Retired U.Va. Professor John Graham Dies

July 26, 2007 -- John Graham, a longtime University of Virginia faculty member, died Monday, July 16, at his home in Charlottesville.

Graham was born Sept. 1, 1926, in Washington, D.C., to John Thomas Graham, formerly of Virginia, and Cathryn Spellman O’Neill, formerly of New York.

He attended Gonzaga College High School in Washington and then served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He received an A.B. degree from Georgetown College in 1949, an A.M. from Harvard University in 1958 and, from Johns Hopkins University, an A.M. in 1958 and a Ph.D. in 1960. He pursued further studies in Göttingen, Germany, and Oxford, England.

Graham taught at Georgetown University, Marquette University, Johns Hopkins University, Williams College and, for 35 years, at the University of Virginia. He joined U.Va. in September 1958 as instructor in English and retired in May 1993 as associate professor of rhetoric and communication studies. He taught speech and English, specializing in 18th century literature, Romanticism, aesthetics, comedy and satire, rhetoric and children’s literature.

“Two occasions in particular reflect the high esteem his students and colleagues had for John,” said University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III. “When he retired, former students came to Carr's Hill for a black-tie event to honor him. And when his faculty friends convened an 80th birthday gathering for him at the Colonnade Club, students passing by joined the party. John spent the final hour or so sitting on a couch with students all around, carrying on his characteristic conversations with them — sympathetic, clever and often funny, respectful and optimistic about the students' futures.”

Casteen said the focus of Graham’s scholarly work was influenced significantly by the late Leo Spitzer, who directed Graham’s doctoral dissertation on physiognomic imagery in art and literature at Johns Hopkins. His work included some of the earliest scholarship on artistic influences of the widely accepted pseudo-science of physiognomy, which purportedly linked a person’s character to physique, including facial features and the shape of the skull. In the 1970s, the Dictionary of the History of Ideas commissioned Graham to write an influential modern analysis of physical imagery in art and literature, “Ut Pictura Poesis.” Both that work and an issue of the New Literary History devoted to the subject are now frequent topics of international publications, Casteen said.

“A recently published book devotes much of its first chapter to acknowledgement of John Graham’s vision and accomplishments in what was at the time a very lonely context,” he added.

A devoted and highly respected teacher, Graham published widely in intellectual and cultural history. He also wrote two best-selling books for young children, “A Crowd of Cows” (1968) and “I Love You, Mouse” (1976).

Both books were notable for teaching while entertaining children. “In addition to delighting children, a generation of whom read and reread their copies of ‘A Crowd of Cows’ until they wore them out, the book shows how various phrases (drift of pigs, flock of geese, pod of whales, etc.) recapitulate distinctions in the deep structure of English,” Casteen said.

Graham’s older son, John, remembers him as someone who “disdained careerism or seeking money, especially in academic life, and sought to keep the curriculum and students focused on great questions of aesthetics, rhetoric and philosophy, even when such things seemed less in vogue.”

He added that his father “cheerfully ignored the ‘real’ world in favor of the world of the mind he so admired and loved during his more than 30 years at U.Va. and after. Steadily impractical, he was a kind of hero to those who love learning for itself and not as a means to any end.”

At the University of Virginia, Graham was a member of Omicron Delta Kappa, Phi Beta Kappa and the Raven Society, a U.Va. honorary society that recognizes scholarship and leadership. In 1960, he was presented the Raven Award for “outstanding service and professional achievement.” He was director of debate at U.Va. for five years and assistant dean of the College of Arts & Sciences for eight. He was awarded both Fulbright and Sesquicentennial fellowships.

He is survived by his brother, Robert F. Graham of Bethany Beach, Del.; two sisters, Lois Jones of Kensington, Md., and Helen Popplewell of Berkeley, Calif.; his four children, Sarah S. Graham of Charlottesville and her three children, Sarah Ann, Madeline and Lucas Hald; John R. Graham of Pacific Palisades, Calif., his wife, Margaret Fetter, and their three children, Dory, Jack and Helen Graham; Christopher C. Graham of Charlottesville; and Jane Thornton Graham of Los Angeles, Calif. He was predeceased by his wife, the novelist Alexandra Ripley.

A memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the University of Virginia Chapel.