Terry Gifford: "In Memory of Leonard M. Scigaj"

Leonard M. Scigaj, who died on 16 April 2005 from a heart attack, was the leading Ted Hughes scholar in North America. Author of two monographs and one edited collection of essays on Hughes, Len championed Hughes studies in the USA at a time when this was not only academically unfashionable, but actually frowned upon — the MLA would not allow Len to convene a panel on Hughes, much to his formidable outrage.

The Poetry of Ted Hughes: Form and Imagination (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986) took Len into Hughes's sources, especially into the Oriental and the Jungian influences which Len explored with enthusiastic scholarship and sensitive intellectual facility. In Critical Essays on Ted Hughes (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992) Len's astute judgement selected key essays from the range then available and added a re-publication of the touchstone Hughes essay "Myth and Education". By his 1991 Twayne introductory volume Ted Hughes (Boston: Twayne, 1991), Len was still complaining about the neglect of Hughes in America, but taking the new ecocritical approach that was to lead to Len's ground-breaking study Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999) on the work of A. R. Ammons, Wendell Berry, W. S. Merwin and Gary Snyder. This has become a landmark book which is now much referenced by a later generation of ecocritics.

Only a few days ago I was in the British Library reading Hughes writing to Keith Sagar about what a charming man Len was, following a visit by Len to Court Green. With characteristic directness and enthusiasm, Len always went straight to the source of his scholarship and came away with a deep and subtle understanding of his subject that informed his later arguments. And there were arguments. Len was a tennis player, after all. Len revelled in debates within the community of Hughes scholars whose company and work he enjoyed with his robust drive towards truth and clarification. Whilst I was teaching for a semester in North Carolina as the guest of another Hughes scholar, Rand Brandes, Len asked me over to give a talk to his students at Virginia Tech where he had pioneered courses in literature and environment in which the works of Hughes were, of course, central. Over that weekend staying at Len's house, where he proudly showed me the major DIY work he had crafted, I found myself on an old-fashioned demo with his students, chanting "Cap the stack!" Apparently Virginia Tech generated electricity for the town of Blacksburg as well as the university and Len's students were leading a campaign to control the pollution the plant generated.

Len always set The State of the World annual review as a set text and related classroom discussion to topical and local as well as world concerns. He had wondered whether his radical influence on his students, together with his blue-collar, no bullshit, approach to academic committee work had delayed his being awarded tenure despite his serious, if unappreciated, internationally significant research output. Nevertheless, I came away with a strong sense of how much his students appreciated the environmental awareness and the urgent relevance of their studies that Len's charismatic rigour had opened up for them. Much as he complained about grading their essays every weekend, his commitment to his students was reciprocated in the best possible way — generations of enquiring minds that understood the need for action as well as scholarship. I also don't want to forget the cycle ride we had along the Hucklberry Line, a disused railway line, now a community resource for open-air renewal and good reason for a free-wheeling lecture from Len about culture and nature in Virginia.

I last talked to Len over a pub dinner at an ASLE (Association for Studies in Literature and Environment) conference in Flagstaff. He had overcome some struggles with his health since we last met and was talking about being in a financial position to consider retirement. I regret that he was not able to enjoy it with return visits to cycle and debate that his generous hospitality and encouragement to me certainly deserved. His son James, and his three sisters and three brothers ought to know that a larger-than-life gap has also been left in two communities of friends and scholars that are worldwide. Len's was a life which sustained the growth of many, many others and I am proud to have been one of that privileged company.

Terry Gifford,
Sheffield, UK,
April 2005

About the Author
Terry Gifford

Terry Gifford is co-author (with Neil Roberts) of Ted Hughes. A Critical Study (1981), and author of Ted Hughes (2009). He is a regular contributor to this site, including several essays.