Remembering Tom Clayton

The Regents Professor was a beloved, decorated teacher and influential scholar
Head and shoulders of person with grey short hair and mustache and light skin, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and dark suit with white collar shirt

Tom Clayton, longtime member of the English department and Regents Professor, passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family, on August 9, 2023. He was 90. Professor Clayton taught at the University from 1968 to his retirement in 2015 and was part of a strong cadre of Shakespearians in the department. He also taught a number of other courses that would become all his own: “Classics of Literary Criticism/Classic Critical Theory and Practice”; “Metaphysical and Cavalier Poetry”; “Practical Criticism”; “Athol Fugard”; “Fin de siècle Wit in a Jugular Vein: Bierce, S. Crane, and Wilde”; and courses on the poetry of George Herbert and Andrew Marvell.

“Tom was an academic star,” says former English Chair Ellen Messer-Davidow. “More importantly, he was a kind colleague, and he was well remembered by his former students, many of whom continued to stay in touch with him after leaving for their own careers.” Janis Lull and Linda Anderson, in the introduction to the Festschrift they prepared for Clayton, observe that his mentor at Oxford, Dame Helen Gardner, praised his “‘flair for scholarly investigation’ and added that ‘he is also an enthusiastic teacher with a great interest in the problems of teaching.’” Clayton’s commitment to instruction was recognized with both the University’s top teaching awards: the Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education (1982) and the Award for Outstanding Contributions to Graduate and Professional Education (1999).

Professor Clayton’s main academic expertise was textual criticism, and his work addressing the many textual cruces in Shakespeare and others was known for being imaginative and unconventional. The chief monuments of Tom’s scholarship are his Oxford English Text edition of The Non-Dramatic Works of Sir John Suckling; the Oxford Standard Edition of The Cavalier Poets; The “Hamlet” First Published (Q1, 1603): Origins, Form, Intertextualities; The “Shakespearean” Addition in “The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore”: Some Aids to Scholarly and Critical Shakespearean Studies; and many editorial and literary critical items on Shakespeare, Marvell, Donne, Suckling, and others that have appeared in academic journals and book chapters. Many of these latter continue to be cited today. His work found recognition in a plethora of academic honors, including ACLS, Danforth, and Guggenheim fellowships and the aforementioned Festschrift, containing essays by former students and colleagues near and far, “A Certain Text”: Close Readings and Textual Studies on Shakespeare and Others in Honor of Thomas Clayton.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota summa cum laude (in addition to being a member of the Minnesota’s national champion quiz bowl team), a Rhodes Scholarship took him to Oxford. His studies there were interrupted by a stint in the US Army, during which he was stationed in Germany, but he returned to Oxford to take his DPhil in 1960. Subsequently, he taught for periods at Yale and UCLA before coming home to English at Minnesota. Aside from his department teaching, he put his longstanding affection for Graeco-Roman literature and solid Latin (he had studied Classical literature as an undergraduate at Oxford) to use, teaching regularly in Minnesota’s Classical Civilization program of the Classics department. When Classics underwent a restructuring to broaden its range into ancient Mediterranean studies, Clayton became a founding member of a new departmental configuration called Classical and Near Eastern Studies (CNES). His regular teaching duties nearly every year included courses in English and CNES.

In 1999, the University of Minnesota selected Clayton as Regents Professor, the highest recognition given by the University to a faculty member. His service work for the University and beyond included more than two decades in the CLA Assembly and University Senate. One consistent attention was his work on the regional Rhodes Scholar selection committee. Clayton knew the worlds the Rhodes Scholarship could open, and he worked hard to make sure that particular opportunity remained available for bright students from our area.

Professor Clayton “will be remembered fondly by his many colleagues and former students,” says Professor Messer-Davidow. When she was chair, the department faced disruptive renovations in Lind Hall and a strenuous campaign lobbying the State Legislature for funds to renovate Pillsbury Hall as its permanent home. “At faculty meetings on all of these projects, Tom always spoke up to support them and me,” she recalls. “In fact, he took to giving me a reassuring hug after the meetings.”

"I inherited the large 'Introduction to Shakespeare' course from him," says Professor Katherine Scheil, "and he was renowned for his rigorous demands on students. In turn, students respected his deep learning and appreciated the fact that he had faith in their ability to succeed. He was especially supportive of graduate students; in 2016, he paid for two of my graduate students to attend the World Shakespeare Congress in Stratford and London, knowing that this would be a major professional event that was likely unaffordable on a graduate student salary. Tom and I were both part of the International Shakespeare Association that meets in Stratford-on-Avon every other year, and Tom took great pleasure in introducing me to his favorite restaurants and sharing his often strong opinions about the latest Shakespeare productions. I will miss his wisdom and wit."

Professor Emerita Geneviève Escure describes her former colleague as “highly intelligent, humane, open-minded, and stimulating."

Beyond his classroom teaching, Clayton directed 16 PhDs to completion and co-advised countless others. Many of his former PhD and undergraduate students have written to his family describing the magnitude of his impact on their lives.

Clay Jenkinson, an alum who at Clayton’s urging applied for and won a Rhodes himself, writes, “He was the single most impressive person I ever met. He had a Vandyke beard and a rapier wit. The first time I encountered him, Mr. Clayton entered the small auditorium like a whirlwind, found the podium, and made several self-effacing asides, each with a grimace that might have been self-satisfied, but in fact was just his public and private style. He spoke at about double normal human speed, with a series of brief, learned digressions that evoked appreciative laughter from the cognoscenti in the room but soared right over my head. I was mesmerized. He was the embodiment of the life of the mind. Although he was wearing a dark suit and tie, he looked as if he had walked straight out of a Restoration drama. He wore several rings, one with a death’s head.”

Another Clayton student, Dan Hooley, previously wrote of Tom, “He always speaks to his students, takes the trouble to learn of the things important to their lives, makes certain they are possessed of every possible advantage in approaching the subject matter. And then he turns up the heat. Sitting through a Clayton lecture is at once (a little) scary, humbling, and exhilarating. Complacency is shattered.”

Yet, Hooley now adds, “Tom’s own authority was never as important as the welfare of his students. And he would frequently summon students to his office for a chat, sessions that were relaxed, lively, without agenda, and entirely fun.” To be sure the shy wouldn’t be put off, embroidered signs (pink, orange, and green letters, crafted by a favorite student) hung on his office door: “Clayton is in. Knock, even if you hear voices.”

Professor Clayton was not only a serious academic. His family life was full, with Ruth, his wife of many years until her death, and thereafter with Janice Derksen, as well as his four much-loved children, Pam, Katie, John, and David. He was a fan of The Clash and jazz. Notes Hooley, “He regularly dunned the New York Times and local papers with squibs and chidings and wit that surely mystified the poor editors who had to deal with them.” He traveled annually to London to see theater and meet up with old friends, some from his college days. He had friends around the world, but those from Winona and elsewhere in Minnesota were equally important to him, and he saw them regularly. He kept up a regular email banter all his retired life with his colleagues, former students, and friends, including a touching farewell posthumously sent to correspondents.

During his later years, if you were fortunate, you would meet Tom at one of the locals for talk and beer—his beer always British. And then, the heady and remarkable world of Tom Clayton would open up again.

The Department of English offers deepest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. A memorial celebration will be held at the West Wing Dining Room in Coffman Memorial Union the first week of October. Please email for details.

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