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In Memoriam: Alan Fisher

Alan Fisher died on the 31st of March of 2003. He had been at the University of Washington in the Department of English since 1968, holding a joint appointment with Comparative Literature from 1996. The range of his knowledge was staggering: he began his career writing on Augustan poets, but became in time a recognized expert on humanism and literature from humanism's beginnings in the 12th century, through its early forms in Petrarch, Valla and Erasmus, to its final forms in Milton and Pope—a range of some 7 centuries. He was also an accomplished classicist, having studied and written on classical authors as disparate as Cicero and Augustine.

At his memorial held in a filled Walker-Ames room in Kane Hall, it was my very great honor to have been asked to deliver a eulogy for him . That eulogy follows. The title alludes to one of Alan's favorite lines--culled, we all believe, from an old W.C. Fields film.

He Never Bet the Chalk, and He Never Drew to an Inside Straight
(Playing the chalk is playing the favorite, especially a low-priced favorite)

I knew Alan Fisher for more than 30 years. He was very nearly the first colleague I met when I arrived in Seattle in the summer of 1972—he happened to have had an office across the hall from mine, and as we came to know each other we found we had much in common. We were both fresh from Berkeley—he, to be sure, four years ahead of me—but still products of the same program and the same professors, and even of the same cultural milieu—the socially activist Berkeley of the 60’s.

He was, of course, a thorough-going Berkeley product—Berkeley born and raised. That wasn’t quite me, but it was close. I grew up in the east bay area, if not in Berkeley itself. That meant that we shared much more than just graduate school. We had the 49’ers of the fifties and sixties (he loved to talk about the days of Leo “The Lion” Nomellini, of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsh, of Y.A. Tittle and R.C. “Alley Oop” Owens), and we had the Giants—who showed up from the east coast in 1958—complete with Willie Mays, and Orlando Cepeda, and then later, Willie McCovey (broke in 4-for-4, Alan would remind me, two singles and two triples).

But even more than in the players, Alan would delight in recreating moments from Lon Simmons’s broadcasts of the games. He was always a great radio listener; forty years later he could still recall whole segments of a Simmons’ broadcast. Nor did the pleasure of radio ever leave him – he didn’t indulge in either TV or movies, but while cooking or doing laundry or working with wood he would regularly be listening to the radio. Whether a game, or NPR, or Classic KING, radio was very much Alan’s window to the outside world. To be sure, I don’t know that that window always looked out on the same world as the one the rest of us see; one of his favorite pastimes was Sports Talk Radio—he took enormous delight in reporting to us regularly on what adolescent minds all over the Puget Sound thought of the Gary Payton trade, or of the Mariner’s inability to find a real pitcher for the number 1 spot.

As time went on, our friendship grew to be much like Alan himself: complex, ironic, multifaceted. Given at times to self-doubt and gloom, Alan was also a man of great enthusiasms, and of childlike play and glee. I hear him still, his voice rising to near falsetto, consumed by the absurdity of an action—as likely his own as someone else’s—recounting the tale, delighting himself and anyone close enough to be listening.

Among his virtues was his simply being very funny. He was a great conversationalist. That’s no doubt why he and I established a tradition of “business meetings.” Alan always loved the mildly transgressive; he often fantasized about giving various and sundry academic stuffed shirts “the hot foot.” And he wasn’t really being metaphorical in that particular fantasy. So when we called our weekly hour at the Big Time a “business meeting” it was a shorthand code we used as if the hour we met was but a sneaking away from more pressing duty.

I’d call and ask, how about a business meeting? He’d reply something like “that’s the most sensible idea I’ve heard today,” and we’d both know to meet in the Big Time at 4 for a cask-conditioned beer and an hour’s conversation. We’d talk about everything and anything. We talked about our friends, our family—he remembered things about my children and my cat, Elliott, that amazed me for their accuracy and scope—and of course we’d talk about books and, especially, teaching.

It has been said by others—Melissa Wenzel, the head of the English Advising office for one—that Alan worked harder and thought more about his teaching than almost anyone in the department, and I would agree. Over the past few years I’ve had occasion to visit his classroom many times; the first visit I made surprised me. As we all know, Alan had a talent for self-deprecation; to hear him tell it he’d seldom done a thing truly right in his entire lifetime. And so it was with his descriptions of teaching. He described a sullen class, students dozing or walking out, he himself flailing helplessly away at irrelevancies.

What I saw, however, was nothing like that. What I saw was a dimension of Alan that I had rarely seen in any other context. One of his former students saw the same thing. She describes the seminar she took as small, and convened around a big, wooden table that bore the scars of the carvings and pencil scrawlings of bored students past.

