Denis Donoghue: a memoir of the man behind the books

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Denis Donoghue: a memoir of the man behind the books


Denis Donoghue (1928-2021), the youngest of four surviving children, was the son of a stern and silent father, a Catholic policeman in the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary. (The father of the poet Geoffrey Hill was also a policeman.) Denis, a Man Mountain, was six feet, seven inches tall, a victim of low beams, short beds and tight plane seats. He resented other boys taunting him about his height by asking, How’s the air up there?” Despite his altitude and great potential as a basketball player, he was not athletic.

The opposite of a milk-toast academic, Denis had big facial features, huge hands and feet, and . . . (I never saw him naked). He married Frances Rutledge, a university graduate, former airline stewardess and schoolteacher, in 1951. Like an Old Testament prophet, the learned, witty and amusing Irishman had eight children in sixteen years. His oldest son David (born 1952), who looks very like Denis, was the Irish ambassador to Germany and Russia, and deputy foreign minister. His youngest daughter, Emma (born 1969), is a successful lesbian novelist. Not all his children were distinguished. On November 30, 1992 he wrote to me that one of them was charged on 3 drug counts—possession, possession with a view to supply others, making one s home available for consumption thereof. He was found guilty of 1 and 2, but not of three; received the maximum fine in each case but not a jail sentence.”

Denis moved to America after teaching at University College Dublin and leaving a 1965-66 university lectureship at King s College, Cambridge. He disliked the snobbery in Cambridge where, as an Irish Catholic outsider with humble origins and Dublin degrees, he did not fit in and was unhappy. He returned to Dublin for a few years, and in 1980, after turning down a job at Harvard, he was eagerly courted by New York University. Denis told me that the dean kept raising the offer as they left his office and walked to the parking garage. When he said that Denis might have difficulty finding a nice flat near Washington Square, he replied, No, I won t.” “Why not?” “Because you will find it for me”— and they finally agreed on terms. Though his apartment was on the 17th floor, he complained about the noise of traffic and sirens at night. As Henry James Professor, he taught three classes in the fall semester and was free to write from Christmas until the following September.

Our friendship began in July 1975 when I favourably reviewed two of Denis early books, Connoisseurs of Chaos (1966) and The Ordinary Universe (1968) for James Fitzsimmons Lugano Review . When the journal quietly folded without the alcoholic editor informing me, I asked Denis, then teaching in Dublin, where I might place the review. I sent him a copy, but it was too late to publish it.

It was difficult to meet since we lived far apart. He was only in New York for one term, and frequently traveled back to Dublin and to give lectures around the world. Reviving our friendship after Denis had moved to NYU, we met and spent time together at the Orwell conference at the Library of Congress in Washington in 1984, and flew back to London together. We saw each other seven more times in Boulder, New York, Boston and San Francisco.

When I invited him to lecture at the University of Colorado in November 1987, he asked about good walks in Boulder and thought he might return for outdoor holidays. He was interested in abandoned mine shafts, now merely holes in the ground. Denis was shocked as we drove home at midnight and I swerved off the road while trying to run over a shiny-eyed raccoon. I had a vendetta against raccoons, rare in New York, who had torn a hole in my roof and invaded my attic.

In 1995, while we were walking through Greenwich Village on our first meeting in New York, a young man jumped up from a caf é table and exclaimed how much my literature course had meant to him. Denis claimed I knew our route and had planted the student there to impress him. He then suddenly disappeared, and later explained, The cause of my abrupt departure was a most demanding call of nature that could not be resisted, postponed, or otherwise dealt with. Had to be obeyed pronto .”

Macdougal Street, Greenwich Village (Alamy)

It was difficult to talk to Denis at the Partisan Review biography conference in Boston in October 2000, at which I was urgently summoned to replace” Saul Bellow, a last-minute dropout. After my lecture many people kept asking me about how to write biographies. I wanted to help them as much as I could and it took a long time to answer all their questions. Just as we moved to a corner for a private chat, I was unexpectedly called to chair a panel.

