William Howarth, eminent Thoreau scholar, pioneer in the environmental humanities and ‘remarkable mentor,’ dies at 82

Jamie Saxon ・ Office of Communications

William “Will” Howarth, professor of English, emeritus, and eminent Thoreau scholar and environmental humanist, died of interstitial lung disease at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center on June 6. He was 82.

Howarth served on Princeton’s faculty for 51 years. He joined the University in 1966 and transferred to emeritus status in 2008 but kept teaching until Dec. 2017, when he suffered a severe stroke.

Specializing in American literature of 1850-1950, the history of nonfiction and environmental literature, he served as editor-in-chief of the NEH-funded project  Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, with an office in Princeton University Library, and was among the cofounders of the Princeton Environmental Institute (now High Meadows Environmental Institute). He also helped establish the Program in African American Studies at Princeton (now the Department of African American Studies).

“Will Howarth was one of the major figures in expanding the curriculum in the English department and at Princeton,” said Simon Gikandi, the Class of 1943 University Professor of English and department chair. “In his teaching, scholarship and program development he was ahead of his time and can now be considered to have been a pioneer in several areas central to English studies in the 21st century. He was a pioneer in the use of computers and the electronic media in the humanities; his monumental writings on Thoreau laid the groundwork for environmental humanities; and his work on autobiography and literary journalism made the study of nonfiction central to literary studies.”

Howarth launched over 60 undergraduate and graduate courses including “Walden in Our Time,” “Transatlantic Romanticism” and “American Renaissance,” and created Princeton’s first Web-centered courses, using digital resources to illuminate primary texts. As an associated faculty member in the Program in Applications of Computing, he led a humanities computing center.

“His epic seminars on ‘Moby Dick’ were one of the anchors of the English department’s esteem, and of our students’ best memories,” said Susan Wolfson, professor of English, who lauded Howarth’s devotion to his colleagues and students. “His office was a commodious one on the first floor, with high leaded glass windows facing the Chapel, and comfy chairs. It seemed he was always there, late into the evening, working away, but Will’s office was also, in the absence of any faculty lounge, something of a de facto hospitality suite, where everyone felt welcome to come by for conversation, for counsel, or just a cheery greeting.”

As a cofounder of Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), Howarth established the study of ecocriticism and environmental literature at Princeton, teaching courses he designed, including “Darwin in Our Time,” “Literature of Place and Travel,” “Environmental Writers” and “American Places.” He also served for 16 years on the PEI executive committee and as a faculty adviser from the inception of the Program in Environmental Studies.

“Will Howarth was at the forefront of thinking about the importance of integrating humanities scholarship in the examination of environmental topics,” said Gabriel Vecchi, professor of geosciences and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, and director of High Meadows Environmental Institute. “His advocacy for engaging the humanities paved the way for today’s robust and active involvement of humanities scholars across Princeton’s environmental research and teaching activities. Will’s contributions, as such, have had a long lasting and resounding impact.”

In 1968 and ’69, Howarth served on the faculty committee that issued the Baumol Report, which recommended to then-President Robert F. Goheen that a program of research and teaching in African American culture be established at the University. The program was launched the following academic year. Among the many courses Howarth developed and taught during his time at Princeton were “Race and Region” and “Race and Place.” In summer 2015, the University Board of Trustees voted to create the new Department for African American Studies.

“We are so saddened by the loss of William Howarth. He was instrumental in laying the foundation for African American Studies at Princeton,” said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, professor of African American studies and department chair. “We carry his family in our thoughts and prayers as we continue to do the work in the field.”

“Will was intellectually restless. Impatient at being confined within the bounds of the academic fields as he first encountered them so he decided to help extend and ultimately transform them,” said Maria DiBattista, the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and professor of English and comparative literature.

Born in Minneapolis on Nov. 26, 1940, Howarth grew up in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. He was the eldest son of Nelson Howarth, an attorney who served as fighter-director on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington in World War II, and later as Springfield’s mayor.

Howarth earned his bachelor’s degree in 1962 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked his way through college as a tractor driver, construction worker and dishwasher. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in 1967. His dissertation — written at a time when most scholars saw Thoreau as a minor transcendentalist who died early and published little — argued that Thoreau’s central work is his 2-million-word journal, unpublished until 1906.

Howarth’s extensive scholarship on Thoreau includes “The Literary Manuscripts of Henry D. Thoreau” (1974), the first comprehensive account of Thoreau’s writing methods. While co-editing “The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Volume 1: Journal, Volume 1: 1837-1844” (1981, the first in a series by Princeton University Press), he established a center at Princeton University Library that trained a generation of scholars in documentary editing. In 1982, two more books were published: “Thoreau in the Mountains” and “The Book of Concord: Thoreau’s Life as a Writer,” which argues that Thoreau’s career did not halt after publication of “Walden” in 1854 but was a process of continuous intellectual and literary growth), followed by “Walking with Thoreau” (2001).

