In Memoriam: Martin Battestin, Kenan Professor of English Emeritus

May 18, 2015

Martin Carey Battestin, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Virginia, died May 15 in Gordonsville, Virginia. He was 85.

Battestin, born on March 25, 1930, in New York City, attended the Peddie School and received both his B.A. (summa cum laude, 1952) and Ph.D. (1958) from Princeton University, where as a member of the baseball team he expressed a love of sports that eventually would be manifested in his passionate backing of U.Va. teams.

After his first academic appointment at Wesleyan University, he moved to the University of Virginia in 1961. He taught in the Department of English until his retirement as William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus in 1998. He chaired the department from 1983 through 1986 and made vital hires during that period. His years at U.Va. were punctuated by a faculty appointment at Rice University and by terms as visiting scholar at Princeton, Clare Hall, Cambridge and Lincoln College, Oxford.

Battestin’s literary interests were broad and included 20th-century writings by T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams (a relative through the Sevier family of Tennessee), as well as any works that included cats. But his heart lay in the 18th century, whose elegant manners he inculcated, and his dissertation on Henry Fielding’s novel “Joseph Andrews” set the direction of his scholarly career. 

His preeminent role as a Fielding scholar first involved the preparation of reliable editions. He was a founder of the now-standard Wesleyan Edition of Fielding’s works and edited four volumes in the series: “Joseph Andrews” (1967), “Tom Jones” (1974), “Amelia” (1983) and “Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, Shamela, and Occasional Writings” (2008). He also co-edited “The Correspondence of Henry and Sarah Fielding” (1993) and in later years edited the translation of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” (2003) by another 18th-century novelist, Tobias Smollett.

He analyzed these writings in landmark volumes of criticism on 18th-century literature, “The Moral Basis of Fielding’s Art” (1959) and “The Providence of Wit” (1974), and he prepared an important reference tool, “A Henry Fielding Companion” (2000).

His understanding of literature and life came together in the biography he wrote with his wife Ruthe, “Henry Fielding: A Life” (1989), of which the English writer Antony Burgess wrote, “This massive biography must stand, for many years to come or perhaps permanently, as the definitive Life of the man who is, conceivably, England’s greatest novelist.”

In 1997, colleagues and former students honored him with a collection of essays, and in 2012 the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia established Battestin Fellowships, in recognition of the Battestins’ contribution to the scholarly life of U.Va., to support bibliographical and textual research by U.Va. graduate students in U.Va. libraries.

He is survived by his partner in mutual devotion for 52 years, his wife and collaborator Ruthe. 

His burial service will take place Wednesday at 3 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ivy.

In lieu of flowers, gifts in Battestin’s honor may be made to the Battestin Fund, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA 22906, or to St. Paul’s Ivy, P.O. Box 37, Ivy, VA 22945.

Charlottesville Daily Progress obituary

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