ReadySteadyBlog

Sad news. AD Nuttall died yesterday. Harold Bloom once called Nuttall, "The best living English literary critic." A professor and fellow of New College, Oxford, Tony was the author of a number of books including Dead from the Waist Down (a long review of which, by Julia M. Klein, can be read at The Chronicle), Openings, The Common Sky, A New Mimesis and the forthcoming Shakespeare the Thinker.


Speaking about Dead from the Waist Down, Frank Kermode said:


I have now read A.D. Nuttall’s book with all the pleasure I expected. He is the most learned of literary critics, and his subject here is, appropriately, scholars and scholarship. I do not think I have ever read an account of Middlemarch and Casaubon as fine as this, and the studies of Mark Pattison and the other Casaubon, Isaac, are beautifully executed. The distinction he draws between scholarship and pedantry should be of great interest in the modern graduate school, and his love of Oxford is not mere sentiment but part of his scholarly character. I would recommend this book to all who seriously aspire to good scholarship.

Readers Comments

  1. I had the privilege of being taught by Tony Nuttall and his was an attitude to learning and to life which inspired huge affection in his students.

    His 5pm tutorials weren't complete without a glass of sherry in front of an open fire - yet he would also tell stories of the excesses of the late '60s and early '70s at Sussex, when one of his students would regularly present "non-verbal essays" consisting of crayoned clouds.

    He will be remembered with great fondness by so many of us.

  2. I too had the privilege of being taught by Tony Nuttall in my undergraduate years, and was in contact with him from time to time since, usually to tell him how much enjoyment & instruction a new book of his had given me. Everyone knows his fine mind and deep reading: he had a wonderful sense of humour, and was a generous man with his time, knowledge and encouragement. It was a shock to learn of his death - somehow he seemed a necessary and permanent part of the world's better fixtures, and it is very saddening that he has gone so suddenly and so early.

  3. There is a moving remembrance of Nuttall by Angela Lambert on the Independent's website today (8 Feb).

  4. I too remember fondly my terms under Tony Nuttall at New College. I will never forget him on his knees demonstrating whether the wiggly line in Tristram Shandy went from top to bottom or bottom to top. A lovely man and a wonderful teacher.

  5. Susan Chappell (Dr) Tuesday 06 March 2007

    I too was taught by Tony Nuttall. He was my Personal Tutor when I was an undergraduate at Sussex University, and although I later went on to study at several other universities, Tony was easily the best academic teacher I ever had, anywhere. His teaching, whether in tutorial, seminar or lecture, was always exciting,and a revelation. I was there when he gave that memorable lecture, so simply entitled, 'Against Darwin'. I remember buying a copy of 'A Common Sky' on my 21st birthday and getting him to sign it. Sadly, I had just got back in touch with him last Christmas - I received a lovely letter from him in early January, telling me how much he was enjoying his retirement and life in Oxford.

  6. Stuttgart, Germany, 8th March 2007

    I too was taught by Tony Nuttall while I was at Oxford between 1994 and 1998 for my D Phil research on Owen Barfield, an intellectual polymath steeped both in the British and the German intellectual traditions of thought from romanticism to the twentieth century. My project involved the handling of an impossibly large scope of knowledge ranging over several centuries. It would easily have been doomed to failure had it not been for the extraordinary depth and breadth of learning which Tony brought to bear on all aspects of my work. When my project eventually came to its happy conclusion and was about to be published as a book, Tony wrote the introduction and found some extraordinarily kind words for it: “Ms Diener moved through the minefield of English / British thought over the last three hundred years or so in an extraordinarily sure-footed manner.” This very kind remark leaves out the large debt I owe him in actually guiding me through this “dangerous” minefield. The truth is, without Tony’s subtle guidance I might easily have been blown up by one or two or a combination of those mines.

    He was an unusually quick thinker and he worked very hard. And hard work is what he expected from me, too. But in all his rigour Tony remained warm-hearted and caring and had a lovely sense of humour. Sometimes the pressure could be intense, especially during periods when deadlines for examinations were approaching. At such times, to cheer me up a bit, he would occasionally ask me to join him for a pint in the King’s Arms where he could be found nearly every day at 12 noon. Inviting his students for a drink, he explained, was a habit he had inherited from his own tutor, Hugo Dyson, when he himself was an undergraduate. The pint of beer was meant by Dyson to “tease” his students into speaking about their subjects in a freer and less guarded manner, engaging them into lively controversy. This was precisely the effect it had on me. What was special about Tony as a teacher was that he never told me what to do or what to think or even how to proceed – which I would have resented, by the way – but, as Stephen Medcalf has described him, he had a “lucidly polarising mind”, and in conversation he inspired argument and counter-argument. This had an immediate effect on my writing, making it more combative and at the same time more lucid and balanced as time progressed.

