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Michael Gilmore, 72; brought out best in English students

Mr. Gilmore was a professor emeritus at Brandeis and the author of eight books.

Michael Lovett/Brandeis

Mr. Gilmore was a professor emeritus at Brandeis and the author of eight books.

Introducing a 1977 collection of essays about “Moby-Dick,” Michael T. Gilmore wrote that “language, the medium of literature, is no more reliable than brushwork in enabling the would-be knower to make sense of his world.”

Yet as a teacher and writer, he had a lifelong engagement with books, and his own work examined the duet of politics and literature. Parsing paragraphs and sentences, he illuminated how the emergence of a market economy in the 1800s altered the relationship between an author and an audience and affected plots and characters. He also showed how politics prompted many writers to essentially censor their work after the Civil War, at least when it came to race.

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“If the North won the war, the historically closed and illiberal South won the peace,” he wrote in his 2010 book “The War on Words: Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature.” When the battlefields fell silent, “the reunited country gave its blessing to resurgent southern attitudes barring public defense of racial equality, and the hostility to dissent proved to be, if anything, more thoroughgoing than it was during the slavery era.”

Mr. Gilmore, a professor emeritus of English at Brandeis University and the author of eight books, went by his middle name, Timo, and had little use for the title his academic training afforded. He was 72 when he died in his Cambridge home March 3 of mesothelioma. That cancer is associated with asbestos exposure, though he had no known encounter.

“He was passionate about his beliefs, but when he got down to writing about things, he was so acute and calm,” said John Plotz, chairman of the English department at Brandeis University, where Mr. Gilmore taught for 37 years.

Mr. Gilmore was a “left-winger from way back,” Plotz added, but “rather than that being an abstract political identity for him, it shaped the kinds of questions he wanted to ask. The questions don’t determine the answers, but if you ask a new set of questions, you may see things no one else saw.”

In “The War on Words,” he said, “he makes the things people want to be invisible visible.”

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When they advised graduate students together, “I learned from him that less is more as a teacher,” Plotz recalled. In conferences with graduate students, Mr. Gilmore “would not rush to judge,” but instead “would listen to find the one place where he could push a student to the next level. He would listen to 500 words in a meeting and say one sentence, and that sentence would change the shape of the next chapter the student wrote.”

Mr. Gilmore moved to Cambridge about three decades ago and slipped into his adopted home’s literary history of political dissenters, which became the subject of a book he was working on when he died.

“He had a sense of true north in what his own intellectual traditions were, and they were very in tune with that Cambridge intellectual tradition,” said the writer Janna Malamud Smith, a longtime friend.

“He believed in social justice, he believed in taking care of people who in some ways were marginalized,” she said. “He wanted to see a nation that lived up to its ideals and took care of its own.”

The oldest of four children, Michael Timo Gilmore was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. His middle name was a tribute to a general who led Soviet troops into battle against the German army in World War II.

Mr. Gilmore’s mother was a Barnard College graduate and daughter of Austrian immigrants. His father emigrated from Russia in the early 1900s and ran a fabrics company that was prosperous for many years. The family ended up in Scarsdale, N.Y., an affluent community outside New York City.

“That was really something Timo disavowed,” said his wife, Deborah Valenze, a history professor at Barnard College. “He did not want to be seen as a privileged kid from the suburbs.”

Resisting his father’s wish that he join the family business, Mr. Gilmore graduated from Scarsdale High School, received a bachelor’s in English literature from Yale in 1963, and joined the Army Reserves, an uncommon choice among those from his background.

After his military service he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he wrote freelance reviews for a few years in self-imposed near poverty. He was “a natural devotee of knowledge,” his wife said, but “he subjected himself to a long rite of passage, a passage that eventually took him to graduate school, where he belonged.”

He graduated in 1973 with a doctorate from Harvard University’s American civilization program and within a couple of years was teaching in the English department at Brandeis, his professional home until he retired in 2012.

In a colleague’s office he met Valenze, who was a graduate student in a different department. They married in 1978.

Mr. Gilmore, she said, was more progressive about marriage than many men at that time. Three months after they married, she left to study in England for a year on a Fulbright fellowship. Several years later, when their daughters were 5 and 2, she took a job at Barnard in New York that required her to be away three days a week. She recalled that a female professor at Brandeis said “Timo was the most feminist of her male colleagues.”

His politics extended beyond the classroom, too. Their older daughter, Emma of New York, is named for Emma Goldman, the writer and anarchist. Their younger daughter, Rosa of Brooklyn, N.Y., is named after Rosa Luxemburg, a Marxist philosopher and theorist.

As with Mr. Gilmore’s middle name, “we continued the tradition of giving our daughters names that mattered,” said Valenze, who added that “he was devoted to his daughters. He adored his daughters and they adored him back.”

Besides his wife and daughters, Mr. Gilmore leaves a brother, David, and sisters Abby and Karen, all of New York.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, where burial was already held. At 4 p.m. on May 1, colleagues and former students will gather in the Shapiro Admissions Center at Brandeis to read his work.

When Mr. Gilmore retired in 2012, he funded a pair of fellowships at Brandeis to provide stipends for graduate students in English. “The gift is a way to show my appreciation to the students whom I have worked with,” he told Brandeis magazine that year, “and to thank Brandeis for giving me the opportunity to do so.”

“He mentored people with such kindness,” said Janna Malamud Smith, who had sought Mr. Gilmore’s thoughts about her manuscripts. “He demanded that you think so hard about things. He wasn’t willing to settle for cliches, for half-truths. The doublespeak of the public world drove him mad because he valued that clarity of speaking and language.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan. marquard@globe.com.

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