The adventure ends for writer and English professor Douglas Day
File photo / Elizabeth Wilkerson
|Douglas Day in 1974
By Anne Bromley
The University had to say goodbye to one of its longtime members: Douglas Turner Day III, 72, died Oct. 10 at home in Albemarle County. Day, who won the National Book Award in 1974, was a U.Va. alumnus and joined the English faculty in 1962, where he taught for 38 years. He was the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program when he retired in 2000.
Some people may not know what a true son of the University Day was. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from U.Va. He once wrote that, as an undergraduate he strove for a gentleman’s Cs, but “slipped up one semester and made the dean’s list”; he lived on the Lawn in the same room his great-grandfather occupied 100 years earlier; and he had occasion to sit at the feet of William Faulkner when the celebrated Southern author enjoyed a writer-in-residency on Grounds. (Day would later edit and restore one of Faulkner’s last novels, “Flags in the Dust.”)
The son of a Navy admiral, Day was born in Panama and lived in several places in the Caribbean during childhood, but his family’s roots were in Warrenton, Virginia.
Becoming an English professor at his alma mater was not his first career choice. After college, Day followed his father’s military footsteps and became a Marine Air Corps jet fighter pilot in the 1950s. Unfortunately, his penchant for adventure also included racing cars, which led to an accident that broke his leg and ultimately ended his military career.
As a graduate student, the young Day excelled in American and British literature and taught at Washington and Lee University before finishing his Ph.D. Then, in an unusual move, U.Va. hired Day as a member of its English department faculty, despite him having gotten his Ph.D. here.
One of Day’s four children, Emily Day Whitworth, said that, throughout the years, former students have told her many times about how her father’s teaching changed their lives.
Although his health limited his activity in recent years — “his body became a prison to him,” Whitworth said — Day was a well-known figure in the Academical Village. His biography of Malcolm Lowry, author of “Under the Volcano,” won the 1974 National Book Award.
Day also wrote fiction, and published his first novel, “Journey of the Wolf,” in 1977. It won the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Among the U.Va. undergraduates who benefited from and enjoyed Day’s teaching was an honors student named John T. Casteen III, who also became an English professor, before his career led him to become U.Va. president.
Casteen said he still has old school papers with Day’s comments scribbled in the margins. “He was a splendid reader, and his marginal comments are always apt, always helpful, always profoundly intelligent — and always straight to the point.
“Through it all, he was a brilliant companion and raconteur,” Casteen said. “He could talk about flying and Porsches and photography and ways of thinking with a facility and freshness of perspective that always left me or us with a wealth of things to ponder and to return to later — and he did this always with kindness and wit. His death is a terrible loss.”
As Day taught modern literature, he turned to the new fiction coming from south of the border, in the era that brought out lesser-known Latin America authors known as “The Boom.” He taught the works of Jorge Luis Borgés, Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others, and looked at how their work was influenced by Faulkner.
“He woke up [the literature departments] … he was a major factor in bringing extraordinary Latin American authors to English readers,” said Commonwealth Professor of Spanish David T. Gies.
Day had several “small world” connections to colleagues in the English department that resulted in lasting friendships. Both Martin Battestin, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of English, who joined the faculty a year before Day, and Arthur Kirsch, Alice Griffin Professor Emeritus of English Literature, said they got to know him well through their wives. Battestin’s wife, Ruthe, was a fellow graduate student with Day, and Kirsch’s wife, Beverly, knew Day when he was based in Hawaii, because her father commanded the naval station.
The Battestins said they loved getting letters from him describing his adventures. Though fluent in Spanish from childhood, Day would tell funny stories about how his grasp of the language could be very poor. One time his car broke down on a country road in Spain, and he made the villagers at a tavern roar with laughter when he said his car was seized by a pig, instead of stuck in the mud, Martin Battestin said.
Sometimes compared to Ernest Hemingway and close to the image up to the bitter end, Day loved Spain and all things Hispanic. He taught at the University of Zaragoza in Aragon on a Fulbright fellowship and returned repeatedly to live in the country when he wasn’t teaching. The main character of his first novel was a Spaniard, and Day edited a collection of plays by Federico Garcia Lorca.
He lectured extensively in South America for the United States Information Agency, and traveled to Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. In addition to publishing travel articles, he penned many reviews and essays about authors and literature.
Day’s second novel, “The Prison Notebooks of Ricardo Flores Magon,” published in 1991, took place in Mexico. At the time of his death, he was working on a novel about the Yanomamo, set in Peru.
Day is survived by his wife, Sheila McMillen Day, a daughter, three sons and seven grandchildren.
“He was the smartest man I’ve ever known,” his daughter said. “He took me on some wild adventures, and I cherish every one. He was my hero.”