Obituaries

George Cuomo, novelist who taught at UMass Amherst, dies at 86

Mr. Cuomo also wrote poems and essays, and worked as a copy editor and factory hand.
Mr. Cuomo also wrote poems and essays, and worked as a copy editor and factory hand.

Stories filled George Cuomo’s life, from the plots he spun in novels and short stories to tales he swapped with cousins about their beginnings in the Bronx, N.Y.

“I’ve always been fascinated by narratives, by the way stories grab us and hold us and eventually, in the best of circumstances, justify the attention we’ve given them,” he wrote in his 1995 nonfiction book “A Couple of Cops,” which described the law enforcement careers of two close cousins.

Good writing can be found everywhere, Mr. Cuomo believed, and as a professor he encouraged students to find fine work in overlooked places.

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“Language can entertain, move, excite, enrage, and illuminate,” he wrote in his book “Becoming a Better Reader and Writer,” published in 1978. “The works of the great novelists and poets of the past and present may seem vastly different from a book on sailboating, a spoof of spy novels, or a real or ghosted autobiography of a movie queen. But they share something, too. They all offer a means to escape or transcend, in a frivolous or deeply felt way, the narrow limits of our lives.”

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Mr. Cuomo, who taught English and writing at colleges from the Commonwealth to British Columbia, including a two-decade stint at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, died of a degenerative nerve illness Oct. 26 in his Cambridge home. He was 86.

A writing career born in Tufts University’s student newspaper offices offered Mr. Cuomo a different life than what had awaited in his Bronx neighborhood, but careful observations of urban surroundings informed his books, no matter where they were set.

“George was a specialist of the literature of the city,” said his friend Michael Harper, a writer and professor emeritus at Brown University who met Mr. Cuomo when both taught in California. “George was always talking about how the most important part about fiction is to have good narrators who know something about the working class. He always cared about the working class.”

The late novelist Richard Yates helped launch Mr. Cuomo’s writing career by picking his story “A Part of the Bargain” for inclusion in the 1963 anthology “Stories for the Sixties.” Yates, who had just enjoyed critical acclaim for his classic suburbia novel “Revolutionary Road,” later told the journal Ploughshares that Mr. Cuomo was among the nation’s “good, badly neglected writers.”

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That opinion is shared by Richard N. Goodwin, a friend of Mr. Cuomo’s since Goodwin succeeded him as editor of the Tufts newspaper.

“Like many very talented writers he was not nearly recognized enough in his lifetime, but I think his books will come back, because they’re all good and all on topics that relate to our modern life,” said Goodwin, an author, playwright, and former presidential speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Mr. Cuomo’s books “dealt with contemporary issues and contemporary people that he’d known throughout his entire life. They’re a good snapshot of midcentury America,” Goodwin added. “He was a wonderful man and also a wonderful writer.

The second of three children, George Michael Cuomo grew up in the Bronx. His father, John Cuomo, was a machinist, and his mother, the former Lillian Vogt, cleaned offices and had worked in the garment industry.

“My father was the first in his family to go to college,” said Mr. Cuomo’s son Douglas of Brooklyn, N.Y. “That whole working-class, growing up in the Bronx identity was very important to my father – for himself and as a writer.”

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Though Mr. Cuomo wrote novels, poems, and essays, an author biography in one of his books noted that he “also worked as a newspaper copy editor, a factory hand, an advertising and public relations writer, and as assistant to the vice president of a New York corporation.”

Mr. Cuomo graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts, which he initially attended on an engineering scholarship. He also graduated with a master’s from Indiana University.

“He really was interested in modern literature and went on to become part of it,” Goodwin said. The two exchanged letters through the years, and not long before Mr. Cuomo died, he returned the letters Goodwin had sent, dating back to post-college years in the military.

Before Mr. Cuomo arrived in the early 1970s at UMass Amherst, where he spent the last 20 years of his teaching career, he taught in Arizona, California, and at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. While there he met future Nobel laureate Alice Munro, when the short story writer was running what Mr. Cuomo called “the best bookstore in town.”

At that point Mr. Cuomo was married to the former Sylvia Epstein, with whom he had five children. In interviews for Robert Thacker’s 2005 biography “Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives,” Mr. Cuomo recalled Munro’s “sweet kindness to our children.”

Mr. Cuomo’s first marriage ended in divorce. He married June Spackman in 1996.

British Columbia, meanwhile, became a setting for his 1971 novel “The Hero’s Great, Great, Great, Great, Great-Grandson.”

“No one could complain about Victoria,” he wrote, taking note of the city’s “Tudor-style houses, its confectionery shops and tearooms, its tweeds and woolens and Sheffield china and English toffee.” Victoria, he added, was “a city of trees and neat gardens tended by aged fleshless men and women bundled in heavy cardigans despite the warm sun, as if fearing that suddenly, from somewhere, a chill breeze might spring up to catch them unawares.”

A service has been held for Mr. Cuomo, who in addition to his wife and son leaves two daughters, Celia of New Paltz, N.Y., and Rosalind of Abingdon-on-Thames, England; two other sons, Gregory of Apple Valley, Minn., and Michael of York, Maine; four stepdaughters, Lynne Rhyan of Mequon, Wis., Sarah Becker of Kansas City, Mo., Jennifer Anderson of Spring Lake, N.C., and Phoebe Clemens of Boston; four stepsons, Samuel Spackman of Brooklyn, N.Y., Christopher Noll of San Francisco, Thomas Spackman of Woonsocket, R.I., and John Spackman of Weybridge, Vt.; six grandchildren; 16 step-grandchildren; a great-grandchild; and a step-great-grandchild.

“George was such a role model for them,” his wife said in an e-mail of Mr. Cuomo’s relationship with his stepchildren, adding that “they took as much care of him as they would of their biological father. And remember, none of them had a biological father living, so George was it for them.”

Mr. Cuomo “was a wonderful writer. He wrote such great books,” said Goodwin’s wife, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “What I care about so much is storytelling, and he always had a story to tell, and it often was about families.”

He often wrote about relationships and attempts that people like Mel Simmons, a principal character his 1968 novel “Among Thieves,” made to mend frayed ties. And recollections of his own family and upbringing were never far from Mr. Cuomo’s thoughts.

“Let’s not knock memory,” he wrote at the end of “A Couple of Cops.”

“No matter how full of holes it may be, how humdrum its chosen darlings, it goes a long way toward making us us, and allowing our lives to become our lives.”

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