Professor David Daiches

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THE first time I met David Daiches was in Miller's Wine Bar in King's Parade, Cambridge. Somewhat hungover, I ordered, following Byron's recommendation in Don Juan, a glass of hock-and-soda-water, whereupon a voice behind me said: "That's a very 1890s drink, young man."

I knew him to be an English don, though I wasn't reading English myself, but I didn't then realise that he was one of the most distinguished of Scottish men of letters of the 20th century. Had I known that, I might have been less forward in the conversation that followed. Perhaps not; he liked young people to speak their minds, unformed as they were.

It seems right to call him a man of letters, old-fashioned as the term is, not because there was anything out-of-date or musty in his writings, but simply because his interests and his range were so wide that he cannot be confined within the commonly accepted limits of such words as critic or academic. Not many professors have written on subjects as diverse as the King James Bible, whisky, the Treaty of Union and James Joyce. He claimed at one time to have "known Ulysses almost by heart". From most people that would be a vain boast; not from him.

He was born in Sunderland in 1912, descended from a line of rabbis extending back at least 500 years. His father had emigrated from Lithuania five years previously, having earlier obtained a PhD at Leipzig for a dissertation on the relationship of David Hume's philosophy to the study of history. So it is not surprising that in 1919 he removed to Edinburgh to take charge of the Graham Street synagogue. He would subsequently become the unofficial Jewish spiritual leader in Scotland, and a Hebrew scholar.

David was the second of four children; his elder brother Lionel was to be a distinguished and colourful figure in the Faculty of Advocates.

With roots in Lithuania and the Netherlands, where he believed the family name originated, David was ever "conscious of the whole history of Europe and the Mediterranean lying behind me". He gave a brilliant and affectionate picture of his background and upbringing in Two Worlds, his most personal and engaging work, one of the classic autobiographies of the 20th century.

He was educated at George Watson's College and the University of Edinburgh where he edited a collection of student poems, including the early work of Sorley Maclean and Robert Garioch. His own first ambition was "to become a great poet", and he wrote poetry and verse all his life, indeed his last publication was to be a collection, The Weekly Scotsman, in 1994. In the introduction he tells how, aged 16, he "rendered the first book of the Odyssey into limerick verse, deliberately choosing the most non-epic metre for an epic story to see what would happen. It began:

"Tell me O Muse of the chap

Who wandered all over the map

This remarkable boy

After bashing down Troy

Started off on a tour of mishap".

From Edinburgh University, where his master was the Shetlander HJC Grierson, he went on to Balliol College, Oxford, to take a second degree. He was briefly assistant in Edinburgh and Andrew Bradley Fellow of Balliol before going to the University of Chicago in 1939 as assistant professor.

From the beginning he had a precocity and flow of language perhaps more characteristically Jewish than Scottish, though his disinclination to attach himself to any critical school, his suspicion of certain aridities of theory, and his trust in common sense owed much to the tradition of Scottish education in which he had been formed; he was a good example of the "democratic intellect" as described by George Davie.

He had married Isobel Mackay, known as Billie, in 1937, and said he had "accepted an academic position in America purely for [his] father's sake", his son's marriage to a Gentile being embarrassing for the rabbi. There would be two daughters and a son of the marriage; one daughter, Jenni Calder, has recently written a delightful memoir, with an affectionate portrait of her parents, Nebuchadnezzar, Exploring Identities.

Throughout his life, David was a prolific writer as well as an inspiring and a conscientious teacher. He published more than 40 books and numerous uncollected reviews and articles in academic journals, newspapers and magazines. In his American years and for some time afterwards he was a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

In later life, he turned increasingly from literary criticism to historical and more general works. His portraits of Edinburgh and Glasgow were notable studies, while he retold some of the better-known episodes of Scottish history with lucid eloquence. Scotland and the Union (1977) was the best of these, though, understandably, less successful commercially than Scotch Whisky: Its Past and Present (1969).

Among his most substantial works were Poetry and the Modern World, The Novel and the Modern World, Milton, and his four-volume Critical History of English Literature. The first two still provide an ideal student's guide to difficult aspects of Modernism; his Milton corrected the balance which FR Leavis and his disciples had unfairly depressed; while his history, an unfashionable way of treating literature, but the most substantial attempt at such a work since Saintsbury's, justified his conviction that full understanding of a work of art, and an intelligent response to it, required a knowledge of the society in which it was produced and of the works which preceded it. His 1984 Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University, God and the Poets, won him the Saltire Society's Scottish Book of the Year Prize in 1984.

His great strength, informing everything he wrote, rested in the depth of his culture and his commitment to intellectual enlightenment. He was an inheritor of the finest Scottish intellectual tradition, and it was this which made him a great educator and university teacher.

Much of his middle life was passed at American universities, where he was professor at Cornell from 1946 to 1951 - and at Cambridge where he held a university lectureship from 1951 to 1961. In some way he found both a little arid, too imprisoned in narrow academia. He therefore relished the challenge of becoming the first professor of English at the new University of Sussex where there was an attempt to introduce into England something of the educational breadth which had traditionally characterised Scottish universities.

His achievement there was notable, but it was an abiding regret that "during the years when to return to Scotland was the height of my ambition, Scotland remained the one country of all those where I have studied or taught never to offer me a chair or even to respond other than negatively on those occasions when I was young enough or hopeful enough to apply for one when a vacancy was advertised."

He returned to Edinburgh on his retirement from Sussex and immediately became an active figure in literary society, always ready to contribute to a magazine, newspaper or the BBC, to chair a meeting or give a lecture. Even in his ninth decade, his enthusiasm did not flag and he was an assiduous vice-chairman of the advisory board of the great Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels.

It was a delight to hear him speak in public, generally impromptu, throwing back his head and often gazing at the ceiling, while unleashing a flow of language, fecund, inventive, shapely, with balanced sentences and improvised antitheses, which amazed the audience and shamed a less articulate age. He gave the impression of thinking in well-organised paragraphs.

As far back as 1938, in Chicago, he had "realised to my own surprise that Scotland was my country and that I had a deep emotional feeling towards it", and it was typical of his resumed Scottishness that he at once abandoned the pronunciation of his name - as it were, Daycheese - to which he had resignedly submitted in England and the US. In favour of the more robust form by which the family has been known here.

As a man of letters David outlasted many more stringent, opinionated and narrow-minded critics, and as a living embodiment of the values of literary culture he had no superior. In a time of doubt, fading faith and corrupted standards, he maintained and proclaimed his own certainty of the importance of literature, and of the part that the enjoyment and study of literature has to play in creating a civilised society.

A last memory: a couple of years ago at the Edinburgh Book Festival. The Israeli novelist Amos Oz was reading from his verse-novel The Same Sea, and David sat in the front row, his eyes sparkling with enjoyment, nodding his head sometimes in appreciation of the words and rhythms as the music of the Hebrew verses flowed over a mostly uncomprehending audience.

Watching him from the platform - I was chairing the session - one remembered that he was poet as well as critic, Jew as well as Scot; and one saw that in that moment his two worlds were truly one.