Lee W. Patterson, medievalist and author of groundbreaking articles and books, died at home on 29 June 2012.
If not the first to bring the insights of twentieth-century post-structuralism to bear on the literature of the High Middle Ages, Lee led the way in demonstrating the value of those insights. His first book, Negotiating the Past (1987), woke up medieval studies and brought theoretical sophistication to a field long governed either by dusty philology or sentimental, appreciative criticism. His 1991 tour de force, Chaucer and the Subject of History, is widely considered to be among the most important studies of Chaucer. Over twenty years later, it remains the foundational text on which any study of Chaucer must begin. Together these two books transformed the field: Chaucer and the Subject of History forever changed how scholars and students understand Chaucer, and Negotiating the Past forever changed how medievalists view themselves.
Lee was an individual of many paradoxes, certainly one reason he could identify and embrace the tensions at work in medieval studies. He was simultaneously a misanthropic hermit and an unflagging activist. He was deeply learned and widely read—as revealed in the footnotes and bibliographies of his scholarship—yet he much preferred to discuss the Baltimore Orioles or Cole Porter lyrics. He was less inclined to transform his graduate students into Pattersonian reproductions and more interested in encouraging them to find their own voices, their own slants, and their own ways not to sacrifice personal lives to the professoriate. Many times his lack of interest in creating a stable of followers seemed born of an arrogance that believed none could match his intellect; at other times, it seemed to stem from a wisdom well aware of the stifling folly of academic impersonation. At the same time that he might return a dissertation chapter with no comments, he would, as in my case, help a single mother with two children start over: he made possible our 1900-mile move from West Texas to New Haven by arranging a teaching job for me and by inviting my 9-year-old daughter, my 10-year-old son, and me to live with his wife—Annabel Patterson—and him until I could manage on my own. No wonder he confused everyone.
Always an enigma to his doctoral students, Lee was often the topic of late-night musings when we gathered, whether around pub tables after class or (many years later) at NCS or K’zoo dinners. It is certainly a quirky twist that as Lee’s health declined many of my conversations with him focused on his students; he was either relating the latest news he’d heard or asking for updates. He took great pleasure knowing that his former graduate students had successfully balanced solid academic careers and satisfying personal lives.
In those final days, he and I also talked much about death, about its finality, and about the opportunity to die a good death. It’s no secret that he had many contentious relationships, and with his diagnosis in April he set about to put his relationships in order, one by one. I was lucky to appear early on his list, and he was once again teaching me, this time about how to die well. His illness, however, overtook him more quickly than anyone anticipated, and most of those conversations with others never happened. Instead of having an intimate exchange with him, colleagues and former students could only send notes. At the end, once he was back home and resting comfortably, I read those notes to him; within the hour, he took his last breath.