Obituary: Graham Martin

Literary critic and cultural studies innovator

The teacher, critic and editor Professor Graham Martin, who has died aged 76, was, until his retirement in 1992, head of the Open University's literature department. There, animated by a deep knowledge of his subject, he drew generations of students into his love affair with literature.

I first met Graham in the early 1950s in Oxford, where, finishing with a first, he gained a reputation as one of the leading English undergraduates of his generation. To fellow students like myself, he embodied the spirit of the criticism emerging in the wake of FR Leavis and the magazine Scrutiny. In this perspective, criticism was a morally serious, disciplined affair, attentive to language and text - "these words in this order" - while literature offered a privileged opening into an inward understanding of different forms of life as they were "lived", valued and experienced.

Not that Graham was ever a Leavisite. His view of literature was more open, generous, undidactic, part of a serious, even-handed conversation. He respected the ethical imperative of making reasoned judgments, but they were always up for reappraisal, never treated as absolute or final. He was also passionately engaged with ideas - and loved debating and discussing them for their own sake. He moved between text and context without reductiveness or final closure and always saw literature as part of a wider culture.

Graham seemed to us other undergraduates to have acquired a knowledge and a maturity that made him a person of quiet authority and wisdom, and he was already close to the handful of figures who represented this critical tradition in Oxford - a distinctly minority affair, at odds with the prevailing belletrism.

Most influential was his tutor FW "Freddy" Bateson, and Graham joined the circle around Essays In Criticism, the journal that Bateson edited, which also included Raymond Williams. When Graham and Al Alvarez founded the Critical Society, we undergraduates were drawn to it like bees to honey.

I had assumed, partly because he was slightly older, that he was a postgraduate. He already had a chemistry degree from St Andrews University, and had taught science in a London school, but, encouraged to pursue his first love, literature, had won a scholarship to read English at Merton College. Thus was his life's vocation, the product of a major shift of direction.

Graham came from a Glasgow business family and never lost his attachment to Scotland, retaining a gently humorous, non-metropolitan, sense of irony. He went to Glenalmond School, a distinguished Perthshire establishment for ministers's sons - a fact to which he did not always confess - though its ethos must have contributed to the quiet seriousness which he purveyed. He played rugby, sang in the choir and learned the Psalms - and a great deal of other poetry - by heart. He had a phenomenal memory.

At Oxford he married his landlady, Molly Yardley, who had been recently widowed and was living with her two sons. Their house became a retreat for fellow critics, odd Rhodes scholars and stray colonials like myself. The atmosphere of Rose Cottage was one of the first genuinely domestic environments with which those of us confined to the frosty reaches of undergraduate bachelorhood became acquainted.

Later in the 1950s, Graham taught at Leeds University, where he formed a close relationship with the great Marxist critic Arnold Kettle. Then came London University's Bedford College, where he made many friends, including the critic Barbara Hardy. He published critical essays on modern poets - notably on WB Yeats and TS Eliot - and contributed to the Penguin Guide To Literature, edited by his friend Boris Ford.

When Kettle established the OU's literature department in 1970, he invited Graham to join his team. Graham spent the rest of his career at the OU, to which he was attached by convictions and commitments much broader than the purely academic or pedagogic.

In his undoctrinaire way, Graham was a lifelong socialist, bringing his rigorous critical and ethical standards to bear on political questions. In the 1960s, he led the literature group of the New Left Club and contributed to the New Left Review in its early days. Much later, he found it hard to come to terms with New Labour's abandonment of the achievements of the welfare state and attempts to recast the values of social democracy.

Like Williams, with whom he maintained a close friendship, he was deeply interested in cultural questions and their bearing on politics. He played a major role in writing and shaping what became a landmark in cultural studies, the OU popular culture course, the first of its kind in higher education. He engaged with the literary theory "turn" in the teaching of literature and, unlike many of its critics, made himself familiar with, and open to argument about, its often bewildering twists and shifts.

But though he taught George Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Antonio Gramsci, he resisted the pressures to make literature departments offshoots of cultural studies. He remained attached to the tradition that formed him - literary criticism as a humane, critical discourse designed to deepen the social awareness of a wider readership.

His relationship with his wife Molly was a lifetime affair. Kind, generous, intelligent, with a mordant wit, she often punctuated Graham's slower, more reflective delivery with a succinct, piercing, pithy remark. In the late 1950s, they were living with the two boys in a flat behind Victoria and often invited me - as I was far from my home in the West Indies - to visit. It was here that I first learned the rituals of an English Christmas. Later, they moved to a Chelsea flat overlooking the river and Embankment Gardens: a place crammed with the appurtenances inherited by a middle-class English lady from her Victorian and Edwardian ancestors - tea in beautiful china, bone-handled cake knives - and G&Ts in crystal tumblers.

Molly endured a long period of failing health, during which Graham looked after her with unswerving devotion. This seemed to deepen the bonds between them; and when she died, in 2002, he was inconsolable, finding her absence insupportable. His death in that Chelsea flat was in that sense not unpredictable. He is survived by his brother, Bill, and his stepsons, Peter and Simon. He lived a complicated life complexly, and in this and many other ways remains for us, in his strong but unobtrusive way, quite exemplary.

· Charles Graham Martin, academic, born September 19 1927; died January 21 2004

Stuart Hall

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Bradbury, great novelist, great critic, dies at 68
Sir Malcolm Bradbury, one of the most prolific and influential novelists, critics and academics of his generation, died unexpectedly yesterday at the age of 68.

John Ezard, Jeevan Vasagar and Maev Kennedy

28, Nov, 2000 @11:13 AM

Article image
The ideas interview: Frank Kermode

Britain's foremost literary critic tells John Sutherland why the study of English lit needs to become a tough subject again.

John Sutherland

29, Aug, 2006 @7:54 AM

Obituary: Edward Said
Controversial literary critic and bold advocate of the Palestinian cause in America.

Malise Ruthven

26, Sep, 2003 @9:52 AM

Article image
Susan Sontag dies aged 71
Cultural critic called herself a 'zealot of seriousness'.

David Teather in New York and Sam Jones

29, Dec, 2004 @12:31 PM

Obituary: David Daiches
Obituary: Prolific scholar and teacher whose works showed his mastery of literary criticism, history and culture.

John Calder

18, Jul, 2005 @9:51 AM

The ideas interview: Franco Moretti

John Sutherland meets a great iconoclast of literary criticism.

John Sutherland

09, Jan, 2006 @11:38 AM

G2: Portrait, Al Alvarez

He was an acclaimed academic. But in his 30s, Al Alvarez turned his back on literary criticism and embarked on a high-risk life of poker and rock climbing. Stephen Moss meets a man with few regrets.

Stephen Moss

08, Mar, 2001 @12:23 AM

Obituary: Carolyn Gold Heilbrun
Important feminist literary critic and theorist who, as Amanda Cross, was also a much-loved writer of detective stories.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

30, Oct, 2003 @10:47 AM

Scholar Edward Said dies

Edward Said - scholar, literary critic and the most eloquent supporter of the Palestinian cause - died in New York yesterday after a long battle against leukaemia. He was 67.

Brian Whitaker

26, Sep, 2003 @10:06 AM

Article image
Eagleton faces axe at Manchester

Terry Eagleton, Britain's leading Marxist literary critic, faces the axe at Manchester University. The institution is in the process of losing 650 jobs to clear a £30m debt

Liz Ford and Donald MacLeod

07, Feb, 2008 @3:28 PM