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Essay: Remembering Stuart James

Stuart James

Professor Stuart James taught English at DU from 1957 until he retired in the early 1980s. Photo: DU Archives

Stuart James placed his briefcase on the desk. Maybe he would open it right then, or maybe not. He looked at the class, called someone by name and asked a question. The question might be something like this: “‘Space is license.’ Who said that? What do you think it means?” Or “What is guilt?” And the called-upon would venture a response.

We always had the idea that Stuart wasn’t fishing; he was starting a conversation. These questions were attached to an early American literature class, and the subject matter would have been the Puritans. Stuart preferred—it seems to me now in retrospect—to suggest things, to make connections by associating one text with another, one idea here with something he had just read the other night. At this point, he would reach into his briefcase and pull out a book.

Another time he would stop in the middle of a point—maybe he had the whole class laughing about something—and his face would grow somber. He would get that faraway look in his eye, and, for a minute, we ceased to exist for him. He would tell about a World War II mission he flew. About what his crewmates’ response was when they dropped a bomb. All laughter stopped. Then he would look at the class again and say: “Happiness is going through life with blinders on.” Then just as suddenly as the mood changed one way, he shifted it in another direction.

Many people considered Stuart James their best friend. When I asked him why so many people liked him so much, he shrugged his shoulders and made a reference to John Singer. He was talking about a deaf mute in Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Singer was the one everybody wanted to tell their problems to, even though they all knew he couldn’t hear a word they said.

When I wrote my first paper for Stuart, he showed me how it wasn’t very good by drawing a series of short lines on a scrap of paper. He pointed to the spaces between those lines: “Here is what you left in your head. You didn’t write it down.” I understood instantly what he meant, and that image has helped me more than once in my own writing and in the way I would come to talk to students about their writing.

Stuart said he thought teaching was a lot like throwing a baseball into the Grand Canyon. You keep waiting for some sound to come back to you. Sometimes you just wait.

Stuart James was a mainstay in the DU Department of English from 1957 until he retired in the early 1980s. As a graduate student, I was fortunate to have him for two classes, and when I think about my own teaching at the University of Denver, I know it was Stuart James who shaped the teacher I became. He taught me the importance of telling stories and teaching by suggestion and association.

Some teachers we just don’t forget; Stuart James was one who made a difference in the lives of thousands of us over the years who had the opportunity to expand our worlds through exposure to his vision.

Margaret Earley Whitt (PhD ’86) taught English at DU from 1987 until her retirement to North Carolina in 2008. Stuart James died in 1995 and is memorialized by a monument at the southwest corner of DU’s Sturm Hall. A Gaelic inscription at its base reads “Go deo inar Chroi”— always in our hearts.

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