankness, humor and—his favorite mode of regard—irony," said his longtime colleague, Richard Stern, the novelist and the Helen A. Regenstein Professor Emeritus in English Languages and Literature. "It was this openness and expressive power that made him so wonderful a literary critic."

Booth's enormous influence on the literary discussion about narrative began with the publication of The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), which adapted Aristotelian theory to consider the reader and the ways in which literary texts themselves shape the audience they require. In this book, he explored the ethical effect of certain narrative techniques in a range of classic novels. English majors to this day learn terms devised by Wayne Booth, such as "the implied author," a concept that helps to clarify differences between the real person who wrote the work, the narrator who tells the story, and the reader's sense of the work's intended meaning. Such terms have helped to unpack the complex communication that occurs between authors and readers, Brown said.

The Rhetoric of Fiction won the Christian Gauss Prize of Phi Beta Kappa in 1962 and the David H. Russell Prize of the National Council of Teachers of English in 1966. Published in a second edition in 1983, it has been translated into seven languages including Chinese and Arabic.

Booth was also the author of Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (1979); A Rhetoric of Irony (1974); Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (1974); and Now Don't Try to Reason with Me: Essays and Ironies for a Credulous Age (1970). In 1988, Booth wrote an influential book on the ethics of fiction, The Company We Keep.

Booth was a famous teacher and was so recognized by the University's Quantrell Award for Undergraduate Teaching in 1971. In 1986, the American Association for Higher Education named Booth one of six college and university professors who were "making a difference in higher education." In nominating Booth for the honor, then University President Hanna Gray wrote that he was "a major figure in recent developments in critical thinking about literature, language and the arts of language. It is safe to say that whenever the College, the Division of the Humanities, or the University has a problem requiring serious thought about what we are doing as an educational and intellectual institution—how we are discharging our responsibilities—Wayne Booth is likely to find himself prominently involved." In 1991, the University created the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, in his honor. A collection of his essays, The Vocation of a Teacher, appeared in 1988.

In 1987 Booth was selected to give the University's prestigious annual Ryerson lecture, which he delivered under the title, "The Idea of a University as Seen by a Rhetorician." His colleague James Redfield, Olson Professor in Social Thought and Classics, has said of this lecture "I know of no better statement of the intellectual principles of collegiality which particularly distinguish our University."

During his career, he was awarded Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Ford Faculty Fellowships, served on the Commission on Literature of the National Council on Religion in Higher Education (1967-1970) and was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Booth was President of the Modern Language Association from 1981 to 1982.

A defining experience of his life was the death of his father, Wayne Chipman Booth, at the age of 35, which left Wayne, age six, with his younger sister, Lucille, and his mother, Lillian, to manage through the Depression. When his own son John Richard Booth died at the age of 18 in a car accident, Booth faced another profound loss. With his articulate and searching spirituality, his love of people, and his great sense of humor, he experienced to the fullest not only the periods of grief but also such joyful times as his daughters' weddings and the births of his three grandchildren.

He continued writing throughout his life, with experiments in satiric essays and fiction as well as autobiography. Two of the works he published after retirement, an anthology of literature of many periods and genres, The Art of Growing Older (1992) and For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals (1999), were well received beyond the academy. In For the Love of It he challenged the idea that an amateur is someone who merely dabbles in an art or skill that should be performed only to the highest standards. Instead, Booth argued that the passionate enjoyment and sharing of such pursuits is fulfilling in itself. He pointed out that he was inspired by being an amateur musician, having taken up the cello at age 35. He and his wife Phyllis, who is a violinist as well as a professional psychologist, shared many years of playing chamber music together, in the midst of their busy careers.

Many of Booth's colleagues praised his unique character and distinctive humor.

"I differed with him on such fundamental literary matters as the relationship of an author to his imaginative work, and yet I never failed to be both enlightened and charmed by him and his work," said Stern. "There was in Wayne Booth a depth of decency and generosity that made him not only a marvelous friend and colleague but one of the true pillars of a great university, a great community and—I don't exaggerate—a great country. Take away the few Wayne Booths of this world, and you have a tattered planet, He is irreplaceable."

Bevington added, "He was a devoted colleague, tirelessly fond of intellectual conversation. He was, above all, a lovely man, generous, funny, serious, skeptical, idealistic, loyal, profoundly decent. Like Norman Maclean, he combined the sturdy moral courage and rock-ribbed integrity of the Rocky Mountain West with the cultural interdisciplinary sophistication of a great university. He helped mightily to make that university great; it was his life, and he gave life to it."

Booth is survived by his wife Phyllis; his daughters Katherine Booth Stevens and Alison Booth; his sons-in-law Robert Stevens and David Izakowitz; and his grandchildren Robin Elizabeth Booth Stevens, Emily Hannah Booth Izakowitz and Aaron Richard Hersh Izakowitz.

A funeral service for family and friends will be held at the First Unitarian Church (5650 S. Woodlawn Avenue) on Saturday, October 15th at 10:30 a.m. A funeral service will also be held at 11:00 a.m on Tuesday, October 18th in Alpine, Utah, at the Alpine First Ward at 676 Eagle View Drive. Friends may visit at the chapel from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. A memorial service is being planned at the University of Chicago for after the first of the year.
Last modified at 01:25 PM CST on Wednesday, October 19, 2005.

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