Anne L. Middleton, Florence Green Bixby Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley, died in her sleep on November 23, 2016, one month after receiving a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia.
Middleton was a titanic figure in Middle English literary studies—indeed a large figure in every way. Her physical frame was commanding, and she piloted it with an energy that seemed inexhaustible and effortlessly disciplined. She spoke off the cuff in intricate and subordinated but relentlessly (sometimes coarsely) lucid sentences. These terrified colleagues in department meetings. Her essays, too, could overawe. Beginning with “Two Infinites” (1972), they tore into the insoluble with cool confidence in the power of learning and thought. (“Busted another crux,” she said as she handed me the typescript of one.) During her great period of production, through “Acts of Vagrancy” (1997) and “Thomas Usk’s Perdurable Letters” (1998), they grew denser, more ambitious, and very much longer. Drafts could reach a hundred pages. (“Another ‘Fidel Castro Memorial Lecture,’” she said, handing me another. Castro was, of course, not dead at that point.) The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman, for which she spent the last twenty-five years preparing the volume on the third vision, became the fit form for her style of criticism, which could move from the minutely philological to the trenchantly theoretical and back again without breaking a sweat. This volume, her “life work”—to adapt her dense joke about Piers Plowman—was finally nearing completion when she died.
Her contributions to Chaucer criticism came from her refusal to be a Chaucerian. It seemed to some that she was out to diminish him. “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Age of Richard II” began with the poker-faced assertion that one could best capture the literary history and the literary greatness of Chaucer’s age by leaving Chaucer out; so captured, it proved to be a thing of intellectual and moral beauty, but it also helped set off what Chaucer had in fact done. In essays both early and late (e.g., “Chaucer’s ‘New Men’ and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales, 1980; “Commentary on an Unacknowledged Text,” tardily published in 2012), she traced how Chaucer constructed a poetic identity on the fly and then treated it as something that had waited for him to occupy. The upshot of these arguments was indeed that Chaucer did not hold his position in literary history by right of nature; but the upshot of that was that he held it by right of invention.
Middleton received her PhD in 1966 under Morton Bloomfield, who recognized her promise and cultivated her career. He forbade a dissertation on Piers Plowman: too many careers plunged into that poem and never emerged again. That is how she came to write a remarkable dissertation on the prose style of Ælfric’s lives of St. Martin. But it was Reuben Brower who supplied the shape and vocabulary for her critical instincts. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, her close attention to the imaginative and intellectual shape of laws and institutions made her look like a new historicist; later still, her attention to the foundation of distinctly literary effects made her seem to some the first new formalist. But these two interests emerged from a single conviction, that both poems and institutions are significant because they are things composed, works of the speculative and practical reason realized in different media but on the basis of principles that guide all intentional actions perforce. Ralph Hanna recalled to me recently her revelatory capacity to find conceptual "legs" in the driest of empirical scholarship "and move it into an implementing context." In this she was deploying and radically extending the style of interpretation (the formalist style, if you like, and if your standards of precision are not high) that she learned from Brower.
In that one important way, her time at Harvard was defining. In every other way it was an exception. The rest of her life was spent in public education—the Detroit school system, the University of Michigan, and Berkeley, where she taught until she retired in 2006. She spoke with cheerful contempt of the private schools and their ways; recruiting me to Berkeley and explaining that it worked to make every hire tenurable and to tenure every hire, she called the alternative “the east-coast system.” She believed in public universities as public goods. As teacher, department chair, and very active member of the Academic Senate, she worked with fierce energy to ensure that Berkeley would oustrip all competitors in intellectual distinction and would make it broadly available to the citizens of the state.
Her intelligence was never gentle, but it was generous. She threw her whole mind into every conversation; Lee Patterson once mused that, merely talking to Anne, one found that one grew smarter. She threw it into action when colleagues needed help: she would drop everything to work through an argument if someone was facing a deadline, or to hound the administration if she felt an injustice had been done. She threw it into the social life of a colleague and teacher. The house she and her husband Gene Rochlin shared on Derby Street was the most unostentatiously hospitable place I’ve ever known; when she was at the height of her powers, a late-afternoon visit would often land you among other of Anne’s and Gene’s colleagues and students and the clamor of their conversation. Most of all she threw it into her graduate students, who now number many distinguished figures in the field. I will not list them, but she proudly did, twice in my hearing, the second time with the comment: “No one has produced students like mine.”
Steven Justice, UC Berkeley