Kurth Sprague was an associate professor in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin from 1988-95, teaching seminars on the influence of King Arthur and medievalism in American literature, art, and films, and “How to Write about Culture.”
Among the qualities that made him such a special teacher were his fearlessness in expressing enthusiasm for good student work—in fact, good work done by anyone (no academic reserve for him)—his gentleness, his sense of humor and explosive laughter, and his reverence for and encouragement of clear prose. A master of prose himself, he saw no reason that others shouldn’t become as competent as he, and he was willing to do all the coaching students would work to take in.
He was a close friend of American Studies faculty and staff—very much one of our team. When Bob Crunden died suddenly in 1999, Janice Bradley Garrett, our Administrative Associate, arranging how we dealt with death just as she did our teaching lives, had him MC the memorial service.
A great bear of a man, enthusiast and life-lover, Kurth was also, as I knew him, a cynic who saw the truth behind most shams—but a cynic of such sweet heart, that, knowing the truth, he did his best to protect those of us who shouldn’t see it—even at the cost of his having to play straight man, even the buffoon. If he was Falstaff, as many have suggested, he was the gentleman Falstaff never was.
The newspaper obituary:
A poet, novelist, popular professor of English & American Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, horseman, and bon vivant, Kurth Sprague lived an eclectic life with gusto. He died March 18, 2007 in Fort Worth at the age of 73.
Kurth was born March 11, 1934 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He grew up in Manhattan and went to St. Paul's School and to Princeton, and later moved to West Lake Hills, where he and his second wife, Bushie, owned and operated Blackacre Stable. Their home on the top of a hill above a hunt course drew students and scholars, medieval musicians, writers and riders, and English ecclesiastics, often in overlapping categories, sometimes to the astonishment of their children, Mark, Quin, David, and Charlotte.
Falstaffian in his exuberance, Sprague was a large and imposing but gentle man. The workings of his mind were as colorful as the medieval Celtic art that he loved. He received his doctorate in English from UT-Austin, writing his dissertation on T. H. White, the British author of The Once and Future King. A revised version of the dissertation is in press, prompted by the renewed interest in medievalism. It will be published under the editorial supervision of Dr. Bonnie Wheeler of Southern Methodist University.
Related to his dissertation are collections that he edited of White's poetry (A Joy Proposed, 1980) and short stories (The Maharajah and Other Stories, 1982). These books followed his first edited publication in 1977, the poetry of Ruth P. M. Lehmann, his teacher of Old English and Old Irish at UT-Austin.
Sprague's own published writings include three volumes of poetry: And Therefore With Angels (1970), My Father's Mighty Heart (1974), and The Promise Kept, which won the Texas Institute of Letters poetry award for 1976. His deep knowledge of the American equestrian scene is displayed in his 470-page history of The National Horse Show, 1883-1983 (1985). Two of the strands of his life, academe and horses, are brought together in his murder mystery, Frighten the Horses (2003).
Oddly enough, the two strands had been brought together years earlier during his service in the Army, when he was assigned to the Department of Publications and Non-Resident Training at the Artillery and Guided Missile School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. As Sprague said years later, it was his writing ability in that assignment, rather than any athletic prowess, that caused him to be appointed to the United States Modern Pentathlon Team, which trained at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Sprague taught at the University of Texas at Austin from 1977 until his retirement in 1996. In 1983 he served as the editorial director for the Centennial Commission Report, and afterward he wrote the charter for the Texas Foundation on Higher Education.
The courses that he taught in the English Department and in American Studies included "King Arthur in English Literature," "Medieval Literature in Translation," "American Medievalism," and "American Chivalry."
A lover of English poetry, he would continue his conversations outside the classroom with friends, students, and former students. He was happy to spend hours passionately reciting and discussing the magic of Sir Thomas Wyatt's "The flee from me, that sometime did me seek," Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, Robert Herrick's "Delight in Disorder," or Swinburne's "When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces."
After Bushie’s death, Kurth lived in the Texas Hill Country in a house that reflected his epicurean hospitality and his love of books, horses, tweeds, England, Der Rosenkavalier, art, food, drink, and good friends. In recent years, he enjoyed the company of traveling and entertaining with Martha Hyder of Fort Worth.
