Ian Duncan MacKillop (1939-2004)

Image: Firth Court, University of Sheffield.

Sue Vice and John Haffenden wrote in an obituary for The Guardian of 5 Jun 2004:

“He taught at Sheffield University for 36 years, and was best known for his biography, FR Leavis: A Life In Criticism (1995), which reminded readers of the Cambridge critic’s influence on generations of literary scholars. James Wood made it one of his books of the year in the Guardian, and Malcolm Bradbury judged it an international book of the year in the Times Literary Supplement.

Ian read English at Downing College, Cambridge, where he studied under Leavis and was inspired by him to take up a life of learning and teaching. He ran the Cambridge English Club, over which Leavis held sway, and subsequently completed a PhD on 17th-century French criticism at Leicester University. He then took up a temporary post at Keele University, before, in 1968, joining Sheffield.

Ian could not be described as a card-carrying Leavisite. His range of interests, and cast of mind, were not to be contained by such strictures, as was made clear by his work on such varied subjects as the British ethical societies, 18th-century writings, working men’s clubs, British cinema of the 1950s and, most recently, John Keats, whose letters he was editing for Penguin. His other major publications include an innovative biographical study, Free Spirits: Henri Pierre Roché, François Truffaut And The Two English Girls (2000).

The Leavis biography was an academic watershed for Ian. He was promoted to a personal chair in English in 2000, prompting him to wonder aloud to a colleague which professorial rolemodel to follow: Moriarty? Challenger? Branestawm? In the event, it was none of these, and he continued to act as a generous and supportive mentor to younger colleagues and students alike.

It is clear that early influences acted powerfully upon him, and last year, in a lecture entitled Canon Empson, he expressed a hope that the current vogue for the critic William Empson – who had appointed Ian in 1968 -would, in time, be accompanied by a Leavisian revival.

Earlier influences also affected his adult life, including his schooldays as a scholarship pupil at Dulwich College, near his family home in south London, and a period spent in Wales as a wartime evacuee. He trained as a schoolboy with the National Youth Theatre, and was well known for his resonant reading voice and uncanny capacity for mimicry.

As a teacher, Ian’s sudden roars of appreciation were always infectious. He was a master of creative lateral thinking before the concept was even coined, and was always trying out new pedagogic methods. He could be exuberant, stubborn to the point of bloody-mindedness, had a taste for the absurd and for human comedy, and found the increasing bureaucracy of university life, by turns, hilarious and dispiriting.

When Ian Hamilton criticised the style of one of Ian’s books, it was characteristic of his resilience and humour that he readily responded, “Bastard! He may be right.” In one of their feedback forms for a class, a student described Ian as “clearly one of the most intelligent men in Sheffield”. Ian’s response to this was mock outrage: “One”? “Men”?…”

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