In Memoriam of Dr. James Seaton

smiling man with glasses in a suit
Dr. James Seaton, 1944-2017

As a department, we greatly mourn the passing of our colleague, Dr. James Seaton. We have established an undergraduate award in his honor.

Below are some remembrances from faculty who worked side by side with Dr. Seaton during his years at Michigan State University. We hope these tributes convey the image of the committed scholar, teacher, and thinker that we knew.

Jim was part of a contingent of young hires of the late 60s and 70s, when John Hannah was rapidly expanding the size of the university. Jim came a few years after our large wave of hires in 1965 – 67. He was a bright comparatist, whose revolutionary credentials included the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a claim that, along with his handsome looks, won him considerable admiration. He was rock solid in his knowledge of classical literary and philosophical thought, and over the years stood for supporting the western heritage, taking an increasingly critical view of attacks on the western canon, especially as it came from Edward Said’s Orientalism, and left attacks on eurocentrism. As the acceptance of what we originally called non-western humanities grew, he remained committed to the goal of educating our students on the value of the western tradition, including especially the western philosophical tradition, and comparative approaches that encompassed the great epic texts.

He was a staunch and vigorous advocate of racial justice, and strongly supported his wife Sandra Seaton’s work as a highly successful playwright. They had four wonderful children and we extend our deepest condolences to them.

We will truly miss and mourn him.

Professor Kenneth Harrow

Jim joined the Department of English from the now extinct Humanities faculty about thirty-five years ago. He had old classmates in the department (Johnsen, Watkins) but no natural constituency, something he struggled with. His background in comparative literature meant that he brought a longer view to the scene of modernism. He found himself as a neoconservative critic of prevailing values in the department. I respected that and still do despite my own (different) allegiances. He was always willing to speak up. His book at the University of Michigan Press on liberal readers of the canon was a kind of pledge of allegiance to canonical literature from a man who had had something to do with the Weathermen, it was said, but came to see things quite otherwise. He was unfashionable, often productively to my way of thinking.

Professor Emeritus Clint Goodson

Jim was my office neighbor and we often had friendly chats … mostly about great books of some kind! We shared a love of canonical works and in his mind I was on the right path as a Shakespearean! And from to time after some occasion when I spoke up for the canon, he would wryly complement me. But I want to go to a wonderful anecdote during my job talk some years ago: since it was a Renaissance job he carried with him the book Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom! I was intimidated, but he was totally complimentary even though we disagreed about the book in his questions. We often had common students over the years, and I know they learned a lot about the classical works that helped them prepare for my Shakespeare classes. Jim’s loss was too soon.

He shall be missed.

—Professor Jyotsna Singh

I first met the Seaton brothers (Jim and Bill) in 1963 at the University of Illinois, when I talked my way into an honors class on James Joyce (they were bona fide honors students). Next year when we were taking Greek, we had rooms together in 410 South Busey. I was a single Chicago South Sider against a Glen Ellyn posse. They had a peculiar way of talking; I had to retrain daily to keep from talking like them. The Seatons amazed me. They had subscriptions to Bly’s Fifties and then SixtiesNYRB, and they ordered books from Blackwell’s when it was only in Oxford. I think they even had an overdraft account. I stayed at Illinois until 1970, but Jim went on to do a degree in Classics (comp lit classics) at Iowa, so I lost touch. Then one day he appeared on campus in the mid-seventies, starting in Humanities and ending up in English. Jim described himself as a political liberal and cultural conservative. If you are true to yourself you have to pay, and he paid. I honor that. It’s a good custom to commemorate someone with a poem, and thank Jim one last time for Robert Bly:

“When William Stafford Died”

Well, water goes down the Montana gullies. 
“I’ll just go around this rock and think
About it later.” That’s what you said. 
When death came, you said, “I’ll go there.”

There’s no sign you’ll come back. Sometimes 
My father sat up in the coffin and was alive again. 
But I think you were born before my father, 
And the feet they made in your time were lighter.

One dusk you were gone. Sometimes a fallen tree 
Holds onto a rock, if the current is strong. 
I won’t say my father did that, but I won’t say 
He didn’t either. I was watching you both.

If all a man does is to watch from the shore, 
Then he doesn’t have to worry about the current. 
But if affection has put us into the stream, 
We have to agree to where the water goes.

