John Stewart Wheatcroft

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John Stewart Wheatcroft

July 24, 1925 - March 14, 2017

John Stewart Wheatcroft, the author of 26 books of poetry, fiction and plays and an esteemed professor of English at Bucknell University died at home on Tuesday, March 14, 2017, at the age of 91.

A writer of distinctive sensibility, he engaged in a wide range of subjects and forms: plays, novels, and poetry, at times surreal, poetic, satirical or comic.

In addition to his published writings, his works have been produced on Public television, at the Yale Drama Festival and included in numerous magazines, newspapers, literary journals and anthologies. In 1965, his play Ofoeti received the Alcoa Playwriting Award and was widely distributed by National Educational Television. Mr. Wheatcroft served as a juror for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and at various times was a resident fellow at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.His first novel to receive recognition was Edie Tells, a comic novel detailing the evolution of a middle-aged cleaning woman into a poet. Perhaps his most widely recognized novel, Catherine, Her Book was published in 1983. Virginia Tiger wrote of the novel in the New York Times Book Review: "Wheatcroft succeeds in fashioning a tale worthy of Bronte's original having devised a style at once idiomatic and richly archaic."Mr. Wheatcroft was indefatigable. He served as an editor, interviewer and essayist, wrote reviews, poetry, plays, short stories, and novels, and was widely recognized as a seminal teacher of literature.John Wheatcroft taught for more than 45 years and considered the art of teaching and writing to be part of the same cloth. He earned the distinction of Presidential Professor at Bucknell in 1972 and received numerous awards for his work including the Lindback award in 1964 and Pennsylvania Professor of the year in 1986. Upon his retirement in 1996 he became Professor Emeritus.Known as Jack to his friends, colleagues and students, he taught courses in English and American literature as well as creative writing. Many of his students went on to distinguished careers as teachers and writers. In 2015 a scholarship was established in his name at Bucknell.

In his tenure of 45 years at Bucknell, Jack taught several generations of students, meeting the children and grandchildren of his first students with the same energy and commitment that marked his earliest years as a professor.Pulitzer prize winning writer and former student, Peter Balakian writes of Jack as "an eloquent, passionate, brilliant reader of language and form, whose acute sensibility moves students from feeling to intellect to history. His visible legacy is in the impressive and still evolving body of literature but also invisible-a part of the inner lives of thousands of students who have come away from his classes in the past five decades."In the classroom he was patient but rigorous; imaginative and intense. His efforts to bring his students face to face with contemporary practicing poets led him to found the Young Poets Seminar in 1984. Mr. Wheatcroft's visionary efforts were central to the establishment in 1988 of the University's Stadler Center for Poetry where he served as the first director. Part of his vision entailed rejuvenating the 19th century Bucknell Hall building into a sanctuary for poetry. The Center offers programs and residencies for emerging and established writers and publishes the national literary journal West Branch. Guests of the Center have included such influential writers as Wendell Berry, Hayden Carruth, Mary Oliver and Josephine Jacobsen.

Throughout his life, Mr. Wheatcroft immersed himself in both writing and teaching. His commitment to education extended to a full engagement in efforts to shape the University. He was insistent on preserving an institutional commitment to support of the teacher as practicing scholar or artist. In an interview from 1977 he said: "Teaching at a university allows me to be free from having to market what I write, I can do what I am really driven to do."The explosive corruption of language that dominates our political landscape today was something Mr. Wheatcroft addressed in an essay written in 1965 " Hey, Any Work for Poetry?" In this prescient meditation on language, modern life and the role of the creative process he notes, "We discover a deeply ingrained pattern of verbal activity, which sometimes through calculation sometimes through neglect, serves to render our feelings synthetic, to allow us to be manipulated, to divorce us from reality, to divide us from ourselves, even to turn us against ourselves. The crisis of our time is a crisis in language. 'Johnny can't read' because words have no connection with reality for him."In his belief that "poetry is the reverent renewal of language" he notes that the work of a teacher and the role of poetry with its insistence on precise language, is to put the reader, the student, "back in touch with reality."

John Stewart Wheatcroft was born in Philadelphia on July 24, 1925, the son of the Rev. Allen S. and Laura Wheatcroft. His father a successful entrepreneur altered his vocation after suffering the death of his first wife. He left business, trained for the ministry and become a Baptist clergyman.Growing up during the Depression, Mr. Wheatcroft's early years were spent in the family parsonage. His father was struck with periodic bouts of depression; the most serious of which occurred when Mr. Wheatcroft was sixteen. For a time Mr. Wheatcroft assumed duties as head of the household.At 16 he received a Mayor's Scholarship and enrolled at Temple University. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in July of 1943 at the age of 17 and served for three years in the Pacific theater on the U.S.S. Wisconsin, seeing action during the Battle of the Philippines, the South China Sea Campaign and the Battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Honshu.

The scars of his war experiences in the South Pacific were deep. To him modern warfare stained all participants with unavoidable complicity.In the poem "Hitting a Pheasant" on The Pennsylvania Turnpike from his second volume of poetry The Prodigal Son published in 1967, he writes:

"So, judge in me acquits me, with some wisdom:
Guilt is one recreation we can't afford.
Our manufacture does the killing. Collisions
are time's complicities, history's physics.
Only an aggrandizing super ego will
projectile causes from the unfortuitous concourse
of trajectories that claimed one female pheasant life
along the Pennsylvania Turnpike back
to Hiroshima, Bay of Pigs and momently to Hanoi."

In the aftermath of the war, Jack found work in a machine shop, drove a taxi in Philadelphia, and worked as an inspector in a Williamsport battery factory, all while attending school, first at Temple University and then transferring to Bucknell in 1948. Although he graduated in 1949, he began teaching English during his senior year at Bucknell at the request of department head, Mildred Martin. After graduation, he spent a year at the University of Kansas before returning to Bucknell. He completed his MA in 1950 and a doctorate in 1960 at Rutgers University.
Aside from two years spent in Kansas and New Jersey, from 1948 until his death, Mr. Wheatcroft lived in Lewisburg. He felt rooted there; the historical architecture, the quiet, slower pace of a small town and the University with its accessibility to other writers and colleagues, were all sustaining.
In the later decades of his life, he found time for travel in England and other parts of Europe. He was particularly drawn to the Yorkshire landscape. He was a lover of language, Dickinson and Faulkner, music and art, magnolias and roses; he was an avid player of both chess and tennis and a lifelong Yankee's fan.
In retirement Mr. Wheatcroft devoted himself full time to the craft of writing, producing both novels and volumes of poetry into his late eighties. In the last several years he was slowed by dementia and Parkinson's but even in the shadow of illness, he produced a final remarkable book entitled I Am?

John Wheatcroft is survived by his wife Katherine Wheatcroft and by his three children from his first marriage to Joan Mitchell Osborne; Allen and wife Carmen of Chicago, Illinois; David and wife Eve Granick of Westborough, Massachusetts and Rachel of Westborough, Massachusetts; three grandchildren, David, Kate and Hannah Wheatcroft and one great granddaughter.
Beloved by his family and friends he was to those who knew him best, a rare combination of generosity, integrity, and diligence.

As requested by Jack, there will be no public service.
Published on March 16, 2017
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