Gifford, 81, an Authority on James Joyce, died
By ERIC PACE
Published: May 25, 2000
Don Gifford, a cultural
historian and authority on James Joyce, died on Monday at a hospital in North
Adams, Mass. He was 81 and lived in Williamstown, Mass.
Mr. Gifford retired in
1984 from Williams College, where he was a professor of English and of American
studies and had taught since 1951.
His 1974 book, ''Notes
for Joyce: An Annotation of James Joyce's Ulysses,'' which he wrote with Robert
J. Seidman, an ex-student of his, is still in print in a revised and enlarged
edition, entitled ''Ulysses Annotated'' (1989, University of California Press).
That explanatory work was
praised by Stanley Goldstein, the president of American Friends of James Joyce,
a New York-based organization with members all across the country.
Mr. Goldstein, a New York
accountant, said: ''Gifford composed the most useful book for readers of 'Ulysses,'
whether they are amateurs like me or professionals and academics. The book is
on my shelf, and it is used every month when we conduct a Ulysses group-reading
His 1990 book, ''The Farther
Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984,'' considered centuries of
thought about the interaction of the environment and the intellect. In a review
in The New York Times, the critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote, ''There is
hardly a page of it that does not inform, provoke or make the reader see things
in a different way.''
The reviewer continued:
''To the reader's great pleasure, Mr. Gifford proceeds by anecdote, by leaps
of intuition and by quirky insight. He knows so much that he need not be pedantic.''
Mr. Gifford was the author,
the editor or a co-author of more than half a dozen books. Short stories and
poems by him appeared in magazines.
Born in Schenectady, N.Y.,
he received a bachelor's degree in 1940 from Principia College in Elsah, Ill.,
and studied at Harvard University and at Cambridge University in England.
He served in World War
II as an ambulance driver and then in the infantry.
His 1944 marriage to Ruth
Cleveland ended in divorce in 1961.
He is survived by his wife,
the former Honora Kammerer, whom he married in 1963; two daughters from his
first marriage, Marin Gifford Haythe of London and Nina Gifford of Atlanta;
five grandchildren; and a brother, Edward, of Schenectady.
Photo: Don Gifford (Dan
Don Gifford (1919-2000)
Don C. Gifford, Professor
of English and Class of 1956 Professor of American Studies Emeritus, died on
May 22, 2000 at the age of 81. Giff's career was remarkable for both its variety
Born in Schenectady in
1919, Giff earned his bachelor's degree from Principia College in 1940, and
pursued graduate studies at Cambridge University and at Harvard.
A conscientious objector
at the start of World War II, Giff served as an ambulance driver for the American
Field Service, attached to the British eighth army, in North Africa. But eventually
Giff decided to join the U.S. infantry, became a lieutenant, and fought in the
bloody Italian campaign.
After teaching for several
years at Mills College of Education in New York, Giff came to Williams in 1951;
he retired in 1984. During a leave in 1957-58, he was a consultant to the Arthur
D. Little Firm in Cambridge on the psychology of invention.
Although various Cambridges
beckoned him, Giff's heart was always in Williamstown. He and his wife, Honora,
were deeply rooted in the local community, and actively involved in civic and
charitable causes?including, perhaps most prominently, the Berkshire unit of
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, which they co-chaired for many years.
Giff's College service
was wide-ranging and influential. He co-directed the College's summer program
for business executives; he chaired the design committee for Sawyer Library;
he was instrumental in creating comprehensive review of student residential
life, producing a set of thoughtful recommendations so far ahead of their time
that we are only now returning to embrace and implement them.
Giff was one of this faculty's
most celebrated and broadly-gauged writers. He published poems and short stories;
essays on education and child development; a book on the history of the Shakers,
and a book on American architectural theory.
But the range and nature
of his mind are perhaps best represented by his work in two other areas.
Giff was internationally
recognized as one of the world's most learned scholars of James Joyce's works.
