Lewis Turlish

Offered by Sanford Freedman, Associate Professor of English, on May 5, 2008

Lewis Turlish, professor of English, who taught at Bates College for thirty-nine years, beginning in the fall term, 1969, retires at the end of this academic year, 2008.

A doctoral graduate of the University of Michigan and trained as an Americanist, Lew began teaching American Fiction in his entry year at Bates. But the following year departmental demands required him to teach Renaissance Literature, Literature of the Enlightenment, and the Survey of English Literature.

At Commencement 1998, Lew Turlish talks with fellow faculty member Jim Leamon ’55.

Such began the exceptional and unstinting service he offered his department and the College. In all, he taught over twenty different titled courses, including the very popular Joyce’s Ulysses, The Waste Land and After, American Writers to 1900, Beatniks and Mandarins: Literature and Culture, The Art of the Film, Literature and Ideology, The American Fin-de-Siecle, Forms of Literary Study, and the Romance Form in America.

Lew’s vast knowledge of his specialties, nineteenth-century American literature and Modernism of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, revealed itself in multiple ways; his attention to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s theme of decay led him to be the first to publish that fictional references in Tom Buchanan’s talk in The Great Gatsby derived from Theodore Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color. He often approached major writers psychoanalytically and biographically in a manner straddling Erik Erikson and Edmund Wilson. In the classroom his was gracious, generous, witty; there one always was reminded of a speculative question or a story that would make an evening or morning memorable.

For Lew was known to all of us as raconteur par excellence, and his penchant for an obscure yet exacting, astute reference—to film, sport, popular culture, the back streets of Boston, New York, the Big Scrapple (Philadelphia), to jazz, the Boston Globe, Bates’ academic and social history of the past forty years, or to the Johnsonian lives of the poets and novelists of the past 100 years—brought forth and illuminated these cultural reminiscences as true pearls of wisdom codified by his perspicacious mind . To Lew, sports figures and commentators of anecdotal Americana (basketball coach Red Auerbach, for example) were quoted as if they were as old as Native American wisdom. His indexical-like mentions of jazz musicians were reason for many of us to seek out the real thing.

When Lew lauded the importance of Paul Quinichette, we would rush off to buy the album Cattin’ with Coltrane and Quinichette on Lew’s recommendation. But the verdict could go the other way — and if Lew questioned the avant-garde antics of Anthony Braxton, one was certain to hear his reservations at another listening. And, of course, literary discussions in Lew’s hands were always the happiest moments, and in the halls of Pettigrew such titles as The Education of Henry Adams, The Crack-Up, The Waste Land, The Bridge, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, The Origin of the Brunists, Invisible Man, The Dream Songs, and such short stories as “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” “Lost in the Funhouse,” and “Entropy,” along with other literary mumbo jumbo, including Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, reverberated.

Anthony Miller ’91, vividly puts before us in near-Boswellian description what class was like with Professor Turlish:

I remember distinctly one lecture from the start of the course on Robert Frost where, before talking about the poems we were going to read together, he extolled the virtues of Frost’s self-sufficiency, reminding us that Robert Frost was an autodidact, Robert Frost had dropped out of both Dartmouth and Harvard, and Robert Frost would never have relied upon a “Professor Turlish” or any other figure at a lectern to tell him what to think about any given poem. He wondered aloud whether any student in the class knew precisely the dimensions of how much wood was in a “cord” of wood and assured us that “Robert Frost would know.” He then gestured to the window to the many cars parked in the lot outside Pettigrew Hall and inquired whether, if those cars were to break down, whether, for all of our accomplishments in and out of the classroom, we ourselves were self-sufficient enough to know how to do even simple repairs to our own cars.
From there, the lecture turned to Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Professor Turlish cited Fitzgerald’s line about how he and Hemingway represented the respective poles of American authority, the “authority of failure” and the “authority of success.” Along with being an introduction to Frost, this was an exploration into the nature of what it meant to be an American author and the perils of attempting to plummet into the depths of our nation’s psyche. Professor Turlish concluded his remarks by reciting those final lines from Frost’s “An Empty Threat”:
Better defeat almost,
If seen clear,
Than life’s victories of doubt
That need endless talk-talk
To make them out.
Whether or not we would come to understand defeat and achieve some form of that hard-won knowledge that allowed us to speak with the “authority of failure,” now it was time for us to go back to our houses and dorms to start reading and attempt to learn some measure of self-sufficiency, now it was our turn to grapple with Frost and the other writers in the class.

A diligent and efficient chair, a fine listener (a skill honed no doubt by his years as secretary in faculty meetings!), unflappably steady and good-humored, and an excellent teacher, Lew remained always the steadfast colleague on whom we depended. Many on the faculty and staff have remarked how Lew went out of his way, sometimes in small almost imperceptible ways, to make people feel valued and welcomed as a colleague or a friend. We will always be grateful to this man who kept before us Henry James or Walt Whitman or Robert Frost or Elizabeth Bishop, or compared (in exhaustive detail) our outlooks on the Red Sox’s prospects for the coming summer (which in those days were always hopeful but iffy).

With generous help and reflection from Anthony Miller, Robert Farnsworth, Sue Dionne, Sarah Potter, and Robert Leighton