There are professors, and then there are professors. Donald Leslie Shaw (1930–2017) was a titan in the field of Hispanic literature. He wrote two definitive books on the principal literary movements of modern Spain and Latin America: The Generation of 1898 in Spain (1975) and Nueva narrativa Hispanoamericana (1981). He also wrote what remains the best book on the second greatest Hispanic author of all time: Borges’ Narrative Strategy (1992).
Any scholar taking stock of her career would count herself fortunate to have penned just one of these masterpieces. Unlike most of us who undertake to write about literature, Shaw explains rather than obfuscates. His style is impeccable, clean, direct. A book by Donald Shaw is like Fort Perch Rock in New Brighton. In the agony of the weeks leading up to our PhD exams, students struggling to make sense of a running tide of authors from exotic places found refuge in Shaw’s work. He oriented us away from the meandering madness of the Frankfurt School or Alexandre Kojève’s long-lost crew of French Hegelians. You see, unlike the Franco-Germans, Shaw wasn’t at war with literature. He was English. He tried to establish for us an initial set of parameters for the kinds of fruitful discussions we could have about something we all loved.
Shaw advocated a traditional, even “constitutional” approach to great literature. He shared this view with what has since become a minority of critics and authors like, say, Harold Bloom or Javier Cercas. A lot of people think literature should advocate for conflict and revolution. Obviously, without tension, there’s no plot to a play or a novel, no movement to a poem. But great literature teaches us how to overcome our tensions and find ways to get along. Sometimes this idea appeals to us more than others.
In the late eighties (and this happened to any outspoken professor who loved what he did), just how one felt about Donald Leslie Shaw was controversial among his graduate students. And he loved that too. He had no reason to fear it; he cultivated it. For him, this was precisely what made literature so much fun. I think it allowed him to become his own twin. But he was about more than controversy. He chased some lingering aura of bellic glory.
“My primary motivation is vanity; that is, attachment to professional prestige,” he once said. Here is Shaw in the guise of the pivotal but impetuous warrior in Leonard Liggio’s medieval world or the egocentric Italian patron of Jacob Burckhardt’s Renaissance. Here, too, is the crazy aristocrat who still manages to promote the social good in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha or Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But Shaw was quick to qualify his motivations: “My work is chiefly influenced by a desire to offer students and other researchers in the field either a springboard to further research or something to disagree with.” He lived that decidedly happy struggle between rivals in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.
Shaw had straightforward advice about how to achieve academic excellence: “When writing, I try to produce two pages a day, usually in the morning, proceeding incrementally.” And his ultimate reason for becoming the leading scholar on the Generation of ’98, the Latin American Boom, and Jorge Luis Borges was the sheer joy of the trifecta: “As a schoolboy I fell in love with things Hispanic, and I have spent my life happily working in the field.” All wise words, typical of him, pragmatism and passion in the same breath. This is how Shaw taught so many of us to live. You must fall in love with something and then have at it with every ounce of grace you can muster. And above all else, you must prepare for and learn to benefit from conflict.
I still quote verbatim from a man whom many of us adopted as “our Donald.” He once came to watch some friends of mine play in a garage band at Zipper’s in Hookville. Their song “Dogs” was about the idealized guardians in Plato’s Republic. It impressed him. He was also just drunk enough to give us his rendition of a mysterious English ditty from WWII: “Cats on the roof, / cats on the tiles, / cats with syphilis, / cats with piles.”
Another time, a graduate student had broken down in tears during the oral defense of her PhD exams. Shaw had been so flummoxed by her dissolution that he acceded to his colleagues’ demands that she be allowed to have another go at it. In class the next day, however, before unfurling a brilliant lecture on Horacio Quiroga’s “Juan Darién,” he wasn’t afraid to let us know what he thought. “I’d like you briefly to consider what happened yesterday.” His perennial smile made it hard to tell if he was being sincere or sarcastic. We had all been in the room during her defense, and each of us faced the prospect of our own exams, so we hung on his every word. As he was wont to do, he took off his reading glasses, cocked his head, and rolled his eyes up to the corner of the room: “If you find that you cannot answer a question during one of our tribunals, then by all means cry! We are most of us fathers, brothers, and sons of one sort or another, and so it’s only proper that we should be debilitated by the mere thought of a woman’s tears.”
I have never heard a more joyous assertion of the chief vulnerability of men. Can you imagine the reaction today at any university in the land? Fittingly, Donald Leslie Shaw died in Italy, the historical, cultural, and geographical origin of a long line of competitive tyrants who have made Western Civilization such a gorgeous thing. Of course, in private he was nothing of the sort. He was a mensch, almost a mother.