His two volumes of annotations for Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist, and
Ulysses are the most essential and helpful tools ever created for the study
of Joyce. They are factually oriented and encyclopedic in scope, explaining
everything from the Irish slang spoken by Joyce's characters, to details of
the political and theological debates that shaped Joyce's imagination. These
volumes are prodigious forms of scholarship, and they reflect Giff's fundamental
conviction that, before we interpret, we need to know.
But interpret he did, most
notably in a landmark book written in retirement and published in 1990. The
Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception chronicles the way that technological
developments from the industrial revolution onward?cameras and microscopes,
airplanes and automobiles, electric lights and computers?have altered the ways
our minds, eyes, and imaginations perceive and interpret the world. By readers
and reviewers alike, this book was universally praised for the freshness and
acuity of its insights, and as a model of how interdisciplinary learning can
inform cultural history.
As a colleague and a teacher,
Giff embodied the best ideals of our profession: a passionate belief in the
power and beauty of words; a brilliant capacity to articulate that belief in
the classroom and on the page; and a deep generosity toward anyone, of any age
or background, who wanted to learn what he knew.
When we would ask Giff
to assess drafts of our books or essays, we'd get back trenchant criticism?criticism
that was all the more valuable for Giff's characteristic ability to enter into
the terms and rationale of someone else's argument, rather than to substitute
As a fellow teacher, he
was a sure source of good advice, and an inspired advocate of pedagogical innovation.
In the early 1980s, for example, when both we and our students were a little
weary of the relentless historical march of our British literature survey, Giff
proposed that we teach the course backwards. "Start with Elliot,"
he boldly declared, "and move back to Milton." Some of us were thrilled
by the idea; the department chair then was not.
One couldn't ask for a
better colleague than Don Gifford. But I have to admit, with the candor Giff
always required, that at times he could be a little puzzling and inadvertently
intimidating, though always in the most pleasurable of ways. In one of my first
conversations with him, it took me quite a while to realize that what Giff was
calling "the unpleasantness with Hitler" was, in fact, a global reference
to World War II.
His conversation was often
marked by quirky forms of indirection, as when?at a scholarly conference in
his honor here in 1995?he referred to the most famous of American speeches as
"that two-minute business Lincoln got away with at Gettysburg."
Giff also had an inclination?deeply
rooted in his own modesty and sense of intellectual generosity?to refer obliquely
to some exotic fact of complex concept, then to look you in the eye and simply
declare: "You must know what I mean."
The habits of thought and
speech I've been describing made Giff a legendary classroom teacher. His formidable
learning and passionate devotion to the life of the mind elevated the sights
of generations of Williams students, and his warmth and personal concern for
students inspired their affection and loyalty. With countless students, Giff
and Honora forged deep and steady friendships that lasted a lifetime.
Giff didn't achieve his
success as a teacher by any easy route. Our colleague from Political Science,
Mac Brown, tells the story of entering a classroom one day, just after Giff
had finished teaching Moby Dick. Mac noticed that a student had inadvertently
left his notebook behind; and being curious about what Giff had to say about
the novel, Mac opened the notebook to the page dated for that day. The student's
complete entry read as follows: "Moby Dick. Professor Gifford. Oh My God."
Was it Herman Melville,
or Don Gifford, who left that student praying for divine intervention? Probably
a little of both. For Giff, like the author he talked about that day, had an
awe-inspiring ability to set our minds on higher things?to make us grapple with
demanding texts, difficult ideas, and big questions.
And he did so, with unmatchable
skill, by insisting that we approach the unknowable through the known; that
we contemplate the metaphysical by studying the physical first; that?like Melville?we
catalog and understand the facts and details of ordinary life before we theorize
about their larger implications. No one I ever met knew more facts that Giff
did, and better knew how to deploy those facts?with great speed and imagination?in
the service of great ideas.
You must know what I mean.
By Stephen Fix, Robert
G.Scott '68 Professor of English
Source: Fix, Stephen. "Remarks
in memory of Professor Don C. Gifford, 1919-2000." Williams College Faculty
Meeting Minutes. Williams College Archives.