At dinner I was placed between a prominent New York intellectual ” and Conor Cruise O Brien, the Irish critic and editor of the Observer who had been a United Nations official in the Congo. I was very keen to talk to him about his colleague and Hemingway s friend Gustavo Durán, a Loyalist general in the Spanish Civil War. But the intellectual ” was unbelievably boorish and stupid, and kept interrupting my talk with Conor. He repeatedly pointed to his wine glass and told the waitress, Fill it right up to the brim, to the brim.” He then turned to me and drunkenly said, You re the one. You did it. I knew it. I told them. You re the one who did the Hemingway. I told them. You re the one.” After dinner Denis and I, finally hoping for a quiet talk, retired for drinks in the surprisingly seedy Harvard Club on Commonwealth Avenue. Once again the intellectual ” blundered in and interrupted our conversation. He brought his latest typescript, shoved it into Denis lap and ordered him to read it immediately while I rush to the toilet. We ll talk about it as soon as I get back . That pretty much ruined the remains of the day.

Conor Cruise O’Brien, with his wife (Alamy)

I was pleased when Denis wrote to ask, “What about lunch in S.F., pal? Any chance? Say yes and where and when.” On the first of his three visits to San Francisco we ate at an Italian restaurant, and I showed him the bison in Golden Gate Park and the seals on the rocks in the Pacific Ocean. Next time, we had a Vietnamese lunch and toured the shops in the Ferry Building. As we were walking along the Embarcadero, Denis suddenly became terribly dizzy and nearly fainted from the lunchtime wine, hot sun and long walk. My wife steadied him to a nearby bar stool while I ran to fetch my car a few streets away. I offered to drive him back to the house of his daughter Barbara, a computer company executive who lived down the Peninsula in San Mateo. But he insisted on taking the train and didn t even want us to wait till it arrived at the station. He complained about his materialistic American grandchildren who wanted horses, cars and other expensive gifts. Raising eight children on an academic salary had made him careful about money. He later apologetically wrote, I hope my fainting fit did not ruin your afternoon. I had, as always, a great time with you.” On our last meeting in San Francisco, he was startled and amused when I turned up for lunch at a Chinese restaurant wearing a priest s collar. He said I looked like Bing Crosby in Going My Way and wrote, I still laugh aloud at the sight of dog-collared Rev. Meyers coming into that restaurant.”

Brilliantly engaged with modern poetry and literary criticism, Denis was well aware of his major role in the academic hierarchy. He had strong professional connections in Ireland, England and America, and always waited to be asked (like a debutante) to lecture and review. He quarrelled with Robert Silvers about delayed publication of his work, then made up with him and continued his longstanding contributions to the New York Review of Books. He didn t like the Irish historical novels of Thomas Flanagan or the poetry of Paul Muldoon, and disagreed with the politics of Conor Cruise O Brien, who opposed the Irish nationalists and defended the union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

I did not share his admiration for the literary critics Kenneth Burke and RP Blackmur. I thought Denis’ need to be au courant by dragging in the trendy but obfuscating philosophers Emmanuel Levinas, J ürgen Habermas and [Goddam] Gadamer, distorted the effect of his own incisive analyses. He would begin an essay with his usual clarity, then swerve into impenetrable abstraction that nearly ruined his argument. On June 6, 2014 I responded to his book On Metaphor : I wonder how you can actually read so many theoretical books that I find impenetrably boring? How does Paul Ricoeur’s ‘the ontological vehemence of the (metaphorical) is ” ’ explain anything? He desperately needs a further mode of configuration” to make it intelligible. I’d like to have more repeated juxtapositions of corpuscular vibrations if they have the sexual meaning that I think they have.” As Byron told Coleridge, I wish you would explain your explanation.” I was pleased when he asked me to edit his essay on Elizabeth Bishop, later published in the Hopkins Review (Summer 2015). He wrote, Many many thanks. Your bishopy comments are a great help. You have a sharp eye, pal.” (In the past I edited essays by Marshall McLuhan, Donald Greene and Joseph Frank.)

