University of Rochester

Eminent Literary Scholar Joseph Summers Dies

February 13, 2003

Joseph H. Summers, Sr., the Roswell S. Burrows Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Rochester and an internationally respected authority on Renaissance literature, died Monday, Feb. 3, in Rochester. He would have been 83 on Feb. 9.

Summers was known for his groundbreaking work on 17th-century poet George Herbert that, in the eyes of many scholars, secured Herbert's reputation as one of England's great lyric poets, and for his critical studies of John Milton, which earned him honors from the Milton Society of America. Summers also wrote extensively on Shakespeare, John Donne, and other writers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"Joseph Summers was one of the most distinguished critics of 17th-century English literature in the second half of the 20th century," said Jonathan Post, professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. Post received his doctoral degree at the University of Rochester in 1976. "His criticism is characterized by wide learning, sharp wit, and great clarity and elegance of expression. At the same time, his generous intelligence and devotion as a teacher inspired deep loyalty among his many graduate students."

Over the last three decades, Summers became interested in and promoted the works of writers from the former British colonies, introducing his students to J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie well before the authors became famous in the United States.

He and his wife U. T. Miller Summers, a writer and associate professor emerita at Rochester Institute of Technology, counted among their friends a number of contemporary poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Edwin Muir, Richard Wilbur, and Mona Van Duyn.

"He was one of the truly great humanists of our time," said Russell Peck, John H. Deane Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Rochester. In a tribute written in 1989, Peck described Summers as a person "who may burst forth with a poem by MacNeice or Wilbur as readily as one by Herbert or Donne."

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summers was the recipient of many honors. He also was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the Fund for the Advancement of Learning, Folger Library Fellow, and NEH-Huntington Library Fellow.

His many publications include George Herbert: His Religion and Art; The Muse's Method: An Introduction of Paradise Lost; The Heirs of Donne and Jonson; Dreams of Love and Power: On Shakespeare's Plays; The Lyric and Dramatic Milton; Selected Poems of Marvell; and Selected Poems of George Herbert.

Before joining the Rochester faculty in 1969, Summers was professor of English at Michigan State University and chair of the English department at Washington University in St. Louis. He also taught at Bard College, the University of Connecticut, Harvard University, Amherst College, and the University of Kent in Canterbury. He was a visiting fellow at All Souls College the year he was a Fulbright Professor at Oxford University. He retired in 1985.

Summers earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1941. A conscientious objector, he spent most of World War II working at public service camps. After the war, he worked with the American Civil Liberty Union's National Committee on Conscientious Objectors to help get other conscientious objectors out of jail, and returned to Harvard for his graduate degrees.

Besides his wife, Summers is survived by his daughters, Mary Summers, and her husband Rogers Smith of Philadelphia, and Hazel Kirk, and her husband Thomas of St. Louis, Miss.; his son Joseph H. Summers, Jr. and his wife Donna Ainsworth of Ann Arbor, Mich.; 10 grandchildren; and two nephews. He was predeceased by his brother Hollis Summers, a poet and novelist.

A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 1, at Christ Church, 141 East. Ave., in Rochester. Memorial contributions can be sent to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960; the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, 3257 Lohr Road, Pittsfield Township, MI 48108; or Christ Church, 141 East Ave., Rochester, NY 14604.