An early proponent of the study of nonfiction, Howarth enjoyed a decades-long friendship with John McPhee, a 1953 Princeton graduate and senior fellow in journalism, who has taught his legendary journalism seminar “Literature of Fact” at the University since 1975 and is the author of 34 nonfiction books, many of them anchored in the natural world. About a decade into their friendship, Howarth edited “The John McPhee Reader” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976).

“Will was a towpath running companion from his first years at Princeton,” McPhee said. “We ran six miles babbling and joking, we weren’t running fast. We joked that he came from the mid-continent, the stable interior craton, where nothing much had happened in a billion years. He mumbled something about Abraham Lincoln.  Will was one of the 10 or so people in the world who could read Thoreau’s handwriting, which he compared to a Christmas letter from an illegible uncle. In Firestone Library, then the home of ‘The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau,’ Will was in charge of hampersful of handwritten manuscript, many tens of thousands of words, left behind by Thoreau unpublished. It did look like damaged spiderwebs. Will and his staff made it clear for Princeton University Press.” (The NEH project continues at the University of California-Santa Barbara.)

Howarth included selections of McPhee’s work in the syllabus for his course on literary nonfiction, where students took on a semester-long essay project on a topic in natural history or earth science.

Richard Preston, 1983 graduate alumnus, science and environment communicator, and author of “The Hot Zone,” “The Wild Trees” and “Crisis in the Red Zone,” credits Howarth, one of his dissertation advisers, with recommending he take McPhee’s seminar. He was one of the first graduate students to do so.

“Will’s teaching changed the course of my career and my life,” said Preston, adding that Howarth’s “sharp and artful editing” of his dissertation, titled “The Fabric of Fact: Literary Nonfiction in Nineteenth-Century America,” prompted him to call Howarth in the acknowledgements “the assassin of the mediocre phrase.” Soon after, Howarth invited him to give a talk to the English department faculty on Mark Twain, telling them Preston would be “brilliant.”

“Unfortunately, on the appointed day, I forgot to show up for the ‘brilliant’ lecture I was supposed to deliver,” Preston recalled. “Will saved my neck. He got up and said, ‘I don’t know what happened to Richard, but here is what he would have said if he were here.’ And then Will proceeded to deliver a magnificent lecture on Mark Twain off the top of his head without any notes or preparation — a tour de force of a wing job, which Mark Twain himself would have admired. Not a day goes by in my writing when I don’t put to use what I learned in Princeton’s English department, and pretty often I learned it studying with Will Howarth.”

During his more than five decades at Princeton, Howarth supervised hundreds of senior theses and dissertations, and is remembered for his dedicated mentorship and, as Adam Gussow, a member of the Class of 1979 and a 2000 graduate alumnus, recalls, his discerning expertise with a red pencil.

“Will was a gentle man of generous spirit, a real mensch, but he was also a professional writer who cared about the Strunk & White virtues: economy, clarity and directness,” said Gussow, a professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. “When I gave him the 137-page first chapter of my dissertation, with more than a few Foucault-tinged bloviations, he returned it within a week, red-penciled in a way that infuriated me. I fumed for a few days, then we had it out. ‘If I didn’t believe in you,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t have taken the time to do that.’ We became fast friends. He barely touched the second chapter, because I’d learned my lesson. He was a remarkable mentor; I feel incredibly fortunate to have had him in my corner.”

Howarth was a member of the Thoreau Society of America, serving as president from 1974-75; the Modern Languages Association; and Phi Beta Kappa. He was also a former trustee of Princeton University Press, chairman of the Center for American Places, and a board member of 12 scholarly associations and journals. He reported on literary America for National Geographic, Smithsonian, The New York Times and the Washington Post, among many other publications.

Howarth’s wife, Anne Matthews, is a 1981 graduate alumnus and the first woman to direct the Princeton Writing Program. She and her husband collaborated on a novel, “Deep Creek” (2010), depicting the 1887 investigation of the real-life mass murder of Chinese miners in Hells Canyon. They also co-led trips for Princeton Journeys, the alumni travel program, to Alaska, the Galapagos, Europe, Tanzania, the South Seas and Australia/New Zealand. In 2009, Howarth received Princeton’s Award for Excellence in Alumni Education.

In addition to his wife, Howarth is survived by his siblings, David, Lydia and Virgil, and his children, Jeffrey and Jennifer.

Donations in Howarth’s memory may be made to the Ridgeview Conservancy, for preservation of Princeton open space, or to the Friends of the Princeton University Library.

View or share comments on a blog intended to honor Howarth’s life and legacy.