Tom Cable, the Jane and Roland Blumberg Chair in English at UT and Kurth’s good friend:
If all the world’s a stage and if each man in his time plays many parts, Kurth’s multifaceted personality could populate a whole gallery of Shakespearean and Chaucerian characters.
From that gallery here are four: Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, and from The Tempest, the wizard Prospero; and two from Chaucer, the Franklin and, less obviously, the young Oxford scholar.
Falstaff, of course, was always getting into trouble, in his high-spirited and irrepressible way, and getting his friends into trouble too, including the future king of England, Henry V. Well, I am not Prince Hal, nor was meant to be, but I know this, that during the 1970s and 1980s, I got in the doghouse more than once through what might be called dissolute behavior in the company of Kurth.
I’m amazed to think back on some of those Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. The Sunday afternoons were spent watching the Dallas Cowboys, either at Blackacre or on my hilltop facing Blackacre across the valley.
I really have no interest in football. But Kurth, like a Jupiter of a planet, pulled me into the gravitational field of Sunday afternoon NFL, and for the only time in my life I talked as though I was on familiar terms with Roger the Dodger, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Danny White, and somebody named Hogeboom.
Part of it was the simple joy of seeing Kurth jump up from the couch with “Hot damn!” when Roger Staubach passed for a touchdown. I think Quin, David, Charlotte, and Amory must have wondered why grown men act that way—not to mention what Bushie and Carole thought.
Aspects of the Falstaffian side of Kurth extended into the normally placid English Department. Each year at the Department holiday party, to the delight of Miss Rattey, Kurth would bring a fifth of Wild Turkey, in flagrant violation of all university rules.
I don’t mean to say that Kurth violated rules.
Maybe I do mean to say that. Oh Lord, yes, he violated rules.
He once told me he went four years without paying income tax because it depressed him. That struck me as reasonable. The next April I told Carole I was too depressed to file income tax that year. She was not amused.
Another obvious side of Kurth is the hospitality and generosity represented by Chaucer’s Franklin, with a touch of the host of the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailey. Of the many moments one could name when Kurth presided at a sumptuous table, among the most recent and most brilliant were when he teamed up with Martha Hyder in Forth Worth or Sandy or San Miguel de Allende.
Chaucer wrote about the Franklin, these lines:
A Frankeleyn was in his compaignye.
Whit was his berd as is the dayesye;
Of his complexioun he was sangwyn.
Wel loved he by the morwe a sop in wyn;
To lyven in delit was evere his wone,
For he was Epicurus owene sone.
Or to continue in a modernized version:
Such hospitality did he provide,
He was St. Julian to his countryside.
His bread and ale were always up to scratch.
He had a cellar none on earth could match.
There was no lack of pastries in his house,
Both fish and flesh, and that so plenteous
That where he lived it snowed of meat and drink.
With every dish of which a man can think,
After the various seasons of the year.
The last two characters, I’ll name together, and they make an unlikely pairing, the young thin, Oxford scholar riding a horse as thin as a rake, and Prospero, the mature sorcerer, living on his magic island.
Kurth’s magic island in his last years was his hilltop in Sandy, Newbold Revel, named after the home of Sir Thomas Malory, the author of the Morte D’Arthur, published by William Caxton in 1485.
On that hilltop he was both the wizard Prospero and—although many may find it hard to imagine—the ascetic scholar, or clerk, because he loved being alone with his books.
Chaucer said that the Clerk would rather have at his bed’s head, twenty books clad in black or red, than to have rich robes. “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.”
If these various aspects of Kurth seem contradictory, we can say, in paraphrase of Walt Whitman, “Very well, then, he contradicts himself. He is large. He contains multitudes.”
Or, what Kurth says of literature one could say of the man, Kurth Sprague, himself: “Literature resists and eludes our best efforts to reduce it, to take it to bits, down to the last infinitesimal hairspring, and to say, authoritatively, this is what it means and no more—for its variety is immense, its scope immeasurable, its profundity limitless.”
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Heros show up in the damndest places and Professor Kurth Sprague was one to me. We met at the University of Texas and he convinced me of the possibility of almost everything. His life will be greatly remarked upon as the following shall attest. God Bless old man, may your beers be cold and your pisses warm.
Posted by agent mule at 1:22 AM