—Professor William Johnsen

I had the privilege of working with Jim Seaton for close to thirty years. I knew him almost entirely as a colleague; we were not close outside of Morrill (or Wells) Hall. As Ken Harrow notes, Jim was intensely critical of attacks on the western canon. Twice, I spent more than a year with him in meetings and conversations about revising our own curriculum, first in the 1992 revision (accompanying the University’s shift to the semester system) and then in the 2010 revision. He was passionately committed to the value of the tradition of great books, and he was determined to keep the department from falling into what he saw as the abyss of relativism. I remember him, more than once, just shaking his head with wry bemusement at the direction of things during a meeting (or, more often, after a vote on some aspect of the curriculum which he opposed). But with his determination came a respect for others and a deep knowledge of literature and culture. Jim was always collegial, always considerate, always kind.

Jim was a traditional humanist, with a rock-solid foundation in the classics. His first book was on Virgil, his last book (published by Cambridge University Press) on contemporary theory; in between he wrote and taught with passion and conviction on everything from Homer to Santayana to Harold Bloom. He frequently reviewed books for The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal, public humanities work of which he was very proud.

Jim fought those local battles over curriculum with the same measure of commitment and passion that he fought earlier battles, before I knew him. He was a person with great and deeply-felt integrity. He was true to himself, as Bill Johnsen put it, and he sometimes paid a price for it.

In the fall semester of 2016, Jim and I happened to be put back-to-back in the same classroom in Berkey Hall. The transition period was over lunch hour, and we were both in the building for a second class later in the day, so we spent a large handful of lunch periods chatting about literature and life. I’m glad we did. Jim was working on a number of things, even as he fought what became his final battle, and we shared thoughts about the shape of careers, the value of our work, and the meaning of it all. He was unflaggingly generous, kind, and thoughtful in our final conversations, ever interested in the give-and-take of ideas and gently ruminative about his own work.

Willa Cather, one of Jim’s favorite novelists—she, too, was out of step with her contemporaries at times—used a quotation from Virgil, another of Jim’s favorite writers, as an epigraph to one of her novels: “Optima dies … prima fugit.” Jim had his own romantic streak, believing that the academy’s best days had indeed fled, but to the end of his life he himself remained passionate about ideas and devoted to instruction. He continued to have great days—some of his best days—late in his career, teaching with great enthusiasm and publishing with the best presses.

I will miss him.

—Professor Stephen Arch

I remember Jim as a terrific colleague in the department. He was always ready to engage in conversation on issues about which he cared deeply, always willing to listen to opinions different than his own while expressing his own views with passion and candor. He could always be counted on to come to department events and talks, to ask questions, to engage in dialogue. This is what I remember most about Jim—his willingness to engage in a manner that was in complete accord with his philosophical views on civil discourse. A stalwart citizen of the department, he will be missed.

—Professor Patrick O’Donnell

Being a relatively recent addition the department, I’m afraid I didn’t know Jim well, but always enjoyed running into him. An anecdote that perhaps speaks to some of what’s already been said here by colleagues with longer histories: When we voted a few years back to expand the Department of English’s curriculum in Film Studies into a BA of its own, which I was shepherding through, he was the only faculty member to abstain from the vote (instead of affirming it). Though unsaid, this was for disciplinary reasons—the watering down of the department’s literary focus—which  I understand and respect; disciplines matter. Yet almost always when we would chat, in the halls or at departmental functions, he  wanted to talk cinema, film noir specifically, which he was an avid viewer of and in fact more knowledge about than myself, even though I teach it with some frequency. To me, that was Jim, brilliant, principled, surprising, and always willing to engage. I’m sorry our conversations have now come to a close.

—Professor Joshua Yumibe

I always respected his commitment to excellence and his refusal to bend to the whims of political correctness. God rest his soul. P.S. I also remember Jim for setting tough screens when we played basketball on the weekends. As I recall, Jim was once a wrestler.

—Professor Emeritus Robert Uphaus

I will always remember Jim’s abiding kindness and gentleness of soul, which he combined with a fierce dedication to literature and the values that have shaped it over the centuries.

—Professor Emerita M. Teresa Tavormina

James and I have been friends and colleagues for some forty-five years, since the days when we both taught in the old Humanities Department. I always enjoyed James’s sense of humor. During many a tedious committee or department meeting we would exchange glances whenever we felt that matters had reached a point of absurdity or whenever it seemed that we had been through all of that before. Somehow we always knew the exact moment when the glance had to be exchanged. I always admired Jim for his dedication to his teaching and for his brave defense of the Canon. I also appreciated his eloquent writing style. He was old-fashioned, it is true, but he instilled in generations of his students a love of literature and a method for opening it up.

