Obituaries

Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, at 87; groundbreaking female Ivy League professor was renowned scholar on Milton

Dr. Lewalski in her study in her home in Providence.
Dr. Lewalski in her study in her home in Providence.

On her way to becoming an internationally respected scholar of the poet John Milton and a groundbreaking woman in Ivy League academia, Barbara Kiefer Lewalski insisted that she be allowed to walk through the front door, just like her male colleagues.

When she was a young professor at Brown University, at the faculty club “they were used to seeing the male professors come in the front and the wives of the professors and the female staff come in the back door,” said her son, David. “She just refused. She said, ‘I’m coming in the front door,’ and she did.”

Dr. Lewalski, who was 87 when she died March 2 after suffering a heart attack in her Providence home, went on to become the first woman to be a tenured English professor at Brown and Harvard universities.

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“Over her 50-year career, Barbara was the preeminent Milton scholar of the later 20th and earlier 21st centuries,” Gordon Teskey, a Harvard English professor, wrote in a tribute sent to colleagues.

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“A vital intellectual presence in 17th century studies generally and a pioneer of the scholarly study of women’s writings in that period, Barbara was also an exceptional mentor to generations of students, especially in the training and mentoring of women scholars,” Teskey added.

Barbara Bono, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, wrote in an e-mail that Dr. Lewalski was “an infinitely supportive mentor. For me, losing her is like losing an intellectual mother.” Bono added that Dr. Lewalski “nurtured at least a dozen ‘generations’ of graduate students in their careers.”

During her decades of teaching, Dr. Lewalski’s own scholarship established her international reputation. Her books include “The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography” in 2001, along with “Milton’s Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning, and Art of “Paradise Regained,” which was published in 1966 and “remains a classic in the field of Milton studies,” Teskey wrote.

“No less than three times she won the Milton Society of America’s James Holly Hanford Award for the best book or article of the year,” Teskey added, and in 2016, the Renaissance Society of America “gave her its highest honor, the Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award.”

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Jason Rosenblatt, an emeritus professor of English at Georgetown University, said in a eulogy at Dr. Lewalski’s memorial service that in 1977, when the Milton Society named her an honored scholar, she was 46 — “almost certainly the youngest recipient. Instead of sitting at the head table on the dais, as the other honorees had done, she chose to sit at ground level at a table with her students.”

The gesture of devotion to her students, he added, was characteristic of Dr. Lewalski. Rosenblatt said she had been his graduate adviser and had corrected the final chapters of his dissertation while she was on a cruise across the Atlantic with her husband.

“She and Ken still managed to win the polka contest in the evening,” Rosenblatt said. “Sure enough, her final comments, which I still treasure, are on Holland America stationery.”

In the early 1990s, “when enthusiasm over women writers in the 17th century was rising, Barbara published a book that transformed this enthusiasm into a research field, ‘Writing Women in Jacobean England,’ ” Teskey wrote.

In the introduction to the 1993 book, Dr. Lewalski wrote that for women writing in that era, the “writing itself was a major means of self-definition. In this study I have tried to let several women’s voices be heard as they begin a dialogue with the literary tradition, with one another, and with the men shaping politics and culture in Jacobean England.”

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Born in Topeka, Kan., Barbara Kiefer was the only child of John Kiefer, a farmer who did clerical work during the Great Depression, and the former Vivo Hutton, a schoolteacher and speech therapist who, for a time, also ran a dance studio.

While in high school, Dr. Lewalski won an essay contest that brought a scholarship to study in Amsterdam. Teachers tried to discourage her from going, saying the trip was for older students, but she noted that the contest didn’t specify an age cutoff and went anyway, her son said.

“That was kind of a transformative moment because then she realized that she wanted to do something in academia and travel,” he added. “She said, ‘I can write pretty well.’ ”

Dr. Lewalski graduated with a bachelor’s degree from what was then Kansas State Teachers College, and received a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

While there, she met another graduate student, Kenneth F. Lewalski, at an off-campus lecture. They married in 1956.

“It was a good partnership. Their marriage was 50 years and they were kindred spirits, politically and socially,” their son said. During the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, the Lewalskis kept a “countdown calendar” on the back of their front door, awaiting the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. When he resigned, they held a party and attendees danced in “a conga line down the street,” David said.

Kenneth Lewalski, who was a history professor at Rhode Island College, died in 2006.

Dr. Lewalski began her teaching career at Wellesley College and moved to Brown in 1956, where she directed graduate studies in English and chaired the Renaissance studies program.

Joining the Harvard faculty in 1982, she became the William R. Kenan professor of English literature and of history and literature. Dr. Lewalski also chaired the history and literature program and was director of graduate studies. She retired as a professor emerita, and during her career she also was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and two Guggenheim fellowships.

Annually in July, she and her husband traveled to London, where they stayed in the Russell hotel and she conducted research at the British Museum.

Even in retirement, Dr. Lewalski kept up her scholarship and her writing. She had booked a hotel in New Orleans for a conference at the end of March, at which she planned to present a paper she had finished editing only a few days before she died.

“She was a force to be reckoned with,” Rosenblatt said in an interview.

A service has been held for Dr. Lewalski, whose son, a Providence resident, is her only immediate survivor.

As a professor, she often assigned work so challenging that it forced students to collaborate. “That was deliberate on her part,” Rosenblatt recalled. “She wanted us not just to learn to work with one another. She wanted us to learn from one another.”

He added that her students “internalized her presence,” along with her approach to teaching and her outlook on their studies.

“She was a teacher who took what you said seriously. I can’t begin to tell you what that meant to me, and to the rest of us,” Rosenblatt said. “She was the audience I’ve written for ever since I wrote my first papers in Milton in her class, and she remains the audience I will write for as long as I live.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.