    In the past few years, every time I revisited Oxford, he always made me most welcome. It is difficult for me now to imagine that on my next visit I will not find him reading or writing in his rooms in New College. Nor will I find him sitting in his favourite leather armchair in the King’s Arms drinking a pint and reading the paper. The pleasure of talking with him in these places will always remain a vivid memory for me.

    His wealth of learning and his generosity, combined with the warmth of his humanity and his humour, are the marks of what makes the very best of teachers. There was a vitality about him that still keeps inspiring me. There is no doubt that Tony, though now no longer here to speak and work with us – through what he has left for us to pass on to the next generation - remains present and indeed active in a very vivid way.

    Astrid Diener

  7. That it took me so long to learn of Tony Nuttall's death is almost as much a shock as the news itself. As an undergraduate, his lectures were a rare treat on the calendar: his course on theodicy shapes my thinking even now. As my DPhil internal examiner, he was gracious, perceptive and generous in ensuring that the rough edges were smoothed in my finished thesis. My friends at New, of course, spoke with delight of late tutorials accompanied by sherry. His books ensure that his acuity is known to future generations, but like Astrid, I suspect that his greater legacy is the one passed on by those lucky enough to be taught by him.

  8. Like Nick, I didn't find out about Tony Nuttall's death until months later. Sad news indeed.

    I was lucky enough to have an MPhil thesis supervised by him ten years ago. He was the cleverest man I've ever met, and hugely friendly and cheerful. For those like me who were sometimes intimidated by Oxford, he was uniquely welcoming and approachable.

    His books were incredible to read. I know of no other critic who could write so accessibly about such complex and, often, arcane subjects.

    Like Astrid, I will remember him in the leather chair in the King's Arms on a Friday lunchtime. Another favourite memory - in a seminar, he once appeared to be scribbling furiously despite the rather dull talk on Calvinism that had been underway for close on an hour. Glancing over his shoulder, I saw that he was in fact doodling a sketch of a pitbull wearing the clothes of a priest.

    A great man.

  9. Robert Fraser FRSL Sunday 23 September 2007

    I studied at Sussex University about the same time as Professor Grayling, though I did English, he philosophy. Of all the people who taught me, Tony Nuttall was by far the most illustrious, widely-read and sympathetic. His most attractive quality is what I can only describe as a sort of intellectual glee or zest. He giggled a lot when ideas took his fancy, as they very often did. He would approach you out of the blue with an unexpected comment and wish you to respond, though as a young undergraduate one was not always equal to the challenge. One morning in deep snow he rushed up to me and gurgled "Inclement weather, Your Grace". I may have had the grace, but not, as I recall, a suitable riposte. His comments on one's work were also perceptive in an oblique way which caused one to think hard about oneself, not necessarily in relation to him, or indeed to the course. At the end of one term he wrote of me "I think Fraser is quite good. He also seems a little unhappy. I would wish him happier, but then I am not sure he would be as good." It was a sharp comment, but warm and concerned as well. Fraternal in a way. I am a lot happier now, but hope that my work has not suffered as a result.

    His interests were catholic, though he had both enthusiasms and gaps. Sterne was one of his enthusiams; he had however a peculiar blind spot over Sartre. One Michaelmas Term he returned after the Long Vacation and remarked "I've been through France. It seems almost empty there", a comment aimed principally at the demography of that nation, though I could not help suspecting a slight on its thinkers. In any case when over a decade later his book on literature and philosophy appeared under the title A Common Sky, it contained a wonderfully appreciative chapter on Sterne, and another on Sartre devoted to his nullity. His opinions, in that respect at least, had not changed.

    He also liked televison comedians and brought them into his published work, not always to its advantage. But to him they were fun, life was fun, work and literature were both fun. This is what I now believe, and so he must have influenced me in the long run, and for the better. Which is why I am happier, and I hope as good. His was a large spirit. He enlarged one's own.

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