Paul H. Fry

William Lampson Professor of English 

Paul Fry, B.A. University of California at Berkeley, Ph.D. Harvard University, faculty member at Yale since 1971: Your primary areas of study have been British Romanticism, the history of literary criticism, literary theory, and literature in relation to the visual arts, and your six significant books over forty years explore all these subjects and have made you a major figure in literary studies. It is infrequent that literary critics are equally at home in the world of visual art (and vice versa); you defy the stereotype. A painter yourself, whose early career seemed as if it would go in that direction, you understand painting and the visual world, have taught courses on ekphrastic works of art, and among your most unusual publications over time are well-regarded essays on painting and exhibition reviews for the influential journal ARTnews.  

As a teacher you have been renowned for many courses, from English 129 to the Romantics. But the course for which you became a legend was Lit 300, “Introduction to the Theory of Literature.” For years it was the place to be for anyone with high literary interests. Held in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium, several hundred students—wearing black, with earrings in various orifices, and in the early days, stubbing out cigarettes—could be seen crowding in to understand the history of literary criticism, beginning with Aristotle, and to receive introductions to subjects such as structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction. Your pellucid lectures on these complex subjects, admired by students who took to calling Lit 300 “Fry,” displayed an uncanny ability to explain the most recondite theory, and can now be viewed by all on Open Yale Courses.

The heart of the excellence of all your teaching can be summarized by the anecdote of one of your students who nominated you for the Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award offered by the Kennedy Center, which you won.  You wrote on this student’s paper: “At some level, EVERY KIND of good writing is meant to be persuasive. Everything. Next time you write for this class, BELIEVE something, and CONVINCE me of it.” The student wrote that your teaching, and that comment literally, “changed my life.”

These accomplishments are not all. Not every scholar and teacher is good at administrative work, but you have been. You were DGS in the English Department for an extraordinary nine straight years, bringing your distinction, mentorship, and outreach to helping graduate students find their way within and beyond Yale. And for seven years, with the partnership of your wife, Brigitte Peucker, Elias W Leavenworth Professor of Germanic Languages & Literatures and Professor of Film Studies, you were the Master of Ezra Stiles College, dedicated to The Moose, immersing yourself in student life, and enlivening Stiles with your joint passion for film and all the arts. As someone who has cared deeply about the world beyond Yale as well, you have been Executive Chair of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and of its national counterpart, the Yale National Initiative, and for years brought your erudition and influence to secondary school teachers through your teaching in summer seminars. 

As you retire and return to painting, your early passion, and, we also hope, to some writing and teaching, your admiring and grateful colleagues in the Department of English and beyond wish you well in your continuing efforts, as Wordsworth says, to, “see into the life of things.” 

Tribute Editor: Penelope Laurans