Gifford, Don (1919-2000)

Don C. Gifford, Professor of English and Class of 1956 Professor of American Studies Emeritus, died on May 22, 2000 at the age of 81.  Giff’s career was remarkable for both its variety and distinction.

Born in Schenectady in 1919, Giff earned his bachelor’s degree from Principia College in 1940, and pursued graduate studies at Cambridge University and at Harvard.

A conscientious objector at the start of World War II, Giff served as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service, attached to the British eighth army, in North Africa.  But eventually Giff decided to join the U.S. infantry, became a lieutenant, and fought in the bloody Italian campaign.

After teaching for several years at Mills College of Education in New York, Giff came to Williams in 1951; he retired in 1984.  During a leave in 1957-58, he was a consultant to the Arthur D. Little Firm in Cambridge on the psychology of invention.

Although various Cambridges beckoned him, Giff’s heart was always in Williamstown.  He and his wife, Honora, were deeply rooted in the local community, and actively involved in civic and charitable causes — including, perhaps most prominently, the Berkshire unit of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, which they co-chaired for many years.

Giff’s College service was wide-ranging and influential.  He co-directed the College’s summer program for business executives; he chaired the design committee for Sawyer Library; he was instrumental in creating comprehensive review of student residential life, producing a set of thoughtful recommendations so far ahead of their time that we are only now returning to embrace and implement them.

Giff was one of this faculty’s most celebrated and broadly-gauged writers.  He published poems and short stories; essays on education and child development; a book on the history of the Shakers, and a book on American architectural theory.

But the range and nature of his mind are perhaps best represented by his work in two other areas.

Giff was internationally recognized as one of the world’s most learned scholars of James Joyce’s works.  His two volumes of annotations for Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist, and Ulysses are the most essential and helpful tools ever created for the study of Joyce.  They are factually oriented and encyclopedic in scope, explaining everything from the Irish slang spoken by Joyce’s characters, to details of the political and theological debates that shaped Joyce’s imagination.  These volumes are prodigious forms of scholarship, and they reflect Giff’s fundamental conviction that, before we interpret, we need to know.

But interpret he did, most notably in a landmark book written in retirement and published in 1990.  The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception chronicles the way that technological developments from the industrial revolution onward — cameras and microscopes, airplanes and automobiles, electric lights and computers — have altered the ways our minds, eyes, and imaginations perceive and interpret the world.  By readers and reviewers alike, this book was universally praised for the freshness and acuity of its insights, and as a model of how interdisciplinary learning can inform cultural history.

As a colleague and a teacher, Giff embodied the best ideals of our profession: a passionate belief in the power and beauty of words; a brilliant capacity to articulate that belief in the classroom and on the page; and a deep generosity toward anyone, of any age or background, who wanted to learn what he knew.

When we would ask Giff to assess drafts of our books or essays, we’d get back trenchant criticism?criticism that was all the more valuable for Giff’s characteristic ability to enter into the terms and rationale of someone else’s argument, rather than to substitute his own.

As a fellow teacher, he was a sure source of good advice, and an inspired advocate of pedagogical innovation.  In the early 1980s, for example, when both we and our students were a little weary of the relentless historical march of our British literature survey, Giff proposed that we teach the course backwards.  “Start with Elliot,” he boldly declared, “and move back to Milton.”  Some of us were thrilled by the idea; the department chair then was not.

One couldn’t ask for a better colleague than Don Gifford.   But I have to admit, with the candor Giff always required, that at times he could be a little puzzling and inadvertently intimidating, though always in the most pleasurable of ways.  In one of my first conversations with him, it took me quite a while to realize that what Giff was calling “the unpleasantness with Hitler” was, in fact, a global reference to World War II.

His conversation was often marked by quirky forms of indirection, as when?at a scholarly conference in his honor here in 1995?he referred to the most famous of American speeches as “that two-minute business Lincoln got away with at Gettysburg.”

Giff also had an inclination, deeply rooted in his own modesty and sense of intellectual generosity, to refer obliquely to some exotic fact of complex concept, then to look you in the eye and simply declare: “You must know what I mean.”

The habits of thought and speech I’ve been describing made Giff a legendary classroom teacher.  His formidable learning and passionate devotion to the life of the mind elevated the sights of generations of Williams students, and his warmth and personal concern for students inspired their affection and loyalty.  With countless students, Giff and Honora forged deep and steady friendships that lasted a lifetime.

Giff didn’t achieve his success as a teacher by any easy route.  Our colleague from Political Science, Mac Brown, tells the story of entering a classroom one day, just after Giff had finished teaching Moby Dick.  Mac noticed that a student had inadvertently left his notebook behind; and being curious about what Giff had to say about the novel, Mac opened the notebook to the page dated for that day.  The student’s complete entry read as follows: “Moby Dick. Professor Gifford.  Oh My God.”

Was it Herman Melville, or Don Gifford, who left that student praying for divine intervention?  Probably a little of both.  For Giff, like the author he talked about that day, had an awe-inspiring ability to set our minds on higher things?to make us grapple with demanding texts, difficult ideas, and big questions.

And he did so, with unmatchable skill, by insisting that we approach the unknowable through the known; that we contemplate the metaphysical by studying the physical first; that?like Melville?we catalog and understand the facts and details of ordinary life before we theorize about their larger implications.  No one I ever met knew more facts that Giff did, and better knew how to deploy those facts, with great speed and imagination, in the service of great ideas.

You must know what I mean.

By Stephen Fix, Robert G. Scott ’68 Professor of English


Fix, Stephen. “Remarks in memory of Professor Don C. Gifford, 1919-2000.” Williams College Faculty Meeting Minutes. Williams College Archives.