Bate, Walter Jackson

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BATE, Walter Jackson

(b. 23 May 1918 in Mankato, Minnesota; d. 26 July 1999 in Boston, Massachusetts), professor, Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, and humanist.

Bate was one of two children of William G. Bate, a school superintendent, and Isabel Melick. His father encouraged him to read a prepared list of biographies by paying him ten cents for every book, and Bate spent his profits at motion picture matinees. He attended public schools in Richmond, Indiana.

At age five, Bate was injured in a hit-and-run accident that permanently damaged his sympathetic nervous system. He later underwent a new surgical procedure that severed parts of that system called a "sympathectomy," which was conducted in the amphitheater of Massachusetts General Hospital and observed by doctors and residents. The operation disqualified him for military service and he suffered the aftereffects throughout his life. His participation in the procedure placed his religious views in direct opposition to those of his mother, a Christian Scientist who refused treatment for diabetes. Bate blamed his mother's dogmatic faith for the deaths of both his parents during his early twenties. He ultimately believed in the transcendent power of love, and inclination of the universe toward a higher order, with the cooperation of sentient individuals exercising their free will.

Bate worked his way through Harvard University by washing dishes and working in Widener Library. Author Roger Rosenblatt described him as representing "all the greatness and the lunacy of the English department as it once had been … he became one of an entirely new breed of English professors—those who worked for pay." Bate received his B.A. summa cum laude in 1939, his M.A. in 1940, and his Ph.D. in 1942. His senior honors essay about the poet John Keats's phrase "negative capability" was published in book form, establishing Bate's work in the field of romantic studies. Bate taught history and literature at Harvard between 1946 and 1986 and chaired the Harvard English department from 1955 to 1962. He was Abbot Lawrence Lowell Professor of the Humanities from 1962 to 1979 and Kingsley Porter University Professor of the Humanities from 1980 to 1986.

Bate criticized the Harvard English department's graduate training that focused primarily on philology and details of ancient and obscure "other recondite tongues." Recalling a comment made by former Harvard English professor William Allan Neilson that it only took the Egyptians five weeks to make a mummy, but the Harvard English department required five years, Bate appreciated language studies that employed imagination and subjectivity. He feared imitation of scientific applications would fragment, trivialize, and sterilize the humanities. He taught the humanities as broadly conceived, including philosophy, linguistics, religion, history, music, and art.

In his biographical research, Bate reflected on personal existence, which resulted in his unique ability to tease out universal threads of humanness, as well as to bridge the gap between academic and popular authorship. Howard Moss of the New York Times later wrote that Bate had a remarkable understanding of Keats's development as a man, thinker, poet, and technician. "He has the uncommon ability to hold these four difficult facets—each requiring the specialized knowledge of the psychologist, the philosopher, the critic and the prosodist." Embracing the ordinary in search of the seeds of greatness, Bate said, "If there can be a facing up to the essentials of common experience, the humanities can shake themselves into sanity," and "[Samuel Johnson] was always turning a thing upside down and shaking the nonsense out of it."

Having begun his studies of Keats and Johnson early in his graduate career, Bate continued them throughout his academic life, producing a number of award-winning publications. Bate's John Keats (1963), garnered numerous awards, including the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for biography and the Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa. Bate's Samuel Johnson (1977), a reworking of his earlier The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955), won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for biography, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Bate hearkened to Keats's "immortal freemasonry" of great expressive spirits who could serve as guides, as sources of hope, to individuals faced with challenges and adversity. Themes that permeated his scholarship included the psychology of achievement, the intimidating pressures of past achievements, the relation of literature to personal experience, and the paradoxical relationship between the ordinary and fallible qualities in individual lives and their subsequent rise to greatness. Quoting Johnson, Bate said, "The first step in greatness is to be honest." Looking to universal truths led to fulfilling one's own nature and becoming human. Bate's Coleridge (1968), was not a full-scale biography, but experts hailed it as the best introduction to Coleridge's varied achievements and difficulties.

Bate's most popular Harvard enterprise was a course about Johnson that he taught for thirty years; it seemed to nourish a student generation that was groping for meaning and challenging every available convention. Students remembered Bate as the best teacher they knew, recalling his unassuming, yet stimulating teaching style. They described him as friendly, mischievous and decent, engaging and emotional, but not histrionic. At Harvard, Bate lived in undergraduate dormitories and conversed daily with the students. In the late 1960s the Harvard student "Confidential Guide" referred to him as "the great Bate."

In keeping with the political tone of the period, Bate disliked the smugness of Harvard's Cambridge circles, yet he admired Robert Kennedy. He hated the lies of the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, and he worried about the widening global economic disparities.

Bate died of heart failure at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston six days after surgery for esophageal cancer. His body was cremated without funeral services, and his ashes were scattered on his New Hampshire farm in Amherst by his surviving sister and his eleven nieces and nephews. An avid conservationist, Bate bequeathed his farm to the Amherst Conservation Commission.

Bate's closest colleagues said, "He gave his students … the gift of hope: that human nature can overcome its frailties and follies and … carve out something lasting and worthwhile, even something astonishing." Bate was a model mentor for children of the 1960s. He rebelled against conventions, did not serve in the military, came from the working class, and was perceived to be a little crazy. It would seem that Bate furnished what the youth of the 1960s craved: real answers to life's questions, hypocrisy stripped bare, and genuine love and concern for his fellow human beings.

The prefaces to Bate's John Keats (1963) and The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955) furnish Bate's own insights to his craft. Biographical information is in Roger Rosenblatt, Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969 (1997), and "Faculty of Arts and Sciences—Memorial Minute—W. Jackson Bate," Harvard University Gazette (1 June 2000). Obituaries are in the (London) Independent (31 July 1999); the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (all 28 July 1999); and the (London) Times (30 July 1999).

Leri M. Thomas