“But I was never bored in Al’s class,” she says. Though the subject was abstruse to say the least, “Al was able to make it enjoyable and relevant to the present. I can see him leaning forward with his forearms on the table, a large coffee mug beside him, eager to hear our response to a particular passage or concept from one of the great texts. His desire for our opinions was sincere because, as he continually told us, he didn’t have all the answers. He wasn’t complacent, nor was he absolute. He was still learning, still searching. How motivating to be with a teacher so frankly open to the views of students!”

Yes, that was Alan, but it didn’t come easily. He put endless work into his classes. We had many a business meeting going back and forth about what and how to teach, or why one might use student groups or response papers, or what one wanted to accomplish in a class in the first place. Perhaps it’s for that reason that what has struck me particularly strongly as I’ve heard this week from student after student from Alan’s past is the remarkable effect his teaching had. For his classes finally weren’t just about a book or a reading of Paradise Lost. Working with Alan could be a life changing event. Here’s a grad student’s account of a random meeting with another of Alan’s students:

“I was out with a former roommate for her birthday, with friends of hers whom I didn't know. I started talking to one of them, and it came out that I was an English PhD student. She shrieked (really) and asked me if I knew Alan Fisher. I said yes, but hadn't ever had a course with him. She was ecstatic to have made that connection with me, and described in enthusiastic detail her experiences with him at the U. She was obviously a gifted student; she had published a paper as an undergrad, under Alan's guidance, and he had clearly made a once-in-a-lifetime impact on her as a teacher, a mentor, an intellect, a friend. It was absolutely extraordinary, and the kind of remembrance that I think every teacher dreams or secretly hopes they might be accorded just one time.”

It’s obvious from his students’ memories that what made learning with Alan so extraordinary was that it really was learning with Alan. Alan was fond of the etymology of the word “student”; it comes from the Latin “studeo, studere”—“to be eager or zealous, to take pains about, to be diligent in.” The enthusiasm for learning that suggests never left him, and he was a student—quite literally—throughout his life.

Alain Gowing of the UW’s Classics department recalls that in the summer of 1998 Alan enrolled in his 400 level class on Augustine's Confessions. “Alan had threatened to do this a couple of times before,” Professor Gowing writes, “but this time he really did it! Right from the outset, however, it was apparent to me that Alan knew much more about Augustine than I did, and it became sort of standard procedure to defer the difficult questions to him ('Let's see what Professor Fisher thinks.'). In his own inimitable way, he would disavow any special knowledge of whatever the question was about, and then deliver a perfectly amazing and learned exegesis. Never, of course, with a hint of condescension, always in that sort of jovial self-effacing manner he was known for. This is what endeared him to the students there. Alan and I developed a nice symbiotic relationship in that class—he explicating the deeper recesses of Augustinian thought, I the mysteries of Augustinian Latin. Together—I'd like to think—we put on a pretty good display of what healthy intellectual give-and-take is supposed to be like. Certainly the students in the class felt they had had a special experience, and I know it had everything to do with Alan's presence in and contribution to the class.

“I should mention that despite his insistence to the contrary. Alan's command of Latin was superlative. Oh yes: he got a 4.0 (he insisted on being graded, much to my chagrin!).”

But while Alan was best known to most of us here as a teacher and a scholar, he was of course many things more. Maylin remembers first meeting Alan in 1953. “Meeting” might be the wrong word for it, for she was just 9, and he 13. They became acquainted through Maylin’s brother Warren, who, like Alan, had an Oakland Shopping News paper route. Every delivery day Warren and Alan would meet at the designated drop off point for the papers, and over time they found enough in common—a big part of that that each of them had lost their fathers early in life—to begin to be friends. Warren speaks of a part of Alan that even then was evident: his extraordinary sense of responsibility. Though Alan started off as a delivery boy, he actually made his way up the Oakland Shopping News ladder to become a manager of delivery boys. This meant that he had several boys delivering for him—and the fact of several boys also meant more than the occasional no-show. Warren remembers Alan shouldering the burden for those no shows, delivering their papers as well as his own—sometimes as many as a thousand in an afternoon. And this for the Oakland Shopping News, not a paper whose failure to arrive would have been mourned by many of its deliverees.

For Maylin and Alan the acquaintance growing out of this paper route was by no means an instant romance; it was almost a decade before they each began to realize that the person they really wanted to spend their lives with was the person they’d each known for years. Alan was always modest about his love life; he often said that he had no idea what he would have done had Maylin not inexplicably found him attractive enough to marry. But that’s not the way Maylin remembers it. She remembers dates in San Francisco, a lovely courtship of walks in the Berkeley hills and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. She remembers the moment she first knew she loved him—it was at a Christmas dinner at a friend’s house. As usual there was much food and much drink, and in those days Alan had a very healthy thirst. But she still remembers his pointing in her direction at one point and saying to Sally, their host, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Alan himself was so shy, both as a lad and as an adult, that it’s hard to imagine him saying anything so bold—but there it was, and Maylin, at least, realized that the friendship was not just a friendship any longer.

