A powerhouse of literature in Australia, Gerald Wilkes, has passed away aged 92. Appointed the inaugural Chair of Australian Literature at the University in 1962, Emeritus Professor Wilkes went on to also hold the Challis Chair of English Literature, with expertise in Renaissance English literature, from 1966 until his retirement in 1996.
As Australian Literature Chair, he was highly regarded for his analyses of Christopher Brennan, A.D. Hope, Patrick White, R.D. Fitzgerald and Judith Wright, as well as championing the value of the field before it was recognised as culturally significant.
“Professor Wilkes’ range of expertise was extraordinarily wide. It is hard to imagine too many literary scholars today being able both to edit the writings of [the Elizabethan] Fulke Greville and to produce a comprehensive dictionary of Australian slang,” Chair of the Department of English, Dr Huw Griffiths said.
Professor Annamarie Jagose, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, noted that his work on nineteenth and early twentieth century Australian literature was remarkable in that it “challenged the presumption that it was predominantly nationalist in nature.”
His tenure of the Challis Chair in succession to the inaugural Australian Literature Chair was “distinctive”, said his former master’s student, protégée and friend, Emeritus Professor Margaret Harris. Wilkes’ achievements in English literature included important studies of Renaissance poetry, and a multi-volume edition of Ben Jonson’s plays.
Recognising his exceptionalism, the Australian Academy of Humanities elected him President in 1983.
He was renowned for editing two journals: the literary Southerly (for 34 years) and Sydney Studies in English, which, in large part, addressed the NSW Year 12 English curriculum. He also edited a series of editions of Shakespeare’s texts for Sydney University Press, as well as a series of critical author studies.
As gifted a teacher as he was a scholar, “one of his great strengths was delivering formal lectures to big classes,” Emeritus Professor Harris said. She recalls that, as a man of his time, he wore academic robes for this purpose.
Imposing also in stature and manner, he was nonetheless light-hearted. “He had a very dry wit and sense of humour. People were often taken aback by his wittiness,” she continued. “He was also very modest.”
Yet these are just a select few of his positive attributes. “It is interesting how many people remember him fondly, but for different reasons,” she said.