Robert Murray Davis (1934-2021) R.I.P.

Robert Murray Davis, one of the leading academic scholars of Evelyn Waugh and his works, has died in Arizona on 11 September 2021 at the age of 87. The following obituary has appeared as well as a related story in the Boonville Daily News in Boonville, Missouri, his home town. Here are some excerpts from the newspaper article by Bert McClary as well as from the obituary:

When Bob Davis graduated in 1951 at age 16 as valedictorian from Ss. Peter and Paul High School, after having worked at the Cooper County Record with local newspaperman, historian and author E.J. Melton, he was not yet aware of his career goal, but he knew it would be something involving the use of words.  He also was not yet aware of his family ancestry including the 16th Century theologian and author William Whitaker, Master of St. John’s College of Divinity, Cambridge University, England, and William’s son, Alexander, lifetime missionary to Jamestown Colony, America and publisher in England of cultural sermons to his white congregants and the natives he converted.

Bobby Davis grew up on a 24 acre “place” within the city limits of Boonville with parents M.C. and Liz Davis, siblings Johnny and Mary Beth, and many chickens, cows, and hogs, where he learned the politics, culture and responsibilities of both city and country life.  He played all sports, but had a special interest in baseball.

After four years at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Bob worked briefly as a reporter for a small Kansas newspaper.  Finding the routine unsatisfactory, he returned to academics and earned master’s and doctorate degrees in English literature at the University of Kansas and the University of Wisconsin.  The field of academics and scholarly writing proved more acceptable.

An academic career that followed included Loyola University, Chicago, the University of California, [Santa Barbara] and the University of Oklahoma, Norman.  At OU he served in many academic and administrative roles in the English department, including directing the graduate studies program. During more than 50 years Bob received numerous grants and awards for teaching, research and travel, taught at five American, two Canadian and two Hungarian universities and lectured in more than a dozen countries.

His academic and publishing area was modern English and American literature and creative writing, focusing on literary criticism and scholarship, literature of the American West and literature and culture of Central Europe.  He published more than 20 books and numerous scholarly articles between 1966 and 2014, and was one of the foremost authorities on the life and literature of the well-known modern English satirist Evelyn Waugh.

While Bob’s emphasis was primarily scholarly writing, of little interest to the general public, he wrote two volumes of poetry and several nonfiction books related to his life experiences.  His published books included creative nonfiction Mid-Lands: A Family Album, The Ornamental Hermit: People and Places of the New West, and Midlife Mojo: A Guide for the Newly Single Male; the cultural study The Literature of Post-Communist Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania; a collection of personal essays Born-Again Skeptic & Other Valedictions; and a collection of poems Live White Male.

Mid-Lands is both a memoir and social commentary, describing growing up as a Catholic in Boonville, and being a youth in white, small-town, post-war America.  Boonville is a town that he appreciates and is proud to be from …

The following excerpt appeared in the obituary:

…While in Wisconsin he met and married fellow PhD candidate Barbara Hillyer. Bob’s first teaching positions were at Loyola University in Chicago, and the University of California at [Santa Barbara].  Bob and Barbara continued their careers at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, where Barbara was director of the women’s studies program and Bob served in many academic and administrative roles in the English Department.  They adopted three children, and Bob was active with them in a local swim club, was a competitive adult swimmer, and continued his lifelong love of jazz and blues music.[…]

Bob retired from OU as Emeritus Professor of English and moved to Phoenix, where he met Elaine Brock, and they were life partners for 18 years.  He continued to work as an independent writer, lecturer, and consultant.

He was preceded in death by his parents and is survived by his partner Elaine of the home; brother John (Pat) Davis and sister Beth (Bert) McClary, both of Boonville; daughter Megan (Don) Dey and grandchildren Brendan and Mia of Phoenix; son John (Alex) Davis and grandchildren Mathew and Lucas of Seattle, Washington; daughter Jennifer Davis of Okarche, Oklahoma; and a number of nieces, nephews and cousins throughout the United States.

A memorial service will be held at a future date in Boonville.

UPDATE (6 October 2021): The stories above originally indicated that Robert Murray Davis taught for a time at the University of California, Davis. In his memoirs Levels of Incompetence, Davis wrote that he taught for several years starting in 1965 at University of California, Santa Barbara.

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