Department of English

Anthony Hilfer (1936--2008)

Thu, April 17, 2008

Anthony Channell Hilfer, Iris Howard Regents Professor of English Literature at the University of Texas, died Friday, April 11th, in a two-car accident in Austin, Texas.  He was 71 years old.  Hilfer was a renowned scholar of popular genres, including crime fiction and film noir.  Hilfer was among a group of literary critics and writers who brought these popular genres into the university classroom in the tumultuous years following the 1960s--those who recognized that contemporary pulp fiction may indeed merit a place alongside the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, writers who themselves worked in the popular genres of their day.  Hilfer's influential book The Crime Novel: A Deviant Genre (University of Texas Press, 1990) was among the first to define the characteristics of crime fiction as distinct from other variants, including mysteries and suspense novels, and to provide a critical treatment of that unsettling genre.

Hilfer's interest in popular culture may be traced back to his early life. Born in Hollywood, California, Hilfer became acquainted at an early age with the glamour of the film industry.

A powerful critical intellect, Hilfer brought his life experiences and his vast reading to bear on the theoretical debates of his discipline, especially those surrounding postmodernism, poststructuralism, and cultural studies.  Extremely curious about breaking developments in literary studies, he nevertheless opposed what he took to be certain dogmatic tendencies within contemporary theoretical discourse.  His recent book, The New Hegemony in Literary Studies: Contradictions in Theory  (Northwestern University Press, 2003), took a stand against such perceived dogmatism.  This book won him the admiration of playwright David Mamet, prompting an exchange between the two men.

Hilfer edited American Fiction since 1940, an important anthology of contemporary American writing published by Longman (1992).  He was also the long-time co-editor of Texas Studies in Language and Literature.  Hilfer is the author of numerous other books, articles, and reviews on a wide array of topics in American literature and culture.

Most recently, Hilfer had taken up a new theoretical and political cause in his work:  ecocriticism.  Hilfer perceived the destruction of the environment and the crisis of global warming as an immense problem that must no longer be evaded or ignored.  His final manuscript, “The Nothing that Is: Representations of Nature in American Writing,” was his visionary plea that we pay attention to the earth--and not just as fictional or poetic representation.  Indeed, he believed, our survival depends on it.

Hilfer received his B.A. from Middlebury College in 1958, his M.A. from Columbia University in 1963, and his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1963.  He joined the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin in 1963. 

Hilfer is survived by his wife Jane Periman Koock Hilfer, his son Thomas Haley (Tom) Hilfer of Harper, Texas, and by Jane's daughters and their families: Kathryn and George Hillhouse and their children, Sam and Henry, of Austin, Texas, and by Molly and Hunt James and their children, Maddie and Miles, of Tampa, Florida.  He will be enormously missed by a large group of friends and colleagues, current and former students, and admirers of his intellectual legacy.

Betty Sue Flowers, Director of the LBJ Library and Museum at the University of Texas, said of Hilfer: "He was so important to me—from the moment I took my first class from him as a nineteen-year-old, he inspired me with his love of literature and his intelligent curiosity about everything.  He was a pure soul, very beautiful.  I took as many courses from him as I could and asked him to direct my undergraduate honors thesis, which he did so well that it was published and helped me greatly in landing the job at UT—which, of course, was central to my life.  I last saw him in Starbuck’s briefly, and he was his cheery, dark, generous, present self.  How I will miss his being in this world!"

Flower’s sense of gratitude and admiration for Tony, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, is shared by those who knew him.

Memorial contributions may be sent to the UT Department of English, c/o Dr. Elizabeth Cullingford, Chair of English, 1 University Station, B5000, Austin, TX 78712. Proceeds will go towards the Tony Hilfer Annual Prize for best article published in Texas Studies in Language and Literature.

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