Alexander Welsh, preeminent scholar of British prose
Alexander (Sandy) Welsh, the Emily Sanford Professor Emeritus of English who was hailed as one of the most innovative and productive figures of his generation in the field of English prose fiction, died on April 11. He was 84.
Welsh wrote influential books on the great 19th-century British novelists — books that have been credited with reshaping the field of Victorian fiction as well as doing much to define the field of law and literature. He served as assistant and associate professor at Yale 1960-1967, then taught at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California-Los Angeles before rejoining the Yale faculty in 1991.
Welsh’s scholarship and teaching focused on 19th-century studies, Shakespeare and Joyce, law and literature, ethics and literature, social and literary history, comparative studies in the novel and drama, Freud studies, and more.
The Yale scholar wrote books on Don Quixote and the idea of the hero in “Reflections of Don Quixote,” and authored a close reading of Freud’s 1900 book “Interpretation of Dreams,” in his 1994 book titled “Freud’s Wishful Dream Book.”
Welsh was also an amateur junk sculptor and furniture maker, whose pieces were on informal display in his house in Bethany, Connecticut, and his summer place in Stonington, Maine.
“Unlike many professors, Sandy was a very practical man who liked to work with his hands and knew how to make and repair things around the house. He was an athlete too. As a young English professor, he bicycled to class from North Haven. When I went for a run with him, then in his late 60s, I couldn’t keep up. That practicality and that vigor were part of his literary scholarship. Everything he wrote was sturdy and useful, and he kept pushing his research forward, extending himself, and producing his boldest and broadest books — ‘What is Honor?’ (2008) and ‘The Humanist Comedy’ (2014) — deep in retirement, long after most of us have hung up our sneakers,” says Langdon Hammer, chair of Yale’s Department of English.
From 1975 to 1981 Welsh edited “Nineteenth-Century Fiction,” the journal devoted to British and American fiction; “The Hero of the Waverley Novels” (1963, 1968, and 1992 with additional essays on Sir Walter Scott), which relates Scott’s achievement to 18th- and 19th-century ideas of property; and “Thackeray: A Collection of Critical Essays” (1968), a volume in the “Twentieth-Century Views” series.
In his books “The City of Dickens” (1971, 1986) and “George Eliot and Blackmail” (1985), Welsh interpreted the work of these two novelists against the background of Victorian social history.
In “Hamlet in His Modern Guises,” Welsh’s 2001 book, he examines Shakespeare’s play in the light of other revenge tragedies, and then shows how it was recast in novels by Goethe, Scott, Dickens, Melville, and Joyce.
Welsh was the recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, and National Humanities Center fellowships. He was a Harvard National Scholar and served with the U.S. Army in Germany.
Welsh is survived by his long-time partner Ruth Yeazell, the Chace Family Professor of English at Yale, and his children Molly Welsh Hoffman, Thomas B. Welsh, and William Douglas Welsh.