Donald Winslow, professor at BU; specialized in life writing; at 98

Donald Winslow hired poet Robert Lowell at BU, who in turn taught poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton at the university. Donald Winslow hired poet Robert Lowell at BU, who in turn taught poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton at the university.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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By Donald J. Winslow’s definition, what follows might be considered a profile, “a brief sketch professing to give only the outlines of a character and a life.’’

There are other possibilities. His 1980 monograph “Life-Writing’’ offered “a glossary of terms’’ that writers use to describe how they capture lives on the page. Thus, he wrote, “biographical works, usually of the brief, obituary type . . . may be called elegies.’’

And though few might think of it as such, a newspaper obituary could also be thought of as an epitaph, which Dr. Winslow defined as “strictly speaking, an inscription on a tomb, but the word came to mean any written piece for the memorial purpose.’’

Dr. Winslow, an English professor at Boston University for 41 years, died of heart failure July 10 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was 98 and lived most of his life in the Auburndale village of Newton, either on or a short walk from the Lasell College campus, where he was born and where his father was a president.

Lasell’s archives are named for Dr. Winslow, who gathered and established the collection and wrote the 1987 book “Lasell: A History of the First Junior College for Women.’’

“The college is indebted to him for his commitment to the school, his sharp memory of momentous occasions on this campus, and his ongoing efforts to keep the traditions and history of Lasell vibrant for our growing community,’’ said a statement from Michael B. Alexander, Lasell’s president.

“Every college needs its chronicler; Don was ours,’’ Thomas DeWitt, a past president of Lasell, said in a remembrance issued by the college.

Dr. Winslow chronicled more than just the college, however. He wrote his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on British writer Thomas Hardy.

A couple of years after graduating with a master’s from Tufts College, Dr. Winslow “wanted to see Thomas Hardy country,’’ said his wife, Charlotte. In 1938, he took a bicycle tour around Dorset, in southwestern England.

“Someone told him that Thomas Hardy’s sister Kate was living in a certain house,’’ his wife said. “He called her up and went there, and she showed him things that had belonged to Thomas Hardy. He didn’t think he was going to write about her; he was just all excited to be in Hardy country and see the birthplace and other places. It was really just enthusiasm.’’

Dr. Winslow wrote a monograph about Kate Hardy that helped illuminate the life of her brother.

“He was a real scholar, in the sense that he didn’t do it to be a scholar, he did it because he loved what he did,’’ his wife said.

Donald James Winslow was the third of four children, and his father, Lasell president Guy Winslow, hoped he would pursue the sciences. While growing up, the Winslow children met guests who spoke at Lasell, including poet Robert Frost, who dined at the president’s residence.

Dr. Winslow graduated from Newton High School in 1929 and edited the student weekly newspaper at Tufts, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1934 and a master’s in 1935, both in English.

The lack of jobs during the Great Depression was one reason he pursued graduate studies. Dr. Winslow received a doctorate in English from Boston University in 1942 and skipped graduation ceremonies to be sworn in to the US Army Air Corps Weather Service, with which he served until 1946.

Joining the faculty at Boston University, Dr. Winslow chaired the English department from 1952 to 1962. He also taught courses on Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and an early college course devoted to biography.

“He was almost a pioneer,’’ said his wife, who formerly taught English at Emerson College. “At the time he was teaching at Boston University, biography wasn’t really a field in itself.’’

Dr. Winslow’s first marriage, to Lois Nelson, ended in divorce. Their son Paul lives in Lexington. Their other son Sanford, an artist, died of cancer in 2002.

In 1978, the year after Dr. Winslow became a professor emeritus, he married Charlotte Lindgren, whom he had known since she studied with him at Boston University years earlier.

“We had an ideal relationship that was not only a love match; we had a real meeting of the minds,’’ she said. “To me, it was always exciting because he had so many ideas.’’

Their wedding ceremony was in Oxford, England; and they traveled each summer, often to Hardy country in Dorset.

“We were very well known in Dorset,’’ she said. “I think what made Don important to them locally was the fact that he had met Hardy’s sister.’’

Dr. Winslow’s interest in the field of biography led him to become the bibliographer of the academic quarterly Biography, based at the University of Hawaii.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. tomorrow in the Yamawaki Arts and Cultural Center on the Lasell campus for Dr. Winslow, who while running the BU English department hired poet Robert Lowell, who in turn taught poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton at the university.

“Now I am off to see a Doctor Winslow about a part-time teaching job at Boston University,’’ Lowell wrote to friends on Feb. 18, 1955.

The two became friends, and Dr. Winslow visited Lowell at McLean Hospital in Belmont when the poet was institutionalized for bouts with mania and depression. With one eye always on the biographical record, Dr. Winslow found himself inadvertently contributing to the lore of Lowell during one visit when the poet was in a manic state. He took along an edition of “Life Studies,’’ considered one of Lowell’s most important books and the one that helped launch the movement of modern confessional poetry.

“Don brought a copy of ‘Life Studies’ to have him autograph it, and Robert went through the entire book and made all the changes he was going to make for the second edition,’’ Dr. Winslow’s wife said. “I don’t know if he ever made them, but we have the book with all the changes Robert planned. Don also kept a journal, which I just recently turned over to Boston University for their archives, of the visits he made to Lowell at McLean.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at

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