Gabriel Pearson obituary

My father, Gabriel Pearson, who has died aged 88, was a scholar, critic and teacher of literature. He spent most of his career at the University of Essex, joining its newly established department of literature in 1965. Even after his formal retirement in 1995, he kept up various part-time roles at Essex, eventually stopping work in 2009, when he became an emeritus professor.

He was born into a Polish-Jewish family in the west end of London. His father, Nathan Pearson, was a cabinet maker, and his mother, Annie (nee Jacobovitch), was a tailor. At the outbreak of the second world war Gabriel initially remained in the city and recalled sleeping in Russell Square tube station during the blitz. Subsequently he was evacuated to various locations in the countryside, most happily to a village near Banbury in Oxfordshire.

Partly as a result of such disruption, Gabriel did not learn to read until he was nine. From that point on, however, he consumed literature voraciously, and after attending Highbury county school in London he went on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he earned a first-class degree in English. While at Oxford he founded, with Raphael Samuel, Charles Taylor and Stuart Hall, the radical journal Universities and Left Review, which subsequently merged with the New Reasoner to become the New Left Review.

Between 1957 and 1963 he taught literature at Keele University, where he met Susan Locke. Having married in 1962, they moved the following year to the US, where Gabriel took up a two-year position at the University of Michigan. In 1965 they returned to the UK and he joined the University of Essex, where he was appointed professor in 1974.

Gabriel did his job when university teachers of literature were measured not so much on the basis of specialisations but according to how comprehensively they knew a vast field of literature, and how illuminating their ideas about it were. His ability to quote from memory from a great spectrum of world literature and continually to produce new, extemporaneous insights was extraordinary. Colleagues and students often spoke of Gabriel’s scintillating intelligence and warm intellectual generosity.

His interests were diverse, varying from writing on cinema and reviewing books for the New Statesman and the Guardian, to authoring scholarly publications on Dickens (Dickens in the Twentieth Century, 1962) and Robert Lowell (a 1969 essay in the Review from which Lowell reportedly learned more about himself than from anything else he had ever read). Subsequently he played an important role in bringing Lowell to Essex in 1970s to take part in student workshops. With his colleague Jonathan Lichtenstein he also developed an MA module in Shakespeare studies that blossomed into a full-blown course on theatre studies. He loved the theatre.

He is survived by Susan, their children, Olivia and me, and three grandchildren, and his brother, David.


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