There are other stories I could tell here—Alan’s first present to Maylin—an alligator-shaped loaf of sour-dough bread, glazed with pink icing and sporting a cigar in its mouth, wrapped anonymously and left under the Christmas tree. Or about his golf and the famous day at the Presidio course in San Francisco, when he began by taking 23 strokes on the first hole, and then just 77 for the next 17. Or one or another of their many subsequent adventures in England—one year with money so tight it found Maylin picking potatoes for pounds. Or another about their years walking beaches—in California, in England, in Washington State out on the coast just below the Iron Springs resort.

But I must instead say something about his absolute love for his daughter. Ellie has wonderful memories of Alan’s fathering; one of her earliest is of his reading to her. Of course, that’s something all of us parents have done, but Alan, predictably, did it a little differently. For Ellie most clearly remembers sitting on her father’s lap as he read Asterix Comics to her—the Latin version, which he translated as they went.

As Ellie grew up Alan and I had many a business meeting in which we lamented, celebrated, or simply chronicled his fears, his hopes, his satisfactions to be found in the maturation of this wonderful young girl. Any child’s teen age years are harrowing to a parent, and Ellie’s were no different. We exchanged stories about school, stories about boys. Alan was very funny about Ellie’s growing up—but always in that wonderfully ironic mode he so fully inhabited. He had a gift for making language—he was famous for his metaphors. Just yesterday one of his phrases came to mind as I waited to turn out onto 65th and car after car came by. On years of 5 or 8 mile runs he would call a street like that “Titration alley,” where cars came regularly, drop by drop, a succession too well-spaced for a body to cross.

But Alan was just as good at epithets. He tended to gift various former colleagues with them—the bulldog, the bantam rooster, the prairie dog, the truck. Well, so did he gift each of Ellie’s boyfriends. People sometimes misunderstood these epithets—all were ironic, all were amusing. But they were rarely truly dismissive. They seemed ways for Alan to capture and tame the power they had, to find a way in imagination to control what he sometimes feared. I don’t remember all the names, though each had one, but I do remember the Oil Slick. That one really had him going for a while. Alan tried to know better than to interfere, and he even would admit on occasion to genuinely positive characteristics in each of these young suitors. But Ellie’s welfare was for him a consuming concern.

It was to both Alan and Ellie an enormous piece of good fortune that over the past years they grew closer and closer. For Ellie came to echo her father in many of his antic and playful as well as intellectual moods. They watched baseball together, drank ale at the Big Time, bet the over-under on the likelihood of the occurrence of any sort of miscellaneous event. They became correspondents—the miracle of email facilitating a deeply felt connection. I have myself received many a letter from Alan over the years—he was a brilliant letter-writer. It seems a wonderful way to think of Alan for the past year, writing to Ellie his jokes, his concerns, making and remaking himself with her and for her.

It is tempting to smooth things out at death, to find ways of making a life of many different moods and challenges seem miraculously to have come together at the end. Indeed, Alan would have agreed that one of Aristotle’s great insights was that the main difference between art and life was art’s ability to transform the randomness of life’s experiences into a reassuring form with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

But there really was for Alan something of a proper end over the past year. After he suffered his heart attack last June his life was much changed. For a while it was definitely for the worse. The pain, the disability, the prospect of open heart surgery—none of this makes one feel better. And indeed for a considerable period of time he felt more than just ill. He lost some of his powers of concentration, his ability to think clearly, to read well, to write. This worried him. He began to see before himself a dim prospect for retirement, unable to use fully the mind to which his entire life had been devoted. It was at this point that things took a fortuitous turn. As most of you know, beyond his academic talents Alan also had considerable talents as a woodworker. He and Sally Mussetter had spent years in pleasant companionship in this hobby; the house bears testimony to improvements he made in one way or another—like the portfolio sized shelves in Maylin’s studio. But in the last year he also took up wood turning—work with a lathe. He began this on Sally’s lathe; but then at Thanksgiving she and he managed to set up his own lathe in the basement of his house.

Some of the resulting bowls he made are here today—you might look at one or two before you leave. They are lovely, and they are different. For while bowls can certainly be of use, these bowls are not really all that much to be used. Instead they are to be seen, felt, admired, reflected upon. In his last year Alan became a maker of art, an artist in wood, and perhaps it was this that offered him a consolation for what in fact turned out to be only his temporarily lost power of concentration. For he could go down to his shop and work for hours on a single piece. It was for him totally absorbing work, totally concentrated. This, he told Maylin, he could imagine doing, and doing with pleasure, forever.

