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In Memoriam: Jack Grant Tribute

Dec 06, 2020
Jack Grant

The Department of English sadly notes the passing of John Ernest Grant (“Jack”), born August 28, 1925 to Albert M. and Christine (Currier) Grant of Amesbury, MA, who died at home in Oaknoll Retirement Residence, Iowa City, IA, on November 23, 2020. He served in WWII (1943-45, mainly with 291st F.A.O.B., Battle of the Bulge) and took his first college courses at Shrivenham American University in England. On the G.I. Bill, with credits from B.U. General College and Hamilton College, he completed his degrees at Harvard (A.B.,1951; A.M., 1954; Ph.D., 1960). After teaching at the University of Connecticut (1956-65), he became Professor of English at the University of Iowa (1965-1992), where much of his work concerned the verbal and visual art of William Blake (1757-1827). From his first marriage to actor-director Sonia Takvorian (1923-2012), he leaves beloved sons and grandsons: Michael (“Louie”) Grant (Belmont, MA) and son Steven Phillip (Philadelphia, PA), and Kenneth M. Grant and son Miles (Austin, TX). In mourning also are his wife (since 1974) and Blake collaborator Mary Lynn (Johnson) and their son William J. Grant (St. Paul, MN), as well as his brother Alan, sister Julie Demars, and their families. Jack often accompanied his wife to First United Methodist Church, donated his remains to the University of Iowa’s Deeded Body Program, and decided against a funeral or other remembrance. 

Writing in the foreward to Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant (2002), Alexander S. Gourlay writes,

It is simply a given in his work that both artists and their interpreters are engaged in profoundly serious projects, and that critics must attend with exquisite care to the infinite complexity and subtlety with which texts and/or pictures can convey meaning, especially meaning to which the creators might reasonably be expected to assent…For Jack a good critic is a species of prophet, never a priest invoking a sacred tradition or a methodological mystery.

David Hamilton, Editor of The Iowa Review from 1978 to 2009, remembers Jack as “always a most excellent leader, friend, and colleague”:

He was our generation’s anchor to the Great War, and I was always a bit in awe of his experience. Such excellent times at their house, his and Mary Lynn’s, her fine southern dinners. And their vast library. When they finally broke that down, I picked up several gems that I would not have guessed were in his possession. Marvin and William Stafford’s Seques, for example. Right within easy reach beside me.

And then there was, for me, the wonderful event of his showing me a long essay, “This is Not Blake’s ‘The Tyger.’” Almost fifty pages. Illustrated. Both Blake and Magritte, and “not quite right,” of course, for any self-respecting academic journal. But given our occasional devotion to eccentricity and whole-hearted commitment, it found a place in TIR. I pulled it off my shelves just now and was immediately overcome with nostalgia for that occasion and for Jack’s pleasure in having found a place for a piece of his lifelong devotion.

Florence Boos, Professor of English and Editor of the William Morris Archive, remembers Jack as a “welcoming friend” when she entered the English Department in 1973:

He was progressive in politics, well versed in British cultural studies and recent narratological traditions, and widely knowledgeable in the Romantic poets, whose works he took as a guide to life. He was especially notable for his meticulousness, both in his extensive Blake scholarship and his response to graduate student work.

His marriage with Mary Lynn was an inspiring model of how companionship and a dedication to shared values can enrich life. Theirs was a marriage of true minds, as they participated jointly in all aspects of their Blake scholarship, and their home was filled with the many hundreds of books on a range of topics they had read and enjoyed together. Jack’s unflagging commitment to intellectual goals and the life of the mind, and his personal warmth, unassuming geniality, and good humor, leave a valuable legacy for us all.

Ruedi Kuenzli, Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature and former Director of the International Dada Archive at the University of Iowa, recalls Jack’s love of British ales:

He would invite me to have a beer with him at Oaknoll. I would bring Double Bock Huber Beer from Monroe, Wisconsin, which he of course never touched. At the time when most of us smoked, Jack was the most vehement anti-smoking apostle I knew. His healthy lifestyle served him well.

Jack walked everywhere. He loved to walk, and I am quite sure that he did not own a car when he lived on College Street. A true Wordsworthian, I imagined him walking from village to village in the Lake District, where Mary Lynn and he went for the annual meetings of the Keats-Shelley Association.

The Grant House on Magowan Avenue was the center of the liveliest parties around Mary Lynn's gumbo and jambalaya. And earlier, the feasts on Seventh Avenue around a barrel of oysters transported directly from New Orleans.

He invited me in the mid-seventies to meet his friend David Erdman, whose Blake: Prophet Against Empire. A Poet's Interpretation of the History of His Own Time was one of my favorite books. I learned then, that he wrote Blake: Prophet Against Empire also against McCarthyism, Erdman's own time. We talked about Erdman having been blacklisted - he could not get a job at a university for many years - and I learned much about Jack's political engagement and his quite radical friends. That radicalism must have drawn him to William Blake, with whose images and words he lived much of his life.

I learned a very practical lesson from Jack. When he retired and moved his large collection of heavy art books into the attic of his and Mary Lynn's house on Magowan Avenue, the beams started to genuflect. When I retired, I moved all my books into the basement and installed a great dehumidifier.

Anne Stapleton, Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of English, writes:

Professor Jack Grant shaped my future in ways for which I am deeply grateful, and I offer my sincere condolences to his family. Because I first met Professor Grant when I was a student in his undergraduate seminar focusing on the poetry of William Blake and W.B. Yeats, I have never been able to drop his title of professor, even after these many years. In the seminar, which was brilliant of course, we used the Norton Critical edition of Blake’s Poetry and Designs, for which he was editor (along with Mary Lynn Johnson, his wife), and I have always viewed Professor Grant as an academic rock star. I remember where the class met, the art and poems which he illuminated with such remarkable insights, and the class visit to his home at the end of the semester, to view his collection of Blake’s works. I also greatly appreciated Professor Grant’s support and kind willingness to write a recommendation for my application to the doctoral program in English at the University of Iowa. Accepting that I was a mother with three young children, he encouraged me to pursue my aspirations to study and teach literature, which only deepened my respect. Subsequent years have provided many opportunities for pleasurable conversation, and while I will always remain in awe of his teaching, scholarship, and academic accomplishments, Professor Grant’s kindness and advocacy for students remains foremost in my memory.

Our former colleague, Judith Pascoe, now the George Mills Harper Professor of English at Florida State University, writes that she “always felt honored to be following in his illustrious Romanticist footsteps at Iowa. One benefit of coming after him was the strength of the U of Iowa Library holdings in our area because of his advocacy. He was a wonderful scholar and editor with an unmatched depth and range of knowledge.”

And Eric Gidal, Professor of English and Editor of Philological Quarterly, remembers Jack as an encyclopedic scholar of Blake’s poetry and engravings. “The Norton Edition of Blake’s Poetry and Designs, which Jack and Mary Lynn edited, helped to draw me to literary studies as an undergraduate, and it was always a delight to invite Jack and Mary Lynn to speak to my classes at the University of Iowa. I particularly remember their joining my Blake class alongside Martha Redbone, who had recently recorded her wonderful album of Blake songs. Jack always impressed me for the lightness with which he wore his erudition and, of course, his devotion to Blake.”

As Jack noted in a 1974 article on “The Fate of Blake’s Sun-Flower”: “It is the audience’s privilege to overhear the thoughts of the Bard.” It was no less a privilege to know and work alongside Jack and to benefit from his generosity and learning.

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.


Jack Grant