The late professor was not your typical American studies academic
By David D. Hall
Roland A. Delattre, professor emeritus of American studies, died April 17, 2007. He was a colleague, teacher, and friend to many of us at the University of Minnesota for 35 years. Roland chaired the department from 1977 to 1980, served as director of graduate studies, and was an active religious studies faculty member. He taught at every level of the program and advised many graduate students. He was the author of, among many publications, Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards: An Essay in Aesthetics and Theological Ethics, a major work reissued in 2006.
We invited his dear friend and colleague David D. Hall, Bartlett Professor of American Church History at the Harvard Divinity School, to offer a personal
memory of his life.
Roland Delattre was not your customary American studies academic, and he was cut from a different cloth in other ways as well. Before he was appointed at the University of Minnesota in 1972 in the (then) Program in American Studies, he had taught in religious studies departments at Miami University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His training in religious studies at Yale, where he earned his Ph.D., was principally in theological ethics. Because he wrote his dissertation on Jonathan Edwards (the great 18th-century theologian and scholar) and was interested in American culture, he also passed as an Americanist. One of the founders of the Journal of Religious Ethics in 1973, he felt professionally at home and was widely recognized in a number of professional societies: the Society for Christian Ethics, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Studies Association.
Roland Delattre had an abiding interest in ritual, and at the 1977 national meeting of the American Studies Association he gave a remarkable paper on the ritual dimension of American culture. The distinguished anthropologist Victor W. Turner, a pioneer in ritual studies, served as a respondent to the paper. That encounter launched an important relationship between them, and Roland ultimately brought Victor Turner to the University of Minnesota as a visiting professor where they co-taught an innovative seminar that explored anthropological, literary, and historical approaches to American culture. Their shared interests facilitated a significant relationship between American studies and anthropology.
An omnivorous reader (and concert- and theater-goer), he would spend several
days with a book or an essay to the end of knowing how to put to use its arguments. In this and in many other respects he was given to “thought" far more than most of us. His other great commitment was to social justice, a stance fashioned in his teenage years when he was a delegate from Oklahoma to the Progressive Party convention of 1948 and sustained without a break until his death. He was often angry about the distance between what a democratic society should be and what it was in practice — angry, sad, and given to solitary actions of moral witness, like holding a candle on campus as a sign of hope. He aspired to transformations, political and aesthetic, at one point imagining how different the pedestrian bridge linking the two sides of the campus would look if someone actually cared about turning the ugliness of everyday life into its opposite. A moralist and an activist, he was a bon vivant, a fabulous dancer (with wife Judy Engel as his ideal partner), and a lover of art, good food, and wine.
We formed a friendship during my earliest months in graduate school (1959) that deepened over the years in ways that led us to trust in each other as though we were brothers. He shared his frustrations (which were many) with me, but also his joys, and in the end the joyous moments are what we should remember of a man who gave greatly of himself as a teacher, friend, and moral witness.