Jay Fliegelman, Coe Professor in American Literature at Stanford University, was my teacher once during my brief career as a PhD student in English. His seminar, “History as Literary Art,” was my favorite class, though I took my master’s degree and fled the Farm after two very difficult years.
I was sad to see his obituary in an alum newsletter reporting that he passed in Menlo Park on August 14, at 58 years old.

When I first visited Stanford in 1992, on a whirlwind tour also of Berkeley, he picked me up and showed me around campus, giving me a thumbnail history of the school with one of his signature “readings” of architecture in the main quad. “The Spanish-colonial style speaks to a sense of enclosure and the need for geometrical security,” he might have said.
This was his kind of approach to artifacts in the American grain. Once, he brought a serving bowl from 17th century Massachusetts to class and “read” the dish, its weaving patterns and concavity and ornate lip signifying the entire history of colonial America in one fell swoop. And then he showed us a schedule book that, so the story goes, Nathaniel Hawthorne kept in his breast pocket. Thumbing through dates and scribblings, Fliegelman connected major events in American history with the life of one author and his writing, his notes, his daily experiences.
This class was nothing short of intriguing, the text list seminal, the lectures amazing. Without knowing it, I absorbed a deeper appreciation of American history and narrative from Fliegelman. Reading William Carlos Williams and Norman Mailer for his class would start me on a path that led to Wolfe and the New Journalism, later still, to writing journalism myself.
Though I didnÂ’t go on to work with him or pursue that postponed PhD, IÂ’m thankful to have taken one of his seminars and to have worked briefly with a premier Americanist who was also kind and generous to me, his student.

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