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  • About My Friend, Jay Fliegelman
  • Donald Weber (bio)

I wonder how many of Jay's friends know that as a teenager in the early '60s he was an aspiring journalist writing on popular culture? He profiled Sean Connery at the height of the James Bond craze; he wrote about would-be disk jockeys training at the BBC's London School of Broadcasting at the height of British Invasion. In "The ABC of Being a DJ"—an essay which, I wager, not even the most attentive "Jayfest" celebrants (the name given by the cohort of Jay's former graduate students who gathered in May 2007 to honor their mentor) know about—Jay was already analyzing the relation between voice and gesture, performance and meaning, audience and rhetorical style.

While on assignment, Jay shadowed some of the trainees, reporting on the "art" of the DJ. Listen to a couple of Jay's sly DJ "maxims":

"The DJ must project as if he were perpetually in love with his products, his music, his listeners—in that order."

"When reading an ad you, the DJ, must play the part. OOZE enthusiasm, radiate sincerity."

Sound familiar? Listen, almost 30 years later, to the introduction to Declaring Independence, where Jay speaks of the "elocutionary revolution," a cultural turning point that "made the credibility of arguments contingent on the emotional credibility of the speaker." From the very beginning Jay's subject, his passion, was (in his own words) "the performative understanding of selfhood."

Among Jay's great gifts was his emotional creditability, his personal and intellectual investment in his students, colleagues, friends. I should know. I had the gift of learning from Jay, above all listening to Jay for virtually my entire adult life. He was the most important teacher, the most important friend I ever had. He always aimed for the deepest meanings—in textual marginalia, in the emotional relation between books and their readers, in [End Page 141] his profound concern for his students' souls. He had the amazing capacity to explain the deepest meanings of your own life.

I met Jay 33 years ago, in the summer of 1974, at a Summer Institute for Early New England Studies held at Barrington College, a few miles southeast of Providence, Rhode Island. It turned out that Barrington was a Baptist Bible school. Who knew? A year into my graduate studies at Columbia, I attended the seminar because the list of guest teachers—Alan Heimert (who 8 years later blurbed Prodigals and Pilgrims), the Mathers scholar Robert Middlekauff, and Darrett Rutman (a practitioner of the "new" social history of early America)—were famous for their work in colonial American studies. It was a remarkable, and remarkably intense three weeks.

Jay and I bonded immediately, two New York Jews crazy for the Puritans. He was in a serious reading mode for his dissertation (I recall he would constantly write "th" in the margins of his books, designating a key point or passage relating to his "thesis.") Over the next year or so I would listen, almost weekly, to his exuberant speed raps, the antic flow of ideas and insights that became Prodigals and Pilgrims, the book that transformed eighteenth-century American intellectual, religious, and literary history.

At Barrington, Jay was just launching the project. We would drive into Providence to read at the Brown University library; we would rummage used bookstores; we would do rubbings of locally famous gravestones; we schlepped to Nantucket, where we were staggered by the psychically ravaged expressions on the faces of the whaling captains. What I remember most was Jay's brilliant interrogative style, the way he could pose tough, provocative questions to the guest faculty that always—always—got to the heart of the matter. You might say that I witnessed the beginning of the legendary Fliegelman habit of asking the most probing question, leading to the startling insight. Jay's interrogative art invariably made you think—really rethink—the meaning of your project—in art, in life.

One night during that summer of '74 we fled Barrington to hear Tom Wolfe (on display in his signature white suit, at the height of his oracular fame on the college lecture circuit) speak...


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pp. 141-143
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