George K. Hunter, the Emily Sanford Professor Emeritus of English at Yale, former chair of Yale’s interdisciplinary graduate program in Renaissance Studies and an eminent Shakespeare scholar, died in his sleep April 10 after a prolonged illness.
Hunter, who produced renowned scholarship on Shakespearean and other Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, began his career in the United Kingdom. As a founding member of the English faculty at the University of Warwick in England, Hunter helped redefine the study of literature in Great Britain, giving it a more diverse and international focus.
Hunter, who served on Yale’s faculty for 15 years before retiring in 1991, was born in Glasgow in 1920. After graduating from the University of Glasgow, he joined the British Naval Intelligence during World War II. The war years were, according to Hunter’s daughter, Mary Hunter, formative.
“I think he found his war service eye-opening, in the sense that it brought him into contact with a range of kind and classes of people he’d never otherwise have met,” she wrote in an e-mail. “And in fact it was his contacts in British intelligence who suggested he go to Oxford for a doctorate rather than returning to Glasgow to be a schoolteacher.”
Hunter went on to receive his D.Phil from Oxford in 1950.
The University of Warwick was one of seven universities founded in the 1960s as part of an educational reform movement in Britain. Hunter signed on to help develop the English curriculum. According to former colleague Claude Rawson, a Yale English professor who also worked with Hunter in England, his work at Warwick had an enormous impact on English education by increasing the attention paid to foreign authors.
The study of English Literature in Britain had once focused almost entirely on English authors, Rawson said.
“George Hunter was one of the people who changed all that,” he said. “His particular way of changing it was to introduce a huge element of international literature into the course. The other thing that he insisted on was that every student of English should have experience with a foreign literature in its own language as well.”
Jan Gorak, an English professor at the University of Denver who studied under Hunter as an undergraduate at Warwick, said the difference in his approach to literature was evident.
“He really changed my attitudes on literature,” Gorak said. “I think the thing to say is that he really was in contrast with most English departments. He had a great vision of Europe.”
After reforming the English curriculum at Warwick, Hunter came to New Haven in 1976. “He moved to Yale,” Mary Hunter explained, “because, having founded the English Department at Warwick University, he thought it prudent to let its development happen under the guidance of others.”
Emeritus English professor Fred Robinson remembered Hunter, with whom he used to enjoy lunch at Mory’s every Monday, as discontent in the United States.
“At Yale, I always thought he was rather unhappy,” Robinson said. “He used to say something that I just found incredibly astonishing: ‘Yale students substitute hard work for intelligence.’ ”
Even if he was unimpressed with his students, however, they seemed not to notice. Rawson described Hunter as well-liked while at Yale.
“We had many of the same students who remember him with extraordinary affection,” Rawson said. “He was a wonderful teacher. He was very dedicated to teaching. He had wisdom, kindness and a very clear mind.”
When he retired in 1991, Hunter chose to remain in New Haven because of a strong community of active, retired faculty, Mary Hunter said. He remained in contact with students and former colleagues.
Gorak, after remaining in contact with his former professor for 30 years, said he remembered particularly well his singularity. “George was inimitable and probably unrepeatable.”
Hunter is survived by his wife, Shalegh, three children and seven grandchildren.