As I’ve already suggested, his powers of concentration did return, and they were exercised in one particular forum and in a way I want to pay special attention to. This occurred just a month ago at a small conference sponsored by graduate students in the Comparative Literature department. There were there what Alan would have called the big boys—Hazard Adams and Giuseper Mazzota—giving plenary sessions, and then there was Alan doing the same. He was very flattered by this invitation, and he worked quite hard to craft the presentation he gave.

For my part I was accorded the honor of being asked to introduce him, an invitation I accepted with alacrity, and which I used to say publicly what I knew I hadn’t always remembered to say in private. I told the truth. My theme was Awe—for Alan’s learnedness, and for his intellectual generosity. I briefly sketched our parallel careers—just as I have done here this afternoon—describing how much my own learning had depended on his. Whether with Early Modern texts, or, as my work led me in new directions, with neo-Latin texts, whom did I find as my ally and again often teacher but Alan Fisher. Indeed, in my Winter term’s version of the graduate History of Literary Theory class, what of Cicero did my students read but the Oration on Behalf of Archias the Poet, translated by Alan Fisher?

And whether it was Longinus, St Augustine, Horace, Sidney, Dryden or Pope, I recounted, I had sat in Alan’s office after almost every class and talked—me at the enormous advantage, one would have thought, of having just read and taught the work, he, in fact, drawing effortlessly on the range of texts my course read, on the spot, ex tempore, often citing a passage with more exactness from his memory than I could muster from that morning’s reading.

Thus ran my introduction.

What then followed was, to my enormous satisfaction, precisely what I’d promised from him: a brilliant and imaginative paper that, like much he did, both located traditional literary and historical discourse and gave to it a unique and idiosyncratic understanding. But while the paper was good, I thought the discussion afterwards even better. I really had never seen Alan more adept, more generous, or more capable of truly listening and truly responding. To the first question he began by asking a question back—“To answer you well,” he explained, “I need to ask you a question first.” My own heart jumped a beat with that—was this a trumping strategy? Not at all. For Alan had seen that the question as asked had nuances that even the asker might not have considered. So he asked his question back, but with a tone so earnest, so genuine, that no questioner could have been put out. The questioner (Yale’s distinguished Professor Mazzotta) rephrased his question, and Alan then replied. It was brilliant. Other questions followed, to which Alan supplied not just answers, but whole contexts—briefly, succinctly, but also directly on target. It was a truly masterful performance. As we left the room I and others of his colleagues present told him that. He was, in a metaphor he well understood, playing at the top of his game.

I hope each of you will have recognized some of your Alan in what I have had to say. It has been a consuming pleasure this week to have had the task of talking to so many of you about your experience with Alan. I knew from my own experience how complex a man he was, but you told me more, much more—things even a close friend for 30 years didn’t know.

I’ll close with a story pieced together from Maylin, from Ellie, and from the Sally next door. I’ve told you something about Alan the scholar, Alan the teacher, Alan the husband and father. But Alan was many other things, too, not least among them a “counter of cats.”

Though really most deeply a dog person—(Dog for Alan was God spelled the right way)—he developed a toleration for cats as well, and on his walks he established the habit of cat counting. He’d begin by counting cats he saw in the stretch of his walk from the house at 63rd St up to 82nd and 19th—a particularly “cat-rich” mile, as Alan described it. Then over the next four miles of his walk—a considerably less cat-rich stretch—his goal was to double that number. If he’d seen 6 in his first mile, he’d need 12 by the end. If 11 in the first mile he’d need 22 by the end. His record total was 63. One of his neighbors in a particularly metaphysical conversation last summer while he was hospitalized for heart surgery playfully asked him about the significance of this ritual. Could one imagine these cats as signs to him of a higher order? Could divinity appear to him through cats? “Well, no,” Alan replied. “I’m just counting cats.”

But why then count cats? Those who knew Alan can recognize this side of him: cat counting grew out his love of animals, yes, but also out of his extraordinary and precise way of attending to things. Cats were a way to embellish a walk, a way of creating continuity between one day’s walk and the next, a way to create and to play a game—a game in which he made the rules. Alan loved such rules just as much as he distrusted some of the others. Rules like this were absolute. Arriving back home, had he not found cats enough he’d prolong the walk a block or two. Of course, he might also cheat some—in the blocks around home he knew where the local cats hung out, they were in that sense easy marks. I have this last line from Ellie: You might all be interested to know, should you ever try cat counting on your own, that even the cat-rich stretches of the city are richest at sunset on a warm summer eve.

John Webster
April 10, 2003