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  • Mike Leff, the Devil, and Me:Remembering a Friend and Scholar
  • Martin J. Medhurst (bio)

If the life of any one scholar could be said to embody the contemporary renaissance of rhetorical studies, then that scholar would be Michael Charles Leff. Trained in classical rhetoric, Leff was a rhetorical virtuoso. His areas of expertise ran the gamut from Isocrates to Latin rhetorical theory to medieval dialectics to the New Rhetorics of the twentieth century, from theories of topical invention in antiquity to modern theories of style, from analysis of the speeches of Cicero to profound reflections on the orations of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., from immersion in the neo-Aristotelian school of criticism to the articulation of close reading and the founding of a textualist approach to rhetorical analysis. And if all that were not enough, Leff did all these things across disciplines and across oceans.

Mike Leff was an internationally known and respected rhetorical theorist, historian, and critic. He earned the B.A., with honors, at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1963) and the M.A. (1966) at the same institution. While at UCSB, he participated on the debate team, served as a graduate teaching assistant and forensics coach, and studied with Forbes Hill, Rollin Quimby, James R. Andrews, and Upton Palmer. Leff earned the Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles (1972), where he wrote his dissertation on "The Frozen Image: Sulpicius Victor and the Ancient Rhetorical [End Page 657] Tradition" under the direction of Prentice A. Meador.1 While still A.B.D. from UCLA, Leff took his first full-time academic position at the University of California, Davis in the fall of 1969. His academic career would take him from UCD (1969–1973), to Indiana University (1973–1975), back to UCD (1975–1980), and then to the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1980–1989) and Northwestern University (1989–2003), before ending at the University of Memphis (2003–2010).

In all of his positions, Leff worked with a wide range of students. The list of rhetorical scholars taught by Mike Leff reads like a Who's Who of the field. At UCD, he taught Robert Nixon Gaines, Dale Cyphert, and James Herrick; at Indiana, he taught David Henry, John Patton, Paul Prill, and Carolyn Calloway-Thomas; at Wisconsin, he taught Amy Slagell, Lester Olson, Greg Lampe, James Farrell, Robert Iltis, James Darsey, Karen Whedbee, Richard Morris, John Louis Lucaites, and J. Michael Hogan; at Northwestern, he taught James Jasinski, Cara Finnegan, Michael Hostetler, Gordon Mitchell, Daniel Brouwer, Michael Pfau, Kirt Wilson, Eric King Watts, Leah Ceccarelli, Robert Asen, Angela Ray, and Terrence Morrow; and at Memphis, he taught Mark Vail and Andre Johnson. In the course of producing three books and more than 75 articles and chapters, Leff found time to coauthor work with students and former students such as Margaret Organ Procario, Stephen Howard Browne, Thomas Rosteck, Andrew Sachs, Meg Zulick, Robert Terrill, Jean Goodwin, Richard Graff, and Ebony Utley. It is often said that a scholar's work lives on through the people and works of those he has taught. If this is so, Mike Leff's influence will be with us for generations to come.

My task, however, is not to survey the future, but to assay a career. To do this, I have drawn upon four sources—my experiences as a colleague of Mike Leff's, my history of working with Leff on various projects (including this journal), other scholars' memories, recollections, and experiences with Leff, and the published record.

I first met Mike Leff in November 1978 at the SCA convention in Minneapolis. The occasion was a formal job interview in the "Davis Suite" at the convention hotel. Unlike most schools that used the old "bullpen" interview method, UCD, I soon learned, always conducted its interviews in a more relaxed—and certainly more pleasant—setting. When I arrived at the appointed time, three members of the department were in the suite—department chair James J. Murphy, G. P. Mohrmann, and Michael Leff. The interview was conducted entirely by Leff and Mohrmann, with each of them asking [End Page 658] questions and making comments. As I recall, the...