Obituary — John R. Knott

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John Knott, 86, professor emeritus of English, died Jan. 2.

He was the son of John Ray Knott and Wilma Henshaw Knott of Memphis, Tennessee, who supported what proved a critical decision to leave the South for college at Yale University. He sang in the freshman Glee Club, was a member of the Elizabethan Club and Elihu senior society, and was chairman of Yale Banner Publications.

Photo of John Knott
John Knott

He graduated in the Class of 1959 magna cum laude with honors in English. He stayed another year at Yale as a Carnegie Fellow, teaching freshman English, before entering graduate school at Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1965, and was an English instructor for two years.

He met his future wife, Anne Percy, on a blind date arranged by a Vassar alumna when Anne was about to leave Memphis for Vassar. Marriage and four children later, by 1967 the young family was established in Ann Arbor where John would spend his academic career.

At the University of Michigan, John developed a national reputation as a scholar of early modern literature, with books on Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” on English Puritan uses of the Bible, and on the literature of protestant martyrdom.

Late in his academic career he shifted his teaching and writing focus to the emerging field of environmental literature, contributing books on wilderness and evolving attitudes toward the northern forest. This new interest was stimulated by canoeing adventures with Anne, mainly in the Temagami region of northern Ontario, and on a particularly memorable trip down Alaska’s Noatak River.

Challenging hiking trips followed, including New Zealand’s Milford Track, England’s Coast to Coast Walk, and Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although John and Anne traveled widely, they were drawn by the clear, cold water and granite shoreline of Ontario’s Lake Temagami and spent several summer weeks there for three decades.

John welcomed opportunities to develop new courses, including a popular one in literature of the American wilderness.

His extensive administrative service included chairing the faculty committee that planned a new undergraduate program in environmental studies and, as interim director, was responsible for implementing it. He played a similar role as interim director of the fledgling Institute for the Humanities.

As chair of the Department of English in the early 1980s he persuaded colleagues to offer an MFA program in creative writing and took great pleasure in seeing it grow into one of the best such programs in the country. He served as acting dean of LSA in 1980-81 at a time of intense budgetary pressures.

John pursued nature photography in retirement, attending workshops in the Smokies and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He produced several collections of personal essays whose primary audience was his family.

Whatever the demands and opportunities of his professional career, his deepest commitment was to his family: his wife of 64 years; his children, Catherine, Ellen, Walker and Anne; 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He loved them deeply and encouraged them in their endeavors.

Over the years, he and Anne facilitated several lively family reunions where one of the favorite activities was singing together, especially Appalachian traditional music and spirituals from his early days. Two of his favorites were Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the Appalachian spiritual “Who Will Sing for Me?” Recordings of this music gave him great solace in his final days.

He was preceded in death by his parents and his younger brother, Robert Knott of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Cremation has taken place. Memorial contributions may be made to The Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, 101 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Lansing, MI 48906.

Submitted by the Knott family

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