Remembering James P. Hammersmith
By KAREN BECKWITH, Managing Editor
APRIL 24, 2014
We are very sorry to report a death in the SHR family, that of James P. Hammersmith, a member of the English Department faculty at Auburn University from 1978 to 2008 and co- editor of SHR (with Patrick D. Morrow) from 1983 to 1984. A widely respected Shakespeare scholar and textual editor, Jim worked with David Bevington on the 29 volumes of the Bantam Shakespeare series and the Longman Complete Works, and served as editor of the Variorum Shakespeare as well. He was an award-winning teacher, exciting particular enthusiasm from his Shakespeare students, as well as his hundreds of writing students. Some representative comments from former students attest to his influence:
For many years, Jim was also the anonymous donor who supported our department’s Graduate Student Paper Awards. An unassuming man, he was dedicated to doing his best in all endeavors and striving to “pry good ideas” from his students—as one of his Department Heads said in nominating him for a teaching award, "a rare, rare individual."
Jim's association with SHR began in 1981, when he worked as assistant editor under co-editors Barbara Mowat and David Jeffrey. Dr. Mowat, now Director of Research Emerita at the Folger Shakespeare Library, offers this remembrance:
More recent SHR editors remember Jim as an indefatigable reviewer of books on a wide variety of subjects, his closely written evaluations as idiosyncratic as his choice of subject matter and indeed as he was himself:
On dreams: “From the point of view of the dreamer, the waking world is a mighty bizarre place to visit. Certainly wouldn’t want to live there.” “A wan apparition—let us call it Jennifer—refuses to leave my dreams. . . . [She] stalks defiantly into a dream and demands advice. I give Jennifer advice. It is probably bad advice, but I give it nonetheless.”
On Schopenhauer: “Schopenhauer is widely regarded as a depressing thinker, a pessimist and a crank. It is perhaps difficult to think otherwise of a philosopher whose linchpin in his entire system of thought—and whose ultimate conclusion—is that we would all be much better off if we didn’t exist.”
On cosmology: “The study of cosmology should appeal to lots of people I know because the discipline makes no provision for the exercise of common sense. Instead, it demands that we imagine the unimaginable and accept the unacceptable.”
On the decline in book quality, an oft-sounded lament (this, prophetically, from a 1980 review):
“I must add my discouragement over the general shoddiness of book production in recent years. This book is very typical. There are superfluous marks of punctuation, omitted marks of punctuation, misspellings . . . , transposed letters, a faulty agreement . . . , and a lengthy quotation which ought to have been set in reduced type. . . . We have heard nothing but how expensive it is to produce books these days, with the result that most books are now priced beyond the means of ordinary mortals. It is clear that the added expense is not in the proofreading.”
On the overspecialization of much academic writing: “This is a book that sends me back to my Shakespeare, not back to my therapist. . . . Some recent academic books seem to be written with purposes just barely this side of maniacal.”
On political correctness (“Polly Correctitude”): “[I]t seems to me that when we must write lengthy footnotes explaining our pronoun usage we have made life more complicated than it has any reason or right to be.”
On werewolves: “[T]o harass a wolfwoman is to invite misunderstanding over the meaning of ‘dinner date.’”
He wrote about time travel, postmortem photography, the theory of evolution, dark matter, and resurrection. He wrote about beer, Tupperware, the potato, and Winnie the Pooh. He was prone to ironic self-reference, such as this comment from a self-described Eeyore about the possibility that bodily parasites might effect subtle changes on the personality: “We pick up our little guests everywhere, and then they slyly alter our dispositions. Perhaps if I cleaned house more regularly, I wouldn’t be the jolly fellow that I am.”
Jim’s final review is of Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, about which he concludes: “a handful of [bibliographical] resources might keep the game afoot for readers inclined to continue the pursuit of wisdom, a chase Warburton has so ably set a-romping.” It was a pursuit Jim never ended.
Friends and colleagues will remember Jim as a dedicated “p-mail” correspondent, bemoaning the impermanent nature of e-mail (it “vaporizes with the stroke of a key”) and the omnipresence of cell phones (“as ubiquitous and annoying as mosquitoes”—written, also prophetically, in 2002). Not surprisingly, he spurned computers, but he was not a Luddite; he composed electronic music and kept his audio, video, and photographic equipment up to date. An avid baseball fan, he also enjoyed vintage cars, good Scotch, and craft beers. He was quirky, funny, smart, prickly, a loner but a loyal friend, reserved but warm, gloomy but whimsical, a self-contained, composed man who lived life on his own terms, fully and passionately.
We will remember as well his obsessive preference for paper clips over staples—he liked to lay the pages of a research paper or essay side by side. But Jim, we said, paper clips come unclipped and pages are lost. In files they clip themselves to other documents, effectively concealing them forever. In the long term, they rust, and stain the pages so carefully saved. But we could not sway him.
We will miss his complex character, his unique voice. Says one colleague, speaking for us all, "Jim should have died hereafter."
A memorial Facebook page, open to reminiscence, has been established.
In addition, a celebration of Jim's life and work will be held May 9, 2014, at the Center for the Arts and Humanities (Pebble Hill) in Auburn, Alabama, from 4:00 - 7:00 p.m. We'll share memories and toasts, and Jim's family will announce the establishment of the James P. Hammersmith Memorial Scholarship. Please join us if you can.
And remember, "Staples are the devil!"
JAMES P. HAMMERSMITH
JAMES P. HAMMERSMITH