A long time ago I got over the thrill of seeing my name in print. After the first few thousand times it becomes mechanical, like showing ID when you start legally buying liquor. You become blasé about bylines. On a Saturday morning in 2007, I was absently reading a Wall Street Journal column by Terry Teachout with the headline “Whatever Happened to Regional Critics?” when I stumbled over this: “You won’t find a more thoughtful literary critic than Houston’s Patrick Kurp.” For once, the cliché was true: I couldn’t believe my eyes. That I have never considered myself a critic added to the disbelief.
Terry’s death one year ago today at age sixty-five is comparably difficult to believe. It’s like saying France no longer exists. Seldom in my experience was so prominent and successful a writer so generous with his success. He was always willing to give you his time. Part of Terry’s enduring charm was his “regular guy-ness.” He was never pretentious, unlike so many writers. He never put on airs or condescended. He was a middle-class guy from Missouri who had done well in New York City. I can’t recall him ever indulging in snobbery. I love that he loved the novels of James Gould Cozzens and the films of Budd Boetticher. He was a gentleman, in prose and in person. When I shared with him a photo of my middle son playing trombone with a jazz band he was pleased, brought up Jack Teagarden and pointed out that Michael was the only white kid in the group -- a good thing in Terry's book, because he was heartened by young blacks taking their cultural inheritance seriously.
Though I had been reading him unknowingly for several years, I first became aware of Terry, linking the name with the writing, in his celebratory 1995 Journal essay on the jazz pianist Roger Kellaway. In it he writes: “Whatever the context, his airy, sparkling playing is instantly recognizable.” We might say the same of Terry’s best essays. And he was an essayist, even in the newspaper column or review format. He was no scholar but had the essayist’s essential gift of knowing many disparate things from disparate realms of human culture, and could rally them into pleasing forms.
I have read only two books about dance, both because of their writers: Joseph Epstein’s Fred Astaire (2008) and Terry’s All in the Dance: A Brief Life of George Balanchine (2004). I’m sufficiently philistine to admit I prefer Astaire to ballet. Terry’s tastes were at once more democratic and certainly more discerning than mine. He possessed a hearty appetite for art, high and low, classic and popular. He often surprised me with what he had read, and I recall an involved email exchange we had years ago about Ronald Knox and Josef Pieper. Terry insisted there were no “guilty pleasures,” merely unqualified pleasures. In his dance book he writes:
“Most of my acquaintances regard my love of dance as a harmless idiosyncrasy, and when I assure them that Balanchine was every bit as important as, say, Matisse, they look at me as though I’d tried to tell them that Raymond Chandler was as important as Proust.”
Thank you for this reminder. It seemed to me that he lived his life with eyes wide open, enjoying and celebrating all the good he engaged. Even when he wrote about things he didn't like or that disturbed him, it was never with rancor. And he could write well about anything. I am grateful to have exchanged a few comments with him over the years, but really would have liked to have known him. I bet he had a great laugh.
Thank you for this piece on Terry. I've been thinking about him today.
I knew Terry a little around 1984-86 when we were both involved with Illini Review on the campus of the University of Illinois. IR was a free conservative monthly, and affected a puncture-their-pretensions campaign against campus leftism and national figures. This was the era of shanties on the quad, Divest Now, that sort of thing.
Some of the IR content would hold up, some of it might be embarrassing. Sometime I might go through my IR morgue and look for Terry's contributions (though some of the material in IR was published anonymously).
Astaire and Epstein. I bought the book immediately.
“ the essayist’s essential gift of knowing many disparate things from disparate realms of human culture, and could rally them into pleasing forms.”
So he’s a hedgehog.
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