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Hugh Reid MacCallum, Milton scholar, dies age 80 Add to ...

Hugh Reid MacCallum, a professor of English at the University of Toronto for 35 years, was an unassuming giant in the field of 17th-century literary criticism. He broke new ground in the study of English poet John Milton, but always remained true to the school of historical research associated with his mentor, A.S.P. (Arthur) Woodhouse - a cult figure to a generation of U of T academics.

Prof. MacCallum had a worldwide reputation in Milton circles, according to Glenn Loney, one of the professor's former PhD students and now registrar of the U of T faculty of arts and science. He cited a short reading list of books and essays about Milton prepared for students at the University of Oxford. Two of Prof. MacCallum's works are included: Milton & the Sons of God: The Divine Image in Milton's Epic Poetry (1986) and an early article based on his PhD dissertation.

Paul Stevens, another former PhD student who is now Canada Research Chair in English literature at U of T, said Prof. MacCallum was the youngest and last member of the Woodhouse group, which sought to understand Milton's poetry by studying the writer's vast output of religious and political prose.

But while Prof. Woodhouse and many others associated with his group, including renowned literary theorist Northrop Frye, were alpha males, Prof. MacCallum was a gentle man with no desire to make waves. He was "an unusually perceptive and careful thinker" who worked on a smaller canvas, he Prof. Stevens said.

He said Prof. MacCallum's main contribution to Milton studies was to show that the poet's religious thought was reasonable and moderate, although some critics emphasized passages that "might appear strange, harsh or even heretical."

Nicholas von Maltzahn, a Milton expert at the University of Ottawa, said Prof. MacCallum made "a large, judicious but, I expect, under-read contribution" to his chosen field.

He did much of his literary writing at his beloved family cottage at Papineau Lake near Bancroft, Ont. He would quietly excuse himself after breakfast, appearing only for his daily swim, said Toronto neighbour Douglas Scott, a frequent weekend guest. Some days, he would become so engrossed in his work that he would have to be summoned so everyone could gather for "elevenses at 5," a cottage tradition.

Standing nearly 61/2 feet tall, Prof. MacCallum was unpretentious, uncomplaining, kind, considerate and happy, according to friends and colleagues. He loved outdoor activities, especially skiing and swimming. He and Barbara, his wife of 54 years, complemented each other as a couple in a way that's rarely seen, Mr. Scott said.

He wasn't outwardly religious, according to his family, but his interest in Milton's theological views probably came naturally. His paternal grandparents, Frederick and Mimi MacCallum, were Canadian missionaries sent to Turkey by the Congregational Church, and an uncle, Lyman MacCallum, was active in translating the Bible into Turkish.

His father, Reid MacCallum, a professor in the University of Toronto's philosophy department, was seen by colleagues as "a very religious man," according to Minerva's Aviary, a history of the department written by John G. Slater. And during his teenaged years, Hugh served as an altar boy at the Anglican Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto.

Hugh Henry Reid MacCallum was born April 13, 1928. He was the oldest child and only son of Henry Reid and Alice (Miller) MacCallum. He grew up in Toronto, where he attended Jarvis Collegiate and the University of Toronto. He swam competitively, doing his trademark backstroke at both institutions. As students, he and cousin Richard Crowther worked at a variety of summer jobs, including mining for gold in Northern Ontario, painting hydro towers in Toronto and slinging cases at a beer store.

The cottage experience was always part of his lifestyle. His vacation property on Papineau Lake now includes a number of rustic cottages and cabins built over the years by members of the family, and he spent childhood summers at his parents' property on White Lake, near Kingston. His sister Judith Nicholas credited him with saving her life there as a child.

"As I tiptoed gingerly on my four-year-old toes over the 'drop-off' at the lake, curious to see how far out I could venture," she said, "it was Hugh who hauled me out and onto the raft when I was suddenly out of my depth."

Many years later, he was responsible for saving another life, according to his son Richard (Sam). He recalled a 1964 incident in which the professor "ran pell-mell down a steep hill in Montreal to catch up to a runaway stroller containing a friend's child - just before it would have smashed into lanes of oncoming traffic."

He attended Trinity College at U of T, where he earned a BA in 1951. While completing his PhD in English as a student of Prof. Woodhouse, he taught at the University of Western Ontario from 1955 to 1959. Then, at Prof. Woodhouse's invitation, he joined the English department at U of T's University College, where he taught and did research until retiring in 1993.

To his graduate students, he was "a model supervisor, always ready to talk, always full of helpful guidance, suggestions and references," Dr. Loney said.

In 1954, he married Barbara Manske, a Queen's University student and daughter of Richard Manske, a chemist known for his pioneering work in alkaloid chemistry. They raised their two children in Toronto, where Barbara pursued graduate studies and produced and stage-managed plays for the University Alumnae Dramatic Club (now the Alumnae Theatre Company). Their lives were also intertwined with other celebrity academics; they lived beside Marshall McLuhan, while Northrop Frye bought the house where Prof. MacCallum grew up.

In addition to writing Milton and the Sons of God, Prof. MacCallum also edited Prof. Woodhouse's unfinished book, which appeared as The Heavenly Muse: A Preface to Milton in 1972. In collaboration with Robert A. Greene, he edited an edition of An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature (1971) by Nathaniel Culverwell, a 17th-century English author and theologian. He also published many essays on the thought and poetry of Milton and the drama of John Dryden, and wrote reviews of Canadian poetry for The University of Toronto Quarterly.

In 1988, he was awarded the Milton Society of America's prestigious Hanford Prize for most distinguished article. He also served as head of graduate studies in English for many years.

"Through his teaching." Prof. Stevens said, "he touched many students who went on to produce outstanding work - Mary Nyquist, Jeanne Shami, Gordon Teskey, Anthony Raspa immediately come to mind."

Hugh MacCallum's life was not without sorrow. He was just 21 when his father died in 1949. And in 1982, his daughter, Elizabeth, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, took her own life.

"This was a huge personal tragedy for him and for all of us," son Richard said. "He strove very hard to overcome that personal loss and put the whole thing in perspective, and to go on teaching and being a father and a good husband and all the rest of it." One way he dealt with the loss was by writing "beautiful elegiac poems" in her memory.

Even in retirement, Prof. MacCallum continued an active life. He and Barbara travelled widely. He wrote an unpublished novel called Memory Work. And in 1998, at 70, he swam the 750-metre leg of the Barry's Bay Triathlon for a team that placed second. He was given a special award for being the oldest participant.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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