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In Memoriam: Edward W. “Ted” Tayler, Beloved Shakespeare Scholar

a man in a suit and tie

Jessica Raimi

Edward W. “Ted” Tayler, the Lionel Trilling Professor Emeritus and special lecturer in English and comparative literature, whose transformative lectures on Shakespeare and Milton inspired thousands of students and earned him the University’s highest honors, died on April 23, 2018. He was 87.

Tayler was born in Berlin in 1931 to William R. Tayler, an engineer, and Violetta Klavin-Zeiden, a Latvian emigrée, and raised in Westfield, N.J. He earned a B.A. from Amherst in 1954 and a Ph.D. in English from Stanford in 1960, joining Columbia’s faculty weeks later. He also taught at Stanford, Princeton and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.

At Columbia, Tayler taught 16th- and 17th-century poetry and prose and other canonical works for nearly four decades and was known for astonishing his students into literary epiphany.

While some students called Tayler theatrical, many others called him life changing. Dramatist Tony Kushner ’78, author of Angels in America, credited Tayler’s Shakespeare lectures with inspiring him to become a playwright. “I thought I was going to faint, I was so overwhelmed ... it made the world look different,” Kushner said.

Tayler’s courses included Lit Hum; The New Yorker film critic David Denby ’65, JRN’66, who studied 17th-century metaphysical poetry with Tayler in 1962, featured him, and Lit Hum, in his 1997 book Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. Denby described him as “brilliant,” a “hipster wit” who helped students “feel like they are reading literature for the first time.”

The Core Curriculum writing course that Tayler created in 1983, “Logic and Rhetoric,” now known as “University Writing,” earned him a Distinguished Service to the Core Curriculum Award in 1998. “Ted Tayler was trying to get away from the cookie-cutter and formulaic writing, which ultimately shuts down thinking,” said Sandra Pierson Prior, head of the Logic and Rhetoric/Composition program from 1982 to 2002. “‘Logic and Rhetoric’ was designed to develop analytical thinking, so students could learn to approach any intellectual problem and deal with it logically.”

Tayler wrote four books — Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature (1964); Literary Criticism of 17th-Century England (1967); Milton’s Poetry: Its Development in Time (1979); and Donne’s Idea of a Woman (1991). “I had, after all, always maintained that publication must come second and ought ideally to be constrained by Horace’s nine-year period of incubation,” Tayler said in 1989, when he was named an “Honored Scholar” by the Milton Society. Teaching, he continued, “must come first and ought to be considered the noblest of endeavors. ... To read Homer, Virgil and Milton with young people vitally concerned with such authors as these — now that, I thought, must be a thing worth doing.”

Upon retiring in 1999, Tayler was Columbia’s most decorated teacher. He received a Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates in 1985, the Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching in 1986 and the University’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1996. Upon receiving the last, the following citation was delivered: “An educational innovator, revered classroom teacher, and devoted mentor to both undergraduate and graduate students. Your students call you magical, learned and passionate, tough yet tender, witty, humane, wholly unique. Many report that you have changed their lives.”

He was also honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Humanities-Huntington Grants. Colleagues published two collections of Renaissance essays in his honor.

In spring 1968, Tayler was scuffed up by police while protesting alongside students against Columbia’s perceived racism and support for the Vietnam War. But he eschewed the protesters’ takeover of campus buildings, cautioning them that “you can’t remove the chains of oppression by putting them on classroom doors.”

Tayler was an avid Norton Commando rider and squash player who liked his martinis bone-dry, with a twist.

Survivors include his third wife, Christina Lee Moustakis; children, William, David and Letta BC’80, from his first marriage, to Stanley Craig Tayler; Edward and Jesse from his second marriage, to Irene Smith Tayler; and four grandchildren.

Read more about Tayler in CCT’s May 2004 cover story.