Arthur J. Quinn

In thinking about what I want to say in my first substantive post, I realized that I want to honor the memory of my mentor at the University of California, Berkeley: Arthur J. Quinn, Professor of Rhetoric and Director of the College Writing Programs. As an undergraduate and graduate student at UCB, I took many of Art’s classes, and later, as a teacher in the College Writing Programs, I became one of Art’s colleagues. He profoundly influenced my life and the lives of many others. Even after his death in May 1997, his influence lingers.

Arthur Quinn, official photo taken when he received the UCB Distinguished Teaching AwardI might not be writing these words now, were it not for Art’s influence. I remember the day in 1979 when Art told me to stop being so unassuming and to speak up. Because it is always wise to do as Art said, I spoke—and over twenty years later, here I am, still speaking—this time, to you.

Art was artful.

Now, if we were in one of his classes, he’d parse that three-word sentence front, back, and sideways, and somewhere in the process, the sentence would take on a thousand guises and come to seem as significant and manifold as the Himalayas.

That’s what I remember most about Art: his sheer delight in poking and prodding at words. He could make them stand up and dance or lie down and surrender. He pried around their edges and exclaimed at their buggy undersides. He was a conjurer in the oldest sense, wielding the power of the word to name the thing and thus make it manifest—the power of the word to affect, to shape, to realize. (If he were here, Art might seize upon that word realize and conjure a clever pun that would flash like a trout in the sunlight, and we would all nod and laugh and be wiser for it.)

He realized us—his students, his colleagues, the College Writing Programs: in classes, in meetings, in casual everyday encounters, he encouraged us to take the word by the throat and make it sing, to teach as we would be taught.

I cannot make manifest the Art that we knew. I lack his gift for leaping upstream through the border between liquid thought and airy word to conjure an alchemical presence from the alembic of language. But I can speak from the heart: I miss him.

After his death, the College Writing Programs dedicated its library to Art, renaming that library the Arthur J. Quinn Room. How fitting to dedicate to a room of words in his memory! In that room, books whisper on the walls, and people gather to speak of the joys and responsibilities of being teachers of words—words with their power to transport and to convey, in all senses of that word. Words catch us up, carry us away, and deliver us to places both familiar and strange. Art knew that. Art did that.

In a sense, Art was his word. He spoke, and the College Writing Programs came to be. He spoke, and he trusted us to speak. He spoke, and somewhere in the walls and halls of UCB, somewhere in our hearts, he still speaks.

And we remember his words.

If you want to be touched by Art’s influence and hear his words, look for A New World, his history of colonial America, or Hell with the Fire Out, his history of the Modoc War in northern California and Southern Oregon—or any of his other books, for that matter. His histories are far more than a collection of facts; they are narratives of meaning.

What do you think?