Denis liked to pretend and tease that I was the great writer, publishing a major book every year, while he was merely turning out trifles. In several letters he wrote, Your most recent offprint on the Zulu in ULYSSES was v. interesting. I assumed that JJ made up the damn thing. How you come up with these things, I can t imagine. But you do. . .  I m always amazed by the verve of your writing, your force of presence among the words.” I would have liked to see his favourable opinion in print, but he never reviewed my books. He also said, with comic exaggeration, God, man, I can t keep up with you. Slow down for a slow friend s sake. Everywhere I turn, you re there. I can t pick up a journal but you re there: bold as brass. More Conrad; more Lawrence; and now (Jesus!) you ve virtually finished Eddy Poe the Drunk. Too much.” He warned me, as I sought a better job, that chairmen were wary of my work and don t want the company of someone who has published six times more than anyone else on the faculty: it s too embarrassing.”

Denis did admit that his books were mainly collections of lectures and essays, and that he d never produced a big volume — like Richard Ellmann s James Joyce — on a major writer. He joked about his minor work on Walter Pater and called that timid sodomite Willy the Wanker.” The greatest moment in Pater s eventless life was touching the behind of his barber. Denis allowed that Henry James was right about WP; he wrote his books and didn t otherwise take the trouble to exist.” At the same time Denis told me that he was giving prestigious and lucrative lectures from Jerusalem to Venice, Sydney to Trinidad. He was 11 years older than me, knew much more than I did about music, Latin, theology and abstract philosophy, and wrote criticism that was valued at a time when biography was disprized in the academic world.

I received 75 letters from Denis and 27 of his inscribed books. He addressed me variously as Jeffers, Jefferson, Pal, Amigo, Master, Maestro, Cher Maître, Effendi, Voltaire (to his Diderot), Meister Eckhart, Rev. Meyers, and Tall, Robust and Outspoken Jeffrey. I deliberately confused his Dublin with Alfred Döblin; and asked if his Irish house Gaybrook” was a homosexual hangout, wondered whose testicles depended from nearby Ballsbridge and what sexual antics took place on the Irish Aer Cunnilingus. We filled our letters with puns and jokes, limericks and literary gossip; with news of our lectures and travels, editors and agents, questions and quotations, ideas for books and essays. We exchanged books that poured off the press and responded to each other s work.

He also commented on other writers: I ve just been reading Lyndall Gordon s [sympathetic] new book on Eliot. God, what a monster, what a creep! How could such a ravishingly great poet be in every ordinary respect so morally crude, insensitive, thuggish!” I thought he was too severe on Eliot, his intellectual hero, who for many years had to do slavish work and put up with a crazy and vindictive wife. Denis thought Paul de Man had pro-Nazi beliefs for careerist motives: The simplest explanation is that he was a brash, ambitious young man who thought the Germans had the War all sewn up.” When I sent him my book on my friend, the Canadian painter Alex Colville, he replied, my first difficulty is that I ve never seen a painting by A.C., therefore have only the vaguest notion of your comments. . . . The man sounds scary with his guns and fast cars.” But he could have instantly googled Alex s paintings, and he completely misjudged the character of that extremely gentle and cultivated man. In a very different mood he revealed a sexual adventure: If I knew you were going to lunch with [Professor X], I d have said: Don t mention my name, for God s sake, he s still really jealous of my involvement with his spouse. ’ ”

Except for the professor and critic Richard Poirier, who died in 2009, Denis never mentioned any close friends in Ireland, among colleagues and students at NYU, or even with his potential soulmates, the congenial Irish cops in Manhattan. So in many cathartic letters he confided in me about his personal problems: his many medical crises, some of which kept him in hospital for as long as long as ten days, illness and legal troubles of his children, his secret love affair and catastrophic confrontation with his wife.

While he was teaching in America Frances remained in Dublin, but sometimes came to New York. Though air travel was hard for such a tall man, he spent a lot of time and money returning to Ireland to see his wife and some of his children every month. He was very concerned about what people in Dublin thought of his marriage, and for years maintained the fiction that he and Frances were happily married.

