Amherst Magazine

Professor Ben DeMott

Benjamin DeMott, professor emeritus of English, died on Thursday, Sept. 29, at his home in Worthington, Mass. He was 81 years old. The cause of death was cardiac arrest.

A member of the Amherst faculty from 1951 until his retirement in 1990, DeMott was a widely respected literary critic and social commentator. He was the author of more than a dozen books, including The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Class; The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race; and Killer Woman Blues: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Gender and Power. He was also a frequent essayist for popular publications, including The Atlantic and Harper’s. In May, the New York Review of Books published an essay he had written on “Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values.”

“Ben was an English teacher who was perpetually critical of what he thought of as going on in most English classes,” William H. Pritchard ’53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, told the Boston Globe. “He was interested in popular culture before it became ‘cultural studies.’”

In an e-mail to this magazine, Richard Pollak ’57 recalled preparing for one of DeMott’s classes on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. DeMott arrived for the class meeting “brimming with excitement,” Pollak said. Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day had just been published, and DeMott was “in the thrall” of what he described as “the Great American Novel.” “Clearly, the 18th century would have to wait,” Pollak said, as DeMott devoted the entire class meeting to Bellow’s new work. “If I had to pick the high point of my Amherst days, that would be it,” Pollak said, “because of DeMott’s riveting enthusiasm for the book, certainly, but even more for his spontaneity, his willingness to jettison the dusty assignment in favor of something that had just moved him, to seize the day.”

Alan Levenstein ’56 has established a fund in DeMott’s honor. Alumni interested in contributing may contact Tom Ehrgood, director of 50th reunion giving, at taehrgood@amherst.edu or (413) 542-7907. Alumni also are invited to e-mail the editor their memories of DeMott for posting on our webpage, Remembering Professor Ben DeMott.

A memorial service may be held at a later date; information will be posted on the Amherst Website in the second semester.