—Professor William Vincent

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Jim for eleven years. On committees, in meetings, and at events, I learned much from him about what it means to be a good departmental citizen, public intellectual, and literary scholar. His enthusiasm for teaching literature was unrivaled and inspiring. Although he was not my official “mentor,” he was there for me as a young scholar and writer, attending poetry readings and supporting the creative writing program. He was a wonderful colleague and human being, and I’ll miss him deeply.

—Professor Robin Silbergleid

 I got to know Sandra Seaton, Jim’s wife, before I knew Jim very well. We bonded over her rich play, Music History; for a couple of semesters she came in to meet with my students in English courses (for which they read the play). I soon learned that Jim was a staunch defender of the literary canon and often felt the odd man out in the English Department (as he would in most). He always spoke his mind but in an easy-going way. He gave the impression of being slightly bemused by the turn taken by most of his colleagues and the humanities in general. It didn’t feel personal. He made a point of extending his encouragement to me when I was serving as interim chair, giving me the sense I wasn’t screwing things up too badly—things were going to be just fine. It was gratifying to see him get the recognition from colleagues he had earned from his final book, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism. It was clear how hard he was working to reach students in his classroom; his evaluations showed that he was getting through.

The place he spent the most time with me was on the tennis court. He was part of a novice foursome that occasionally needed a sub. He found out I could swing the racket but not so well as to be out of synch with the others. The four of us would play a set or two in a unique rotation system, making sure to flip the score cards on the court after each game. Unforced errors were not uncommon and I learned to take them in stride. When he flubbed a shot Jim would look at his racket in the same bemused way he seemed to regard contemporary academic life: not worth fretting over, slightly amusing really, and never personal.

Last fall his curly locks were gone, but he was out there hitting about as well as ever. His son Jim told me he was still in the classroom through spring break. I find it very hard to believe he is gone—so suddenly. It is a painful loss to his colleagues, his devoted students, and most of all to Sandra and their four children.

—Professor David Stowe

Back when the English department was housed in Morrill Hall (now torn down), my office was near the staircase. One day I heard someone—turned out to be Prof. Seaton—yelling, “you can’t do that, that isn’t yours!” Of course, I lept up and ran to the staircase to see what the commotion was. Prof. Seaton was running (he was in very good shape) after a thief who had stolen his laptop right from his office when he stepped across the hall for a couple of minutes! He ran across Grand River and yelled at a couple in front of the then Barnes & Noble to stop the thief, and they did! He got his laptop back, which contained all of his notes and writing.

I will miss Professor Seaton. He was principled and kind.

—Ruth Mowry, Undergraduate Advisor

Our colleagues have noted many aspects of Jim as a teacher and scholar. I thought I might send along a few words. He was a kind, thoughtful, generous person. I can only echo what others have said, so here is one particular memory that seems more evocative than I can say:

When we were moving from Morrill Hall over to Wells, Jim had been putting it off as long as possible, partly out of a general reluctance that we all shared to face the inevitable, partly out of a unwillingness to face the herculean task of imposing order on the general clutter that was his office. The impossibility of compressing all that was in that space into the small quarters we were moving to was too much. We laughed about it, and marveled as his equally herculean sons did the heavy lifting, knowing that amid this splendid chaos was a rich, intellectual life that had taken root and flourished there.

As David mentioned, Jim was also an avid tennis player, part of a foursome that loved him and will be diminished by his loss. In sorrow, I send my love to his family.

—Professor Stephen Rachman

I worked for 12 years in English, all of those years across the hall from Professor Seaton. I don’t have words about his scholarly achievements (although I know he had many!) but I can tell you that he was one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever worked with here on campus. I am compelled to simply mention that I know how much he will be missed not only by his colleagues but also by staff members and friends as well – for being a truly fine individual. It was a pleasure to work with him for the years I spent in Morrill Hall.

—Lucille Yurgelaitis, Assistant to Chairperson Department of Art, Art History, and Design (formerly Assistant to Chairperson in Department of English)

When I received the news of James Seaton’s death, my heart sank. To say that James was important in my professional life and beyond is an understatement of the highest order. As director of my dissertation, he never stopped believing that I could manage a family, hold two jobs, each in a different city, and still give the attention to coursework and research required to complete my degree.

He kept me accountable all those years, and made me a better writer in the process.  As a mentor and professor, his enthusiasm was contagious, a quality that I have tried to emulate in my own teaching. Even though we infrequently saw each other, I thought abut him often and will continue to do so with the fondest of memories. 

—Professor Emeritus C. Baars Bultman