With his wife in Ireland and on his own when visiting the National Humanities Center in Durham, North Carolina, Denis became involved with the much younger Melissa Malouf (born 1951). Previously married to the literary critic Frank Lentriccia, she taught writing at Duke University. On November 30, 1992 he wrote me, Yes, there is another woman’. No name available yet. But I ve told Frances about her, name and all, and that we want to be together . No more subterfuge. Well, the consequence was predictable.” Still struggling to appease his wife three years later, he wrote, on April 24,1995, I went to Dublin in the hope (yet again) of normalising my relation to my wife, but the visit was horrendous. A catastrophe. Since then, I ve been sunk in depression.” Denis travelled back and forth from New York to the home he bought for Melissa in Durham, and when he retired in about 1998 he moved down there. He never explained how he reconciled his Catholic belief in sin and hell with this liaison.

In May 2007, he weakly acquiesced when Melissa cancelled the long-awaited visit of my wife and I to Durham, my first chance to talk to Denis for several days without interruption. He claimed that she had bought their plane tickets to a conference in Canada without telling him. She later said, unconvincingly, that she d forgotten to put the date on her calendar. On May 16 I testily wrote him, Weird that Melissa would book your trip, without consulting you, at exactly the time we are supposed to visit. This, and the lack of an invitation to stay with you, suggests she was not too keen for us to come. Perhaps she wants you all to herself, though I had no intention of abducting you.”

Denis adored Melissa, suspended his critical faculties where she was concerned and praised her mediocre stories. He claimed, after she had attended two routine administrative meetings on the same day, that she worked terribly hard. In September 2009 he sent me a detailed account of how he d nearly collapsed in Kennedy airport, but soldiered on to Ireland and to his daughter s house in Port Vendres, France. Melissa was 23 years younger than him and he expected her to take care of him (he said she would come through in a medical crisis), but when she got cancer in October 2015 he had to reverse roles and look after her. Frances developed dementia in 2012 and died in a nursing home six years later. After 26 years together, he and Melissa finally married in December 2018, a week after his 90th birthday.

Denis was an intelligent, lively and amusing friend, but not a generous one. He did not help me, after I left my salaried teaching job and moved to Berkeley in 1992, when he was in a powerful position to do so. He did not contribute to my edited collections of original essays or invite me to lecture at NYU when I was in New York, and never recommended me as a replacement for work he didn t want to do. He refused to provide a blurb for my life of John Huston, despite the director s strong connection to Ireland, and explained why he could not publicly praise my Somerset Maugham: I can t do it. Two reasons: (1) Everybody knows that you and I are pals. It would be interpreted as backscratching. (2) I loathe WSM, and couldn t bear the notion of reading any of him again.” But everybody” didn t know we were pals, who do recommend each other s work, and he would have to read only my biography, not the works of Maugham. He did, however, recommend me for grants and provide a blurb for my Privileged Moments. He also wrote to me, The JF Powers chapter brought me close to tears of appreciation.” I greatly valued Denis comradeship, did not count on his benefactions and needed no more than what he gave me.

I initiated our friendship and tried hard to maintain it. I invited him to lecture at Colorado and (removing the wooden end of his bed) put him up at my house. I wrote a blurb for The Old Moderns (1993), suggested meetings in New York and Durham, dedicated Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs (1988) to him and took care of him when he suddenly fell ill in San Francisco. Certain patterns emerged from our friendship: the desire to meet and the difficulties involved, the covert rivalry when he held all the cards, and his confiding in me about his personal problems. I missed Denis obituaries and only learned about his death by chance on the web, more than a year later. Considering his serious health problems, it s amazing that he lived to 92. Just before his death he finished a book on the late novels of Henry James.


