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Memorials: Robert Ferguson

David Shields first published the following memorial for Robert Ferguson on Facebook. It was then published on the EARAM-List serv. It is copied here with his permission. Robert Ferguson served on the Omohundro Institute Council from 2000 to 2003.

I learned today of the death of my mentor, Dr. Robert A. Ferguson, in Gloversville, NY on Saturday July, 1, 2017. He had been battling physical maladies for some time.

He was George Edward Woodberry Professor Emeritus in Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia Law School at the time of his passing. 40 years ago I was his first dissertation student at the University of Chicago connecting with him shortly after he joined that University’s faculty in 1978.

Trained in both law (J. D. Harvard University, 1968) and literature (Ph.D. Harvard University 1974), Ferguson read texts with a poet’s sense of the suppleness of language and a lawyer’s sense of precision about how language should be applied to circumstance. He studied the founding documents of the United States with great care, and his discussions of the aesthetics of America’s Charters in his The Enlightenment in America (1997), are the starting point for anyone trying to understanding the style and rhetoric of those writings. Clarity, cogency, and elegance were the hallmarks of his style of expression, and his essays stand out for their availability and interest to a common reader. Perhaps his insistence on engagement with a reader derived from the lawyerly necessity to argue compellingly to a jury or judge. I learned how to write from Robert Ferguson. His red pencil stopped me from being another “academic sectarian speaking a priestly idiolect.”

Robert Ferguson was a deeply moral man with a strict sense of justice and a courage making unpopular judgments. Inevitably this brought him into conflict with those of his colleagues more given to transgressive free play and anarchic politics. At Columbia University it led to his severing affiliation with the English Department and his entire involvement in the last stage of his career with Columbia Law School. While his relations with colleagues was sometimes fraught, his connection with his students was invariably characterized by care, sensitivity, and a greatly helpful rigor. He won distinguished teaching awards at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and Columbia’s Law School. I can attest personally of the time, attention, intelligence, and sense of responsibility he showed me.

He had several enduring concerns when dealing with students: the refinement of storytelling—“your tale won’t prevail unless (a) it resonates with other stories told before and (b) presents an emotion, truth, and sense of world that engages a listener.” He also believed it was the responsibility of an educated person to know what happened in the past. History was a deep source of connection between Ferguson and me. Finally he believed in improvement, or betterment. The law needed to be reformed. Justice needed to be made more real. The final part of his scholarly life was devoted to the critique and reform of the American penal system. He believed that incarceration as a remedy for social ills and the violation of laws had become as harmful as the conditions it was supposed to remedy. Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (Harvard UP 2014) is a scathing vision of the failure of penal institutions at times Doestoevskian in eloquence.

Among literary scholars his classic “law and literature” monographs, Law and Letters in American Culture, Reading the Early Republic, and Practice Extended: Beyond Law and Literature (Columbia University Press, 2016) are classics. In American Cultural Studies, The Trial in American Culture (University of Chicago, 2007) compels attention. I think his Alone in America, The Stories that Matter (Harvard University Press, 2012) deserves more attention than it received. He told me a short time before his death that a new book critiquing institutional punishment will be coming. So new wisdom will appear “beyond the grave.”

We half joked about the way that people who devote themselves to ideas and books much of the time occupy a place beyond the everyday physical world of flesh and care. Now Robert Ferguson endures there entirely. He has long had residence in my memory and imagination, the monitor of my impulses to extravagant expression, the wise man who urges me to make justice real. Read his books so that this deep mind can become part of your life too.

Robert A. Ferguson is survived by his wife Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, whose 2004 book, Accounting for Taste, the Triumph of French Cuisine has been as meaningful to me as those of my mentor’s.

David S. Shields
Carolina Distinguished Professor
Department of English
University of South Carolina