Sylvan Barnet, 89; edited Shakespeare ‘Signet Classic’ series

Portrait of William Burto and Sylvan Barnet, 2003; by artist Sugimoto Hiroshi.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Portrait of William Burto and Sylvan Barnet, 2003; by artist Sugimoto Hiroshi.

A son of a leather tanner in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sylvan Barnet found his way into the world of literature through graduate studies at Harvard and spent his entire career at Tufts University, twice chairing the English department.

“At a certain point,” he quipped to the Globe in early 2015, “you become ineligible for anything but teaching.”

A mentor to students, colleagues, and friends, he extended his teaching reach throughout the world as the general editor of the Signet Classic Shakespeare series of inexpensive paperbacks, by writing and editing widely-used college textbooks, and through serving as an editor and author of the “Short Guide to Writing” series – each slender book focusing on how to write essays on subjects ranging from biology and chemistry to art and music.


For students he taught during 30 years at Tufts, however, Dr. Barnet was a memorable figure at the front of the classroom.

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“He was unforgettable,” wrote Sol Gittleman, a longtime friend who is a former provost and professor at Tufts, and who sometimes visited Dr. Barnet’s classes. “I often sat, watched, and learned.”

A noted collector of Japanese art, Dr. Barnet died of brain cancer Jan. 9 in his Cambridge home. He was 89 and had remained involved in various projects until the end, which as far as Dr. Barnet was concerned could have arrived sooner. He was bereft when his life partner, William Burto, a former longtime English professor at Lowell State College and the University of Lowell, died in 2013 of multiple myeloma at 92.

“He just didn’t want to live any more, but he was so good-natured, he did, anyway,” Gittleman said about Dr. Barnet in an interview, “and right to the very end he was phenomenal.”

Industrious and productive, Dr. Barnet often was at his desk by 8 in the morning and worked until midnight. Such discipline might suggest he was a humorless grind. The opposite was true.


Earlier in his life, Dr. Barnet “had been a practicing magician and thought he would spend his life doing magic, but he ran into someone who said, ‘You’re smart, you should go to graduate school,’ ” said Marcia Stubbs, who formerly taught at Tufts and at Wellesley College. “And he became this very important scholar, but he never lost that sense of the stage. You were always part of a performance when you were in his company. He was always very amusing and very funny

In a written tribute posted on a Tufts website, Gittleman said Dr. Barnet “loved to teach. His Shakespeare course was his primary stage. Sylvan was a performer, at times taking off his jacket, putting it on backwards and, as his hundreds of students cheered, imitating Boris Karloff’s walk in the movie version of ‘Frankenstein.’ ”

As a guiding literary light, Dr. Barnet offered direction to more than just his students.

“When I was teaching night school when I was younger, he said, ‘Why don’t you write a textbook, Helen?’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t know how,’ and he said, ‘Let me help,’ ” recalled Helen Vendler, a Harvard professor and noted poetry critic. “It really did bail me out of night school teaching. That was the sort of thing he would do for me and others.”

As an author Dr. Barnet “wrote gently,” Gittleman recalled in the interview. “Nobody had any trouble reading what Sylvan wrote.” And in an official or unofficial capacity, he shared that writing talent with others.


“He was an expert editor and a very concise writer himself,” Vendler said. “He read practically everything I wrote for my textbooks and gave suggestions. He was always likely to do a more efficient job at anything than almost anyone else.”

Born in Brooklyn on Dec. 11, 1926, Sylvan Saul Barnet was a son of Philip and Esther Barnet. Dr. Barnet left much of his estate to a Tufts scholarship fund in honor of his parents. He had dedicated “A Short Guide to Writing about Art,” whose 11th edition he completed in his final months, to the memory of his brother, Howard.

After graduating from high school, Dr. Barnet served in the Army at the end of World War II, and then went to New York University, graduating in 1948. Moving to Harvard – it was “a chance to keep on reading,” he told the Globe a year ago – he wrote a prize-winning essay on Shakespeare and received a doctorate in English in 1954.

While in graduate school he met William Charles Burto, whom Dr. Barnet recalled finding “very attractive.”

“They were just a wonderful, wonderful couple,” said Stubbs, who considered Dr. Barnet her closest friend.

Burto, Dr. Barnet, and their friend Morton Berman, who taught at Boston University, rose to lead the English departments at their respective colleges. They collaborated on books and reviewed faculty applicants together.

“In the 1960s you might have applied for a job at BU, but received a reply from Tufts,” Gittleman wrote. “Or perhaps you wrote to Lowell State and got a return letter from BU.”

In 1963, little more than a decade after becoming life partners, Burto and Dr. Barnet bought a Korean bowl in New York City, and they soon switched their artistic interests from Korean to Japanese ceramics and Zen calligraphy. They collected scores of works and, upon each of their deaths, bequeathed their collections to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Harvard Art Museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. “We are trying to help people have the experience we had,” Dr. Barnet said in the Globe interview.

“Whatever money he made from his life he plowed into art, and then he gave it all away,” Vendler said. “It’s very remarkable. Most people don’t give away everything they’ve made in their career.”

Of his collecting choices, which he often made by instinct, Dr. Barnet recalled last year that different artworks “hit you in a magical way.” His holdings with Burto, meanwhile, were funded largely through the many books they wrote and edited over the years. “Textbook writing can be quite remunerative,” Dr. Barnet said.

“A Short Guide to Writing about Art” includes numerous short chapters on a range of areas, from “the writer’s audience as a collaborator” to the impact of social history on the reception of art.

“We write about art in order to clarify and to account for our responses to works that interest or excite or frustrate us,” he wrote in the book. “In putting words on paper we have to take a second and a third look at what is in front of us and what is within us.”

Dr. Barnet left no immediate survivors. At his request, no service is planned. He prepared his own obituary and, writing about himself in the third person, recounted his anguish at the death of Burto.

Every day, Dr. Barnet wrote, he recalled an epitaph that Sir Henry Wotton, a British diplomat and author, wrote in the early 1600s for a woman whose husband had died before her: “He first deceased; she for a little tried/To live without him, liked it not, and died.”

In Burto’s absence, Dr. Barnet wrote, he regretted each day his “inability to re-enact” those lines.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at