Warrenpoint (1990), Denis’   autobiography, tells the story of his early life that he and I rarely discussed, and includes two quite different books. The first is a beautifully written account of the growth of a critic s mind as he emerges from an ordinary family and uneventful childhood in the seaside town Warrenpoint. He lived there, on the southeast border of Northern Ireland, until he left to study at University College Dublin in 1946. It had a population of 2,000, half Catholic, half Protestant, sharply divided in politics and religion. His own story is awkwardly combined with a long detour into Irish history from medieval to modern, interwoven with many erudite quotations from his commonplace book, which give intellectual weight to the account of his childhood. But he offers no transitions to the quotes, which have many words in Latin, French, Italian and German. Like a train running off the tracks, he constantly digresses and interrupts the narrative.

Denis’  mother, a terrible cook and shadowy figure, suffers from epileptic fits and soon fades out of the book. He idealises and idolises his namesake and father, Denis Donoghue Sr, who dominates the memoir. Father grew up on a poor sheep farm in the south and had almost no formal education. Broad-shouldered and fit, with erect posture and military strut, the taciturn police sergeant doesn t read or go to concerts or the pictures. He fears only constipation and is obsessed with his potions of cod-liver oil and bowel movements as well as with the belt and boots of his smart uniform.

As a Catholic in Northern Ireland, he could not be promoted above the rank of sergeant. But he was an important man in town, commanding fifteen regular and part-time police officers whose main purpose was to control the Catholics. He was in charge of explosives, but never used them, and only fired his rifle to kill deer. Denis states that during the summer the Catholic and Protestant parades annually incited political passions,” but also says that the demonstrations were pretty quiet and his father merely took the names of Catholics who wore provocative insignia.

He dealt with petty crimes such as sheep stealing, but when a man was murdered he did not find the assassin and no one was ever arrested or charged with the killing”. When World War Two broke out he had to courteously arrest the only Italian in town. The innocent fellow merely sold fish and chips and ice cream, but had to sit out the long conflict in a Belfast jail. Denis saw his father s façade fall when he tried to arrest but failed to subdue a drunken sailor, losing his cap in the scuffle and with it his dignity and authority. Father justly administered the law and gave accurate evidence in court. Denis does not describe his father s relations with his subordinates or any confrontation with violence.

Though determined to get a better future for his children, he owned only one book, the self-help Guide to Careers that told him how to apply for a job. His hopes rest mainly on his youngest son. Denis’  two sisters are not mentioned, and his older brother and exact opposite Tim, with whom he shares a bed, was a poor student and good athlete. Father mends Denis’  shoes, and they take arduous 120-mile bicycle trips, with comforting stops for tea, to the family farm in the south. Denis describes him as physically and morally upright, but rigid, inflexible and humourless, and it s hard to share his admiration for this rather dull fellow. Despite his limitations, Denis calls him the rock of ages,” declares that his father was the source of strength for me” and calls himself my father s son”.

Warrenpoint (Alamy)

Denis’  self-portrait is more convincing than his account of his father. His first memory is the death from pneumonia of his infant brother John, aged fourteen months, when Denis was five years old. He doesn t mention Seamus Heaney s poignant and apposite poem, Mid-Term Break,  on the death of his younger brother, hit by a car:

 “ Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple, / He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot. / No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear. / A four-foot box, a foot for every year.” There were no books in the living quarters of the police barracks, smothered by the pervasive smell of damp linoleum.

Though his paternal grandmother was tiny and father only five feet, nine inches tall, Denis shot up to an alarming height. He found his towering body permanently misshapen, burdensome and wrong. Though not a vessel of sexual sin, it was a monstrous container ” for his soul. He loathed his body and found it humiliating to be awkward, too tall, lanky, bad at games and athletics, especially in comparison with Tim s prowess”. Quite unexpectedly (like the lame Byron swimming in the sea) he was an excellent dancer on roller skates.

The clumsy ten-year-old lad suffered another humiliation when he had to push the heavy new wireless across the main square on a tea trolley. The wireless was fortunately uninjured, but he absentmindedly crashed into a wire rope around a construction site and fell down. He vividly remembered the pain of tearing my hand [on the wire], my crash on the ground, the smell of fresh tar [on the road], and the laughter of one of the workers when he saw me falling”. He also recalled how much he hated that man.

