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James A. Winn, who was a writer, BU English professor, and flutist, dies at 71

A scholar of 18th century British literature, Dr. Winn was equally at ease praising and illuminating the lyrics of the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen.Philip Winn

A few weeks ago, knowing the end wasn’t far off, James A. Winn was writing his memoirs, editing a flute-piano duet he had recorded a few months earlier, and coping with the end stage of pancreatic cancer, whose grim, initial prognosis he had far outlived to give his life an often joyous coda.

His thoughts also turned to what inevitably lay ahead as met with an Episcopal priest to plan a memorial service. “I’ve been trying to confront my fears and sorrows,” he wrote to friends on his journal.

To that end, as a longtime English professor, he quoted from a famous early-1600s sonnet by John Donne:


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Dr. Winn, who wove together a career as an English professor with decades of performances and recordings as an accomplished flutist, died in his Brattleboro, Vt., home Thursday. He was 71 and had retired in 2017 from Boston University, after teaching through the early months of his diagnosis.

“His life was the life of one who was passionate about ideas and about beauty in all of its manifestations — and that was quite infectious,” said Linda Gregerson, a poet and a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Michigan, where he taught before joining BU’s faculty in 1998. “He was also, as a colleague, quite an inspiration and a little bit daunting.”

Dr. Winn could read German, Greek, French, and Latin. He could write poetry, along with interpreting it in books and journal articles. A scholar of 18th century British literature, he was equally at ease praising and illuminating the lyrics of the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen.


“He could recite an uncanny amount of poetry. Give him a line of Shakespeare and he’d be off,” said his daughter, Ellen, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Somebody called him a flypaper brain. He didn’t forget. He had a big, big brain and a big, big heart.”

Globe reviewer Robert Taylor said Dr. Winn had written a “first-rate biography” when he published “John Dryden and his World” in 1987.

A New York Times reviewer was even more effusive about the way Dr. Winn examined the 17th century poet’s life. The book was “the most important biography of Dryden ever written,” Richard Bernstein wrote.

“Dryden’s great lesson is that a writer can be simultaneously engaged in the most public issues — in his case, politics and religion and their intertwining — and be engaged at the highest level of his craft,” Dr. Winn told Bernstein then. “The lesson is to use poetry to make precise, targeted, moral statements about our world.”

Dr. Winn did that himself in his 2008 book “The Poetry of War,” which looked at how poets had viewed wars from ancient Greece to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Poetry, he wrote, is necessary “to counter the mindless simplifications of war propaganda.”

Throughout history, “soldiers trusted poets to make their deeds immortal, and poets embraced warfare as a grand challenge,” he added, and in turn poets used “the full range of poetry’s powers to express the full range of our contradictory responses to war.”


Born in Charlotte, N.C., in 1947, James Anderson Winn was the second of four children. His father, the Rev. Albert Curry Winn, was a Presbyterian minister who formerly served as president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His mother, Grace Neely Walker Winn, worked in early childhood education and was “a passionate lifelong worker for peace,” her son would later write.

Dr. Winn grew up mostly in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Louisville, Ky., a formative experience.

“People in the South have a much more tragic and complex sense of history than, say, my students here in the Midwest,” he told the Times when he was teaching at the University of Michigan. “We grew up with a very large sense of the past.”

Early on, he began playing the flute and also could sing and play guitar and piano. At Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in English, he performed with the orchestra and sang with the Footnotes a cappella group.

He was then drafted into the Army, serving as principal flutist in the 50th Army Band.

For his doctorate, Dr. Winn attended Yale University, graduating in 1974. He went on to teach at Yale for several years before joining Michigan’s faculty in 1983.

He was founding director of the Institute for the Humanities at Michigan, where he held dual appointments as a professor of English and of music. At BU, he had chaired the English department and directed the Center for the Humanities.


Throughout, he wrote books about literature and about music, and he recorded several CDs as a flutist — achieving more in two separate fields than many academics do in one.

“I don’t know anybody else like him. He became a unique figure in the areas he represented,” said Robert Freeman, who most recently had been dean of fine arts at the University of Texas Austin and before that had been president of New England Conservatory and director of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York.

“He lived life fully and he put an enormous amount of energy into it,” Freeman added.

Dr. Winn formerly was married to Kathe Fox, with whom he had two children who, he later wrote, were “endless sources of joy and wonder.” In 2009, he married Lucy Chapman, a violinist who has chaired the chamber music faculty and the strings studio faculty at New England Conservatory.

“They traveled and cooked and gardened and did all manner of things together,” his daughter Ellen said, adding that Dr. Winn was “an incredibly good cook and a very involved father” — someone who liked hosting a crowd of 25 at Thanksgiving.

As a professor, Dr. Winn “was both a wonderful teacher and an incredible mentor,” said Julie Peters, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University who formerly was his student at Yale.

In an entry on his CaringBridge journal, she wrote that he was “also a person of such unbridled enthusiasm for the pleasures and possibilities of life, a person who taught that it might sometimes be better to embrace a knowing naiveté over a jaded worldliness, and that one could be ironic without a hint of cynicism.”


In addition to his wife, Lucy, and daughter, Ellen, Dr. Winn leaves his son, Philip of Brooklyn, N.Y., and four grandchildren, all of whom were born since his diagnosis. “He was always happy to have a baby in his arms,” his daughter said.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. April 6 in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Brattleboro, Vt.

Dr. Winn “was an exuberant and intense man about everything in his life,” Ellen said.

“He was spectacular,” Gregerson said. “He was kind of frighteningly articulate and upbeat and well-organized and well-read and filled with unflagging energy. It kind of left many of us in awe, frankly.”

Marquard can be reached at