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  • Jay Fliegelman
  • David S. Shields (bio)

"The best obits dissolve character to discover personality. There must be some ceremony, for the candor to make an impression."

Sometimes the designs of Providence are odd. Last October 2006, I sat in a hotel lounge with Jay Fliegelman during a break at the American Studies Association Conference at Oakland, discussing the history, forms, and evolution of obituaries. Now, with his forceful opinions about the nature of written memorials echoing in memory, I write his.

* * *

Jay Fliegelman, Coe Professor and former Department Chair of English at Stanford University, died of cancer and renal failure at his home in Menlo Park, California, on 14 August 2006. He was 58 years old. Author of two landmark studies treating the nature of authority in the Revolutionary Era—Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800 and Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance—Fliegelman pioneered a style of textual study that examined expressive works in terms of cultural history. In his scholarship, he eschewed an explicit theoretical or critical methodological program, yet his deep engagement with material culture studies, performance studies, book history, and certain branches of post-structuralism resounded through his writings. He did not write articles. Two unpublished manuscripts may see the light of day. His introduction to Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, a tour de force of cultural contextual scholarship, was fully drafted at the time of his death. His Dramas of American Book Ownership, a meditation on the possession of signal works of American literature by important figures in American history, was reported to be nearly complete. Because his progress reports on writing projects were notoriously unreliable, and because his discomfort with writing grew intense in his later years, there is a real question whether his final masterwork will ever be published. [End Page 135]

In some sense the 502 pages of published text that constitute Fliegelman's scholarship do not adequately convey the range of his interests or the peculiar qualities of his mind. They are curiously focused on a mere 50 years of Anglo-American history, display only modest engagement with cultural developments outside of British America and Great Britain, cite no scholarship in languages other than English, and depend upon an archive exclusively limited to printed writings. While his profound grasp of Reformed Christian theology is apparent, there is little evidence of his equally deep knowledge of the pagan classics. Declaring Independence affords glimpses of his keen interest in material objects and material culture study generally, but it in no way conveys his thoroughgoing expertise in the history of ceramics, the technology of graphic print production, the development of optical instruments, or the design of theaters. Much of Jay Fliegelman's mind never came to the page. Only those who enjoyed extensive conversation with him apprehended the compass of his intellect. That conversation had to be face to face. He was not an inspired correspondent. His telephonic communications tended to serve his obsessions. A few colleagues, his graduate students, and a handful of friends in the academy have some idea of the true scope of his engagements.

There were aspects of Fliegelman that everyone grasped. That he was witty, brilliant, enthusiastically argumentative, and oddly learned was recognized by all who knew him, including his enemies. He had enemies—and not just because he was baldly judgmental about scholarship. There were persons whose ethos repelled him and he also repelled certain other persons. Interpersonal relationships stood at the center of his life, and there was much about those relationships that had little to do with reason. He attended much to charisma, powers of soul, mood, disposition. Eros, amity, and disgust pulled and pushed persons into various constellations about him. Even the texts which he studied, became personalized in the form of books which he collected. He sought association copies—works that drew peculiar relationships between persons, such as Jefferson's copy of Milton's Paradise Lost. Fliegelman became an intimate of these networks of creation, reception, and celebrity by owning the books, too. A number of years ago, Fliegelman gave an interview describing the eighteenth-century person's regard for the material object. It was...


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