He is wickedly funny about his unprincipled principal Mr Clancy, who drank at the local hotel till he was well drunk, then came back to school to assault Miss McDonald”. Familiar with this recurrent threat, she barricaded herself in the classroom. Clancy finally committed suicide by drinking the sulphuric acid in the chemistry lab (motive not explained). Denis was bad at mathematics and, like many bored victims, didn t see any reason to study it. But he learned Irish, despite its difficult grammar, erratic spelling and three main dialects. He took up the violin and, with big fingering fingers, learned to play it badly. He had a good boy-soprano voice, sang solo in the church choir and studied German Lieder at the Irish Academy of Music. Despite his good voice and endless ambition, he didn t have enough talent to pursue a professional career. He was seriously ill for a year and removed from school when his chronic coughing revealed incipient tuberculosis.

Emphasising the sectarian split at Warrenpoint, Denis un-ecumenically remembers, a Protestant was as alien to me as a Muslim”. He claimed he could spot a Prod at a hundred yards in Northern Ireland, walking with an air of possession and authority. The pure young lad had to invent little sins to offer something for the priest to absolve in confession. Indoctrinated as a young child before he could think for himself, he read only the New Testament and was taught to regard the Old as [reflecting] the dark side of life, an occult document”. Nevertheless, he was fully satisfied with the dogmatic character of the Church. He raises some important theological questions, which have troubled many believers, but doesn t bother to provide any answers: Why did God impose His law upon Adam, knowing that he would break it?” “What exactly did Adam and Eve do that was so terrible?” “Why, if God is omnipotent, does He allow evil to persist and thrive in the world?”

Denis’  family moved south when his father retired. After a strenuous day of dipping sheep he died of a heart attack, aged 69, in 1957. Thirty years later the IRA bombed the police barracks. Denis occasionally refers to but doesn t describe the events of his later life. He studied in Dublin, lived in sordid digs and buried himself in the National Library. After graduation he took a safe but unappealing job as an administrative officer in the department of Finance and was music critic for the Irish Times. He married Frances on his 23rd birthday, quit his job and taught English at University College Dublin.

Denis describes his method of interspersing a flood of quotations into half the short sections of the 193-page Warrenpoint: I always had a pen and a notebook in hand. If I found something interesting, I d want to make a note of it.” He admits the weakness of his pedantic procedure: This was a pretentious way of reading and that reading was raiding. . . . It didn t trouble me that the internal life was a tissue of quotations and allusions, the intelligence of other minds.” He also goes in for outrageous ex cathedra assertions, for example exclaiming that the Jews in Israel have shown themselves just as merciless as Arabs or Germans or Japanese”. The Israelis have retaliated for continuous violence and military invasions, but they have never, never practiced mass extermination like the Japanese in Nanking and the Nazis in Europe.

With intellectual overkill Denis includes his learned and perceptive comments on 85 different authors ranging from Heraclitus, Cicero and Augustine to Hans Blumenberg, Jean-François Lyotard and the well-named Jean Dutourd, with recurrent quotes from his three touchstones: WB Yeats, Wallace Stevens and TS Eliot. Suddenly he erupts with, Mauriac writes somewhere, maybe in God and Mammon, that the only tragedy is not to be a saint.” But Denis doesn t explain how to be a saint and why this is the only tragedy. Sometimes he passes over opaque passages, like one from St é phane Mallarm é , in bewildered silence: Visions are the imperious form of cognition; vue is the heuristic form which is content that the objects of its attention will remain indeterminate, as if attentiveness were content not to have an object.” Only the French can get away with this stuff and Denis has no right to inflict it on his defenceless audience.

In Warrenpoint Denis allows readers to witness his own intelligent mind communing with itself. Unlike his puritanical father, he was great fun and has, in his life and books, the quintessential Irish qualities: endearing charm, lively conversation and good humour.

  Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, received an Award in Literature to honor exceptional achievement” from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He gave the Seymour Lectures in Biography at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. Thirty-three of his fifty-four books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. He s recently published Thomas Mann s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love (2015) and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes —and a Spy (2018).

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