Bob Davis flourished in writing modern English and American literature to poetry
When Bob Davis graduated in 1951 at age 16 as valedictorian from Ss. Peter and Paul High School, after having worked at the Cooper County Record with local newspaperman, historian and author E.J. Melton, he was not yet aware of his career goal, but he knew it would be something involving the use of words. He also was not yet aware of his family ancestry including the 16th Century theologian and author William Whitaker, Master of St. John’s College of Divinity, Cambridge University, England, and William’s son Alexander, lifetime missionary to Jamestown Colony, America and publisher in England of cultural sermons to his white congregants and the natives he converted.
Bobby Davis grew up on a 24 acre “place” within the city limits of Boonville with parents M.C. and Liz Davis, siblings Johnny and Mary Beth, and many chickens, cows, and hogs, where he learned the politics, culture and responsibilities of both city and country life. He played all sports, but had a special interest in baseball.
After four years at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Bob worked briefly as a reporter for a small Kansas newspaper. Finding the routine unsatisfactory, he returned to academics and earned master’s and doctorate degrees in English literature at the University of Kansas and the University of Wisconsin. The field of academics and scholarly writing proved more acceptable.
An academic career that followed included Loyola University, Chicago, the University of California, Davis and the University of Oklahoma, Norman. At OU he served in many academic and administrative roles in the English department, including directing the graduate studies program. During more than 50 years Bob received numerous grants and awards for teaching, research and travel, taught at five American, two Canadian and two Hungarian universities and lectured in more than a dozen countries.
His academic and publishing area was modern English and American literature and creative writing, focusing on literary criticism and scholarship, literature of the American West and literature and culture of Central Europe. He published more than 20 books and numerous scholarly articles between 1966 and 2014, and was one of the foremost authorities on the life and literature of the well-known modern English satirist Evelyn Waugh.
While Bob’s emphasis was primarily scholarly writing, of little interest to the general public, he wrote two volumes of poetry and several nonfiction books related to his life experiences. His published books included creative nonfiction Mid-Lands: A Family Album, The Ornamental Hermit: People and Places of the New West, and Midlife Mojo: A Guide for the Newly Single Male; the cultural study The Literature of Post-Communist Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania; a collection of personal essays Born-Again Skeptic & Other Valedictions; and a collection of poems Live White Male.
Mid-Lands is both a memoir and social commentary, describing growing up as a Catholic in Boonville, and being a youth in white, small-town, post-war America. Boonville is a town that he appreciates and is proud to be from. His stories are illustrated with names and places familiar to residents of mid-century Boonville.
Home was both a place and a concept. The then century-old house and property on Eleventh Street, which remains occupied by family today, filled requirements for his parents—acreage for his father to be a small-time farmer and a paved street that led his mother to her job downtown. His self-educated intellectually and politically active grandfather Robert Murray lived next door. He uses both the home place and the town to explore relationships between family and others, grown-ups and kids, protestants and Catholics, work and play, and other dichotomies.
School and baseball were important aspects of his youth. Priests and nuns were responsible for both the education and spiritual welfare of students, and Bob describes successes and failures in both paths of learning, and in his youthful baseball career.
As a child his desire was to play organized baseball, and he played briefly for the Boonville American Legion team, but he found that his physical and social skillsets were better applied in an outlaw ball club. The Boonville Red Sox were known by reputation in local barber shops as “Herb Klusemeyer’s Alley Rats”. The challenge of black and white relationships was learned when he became an early and enthusiastic fan of Jackie Robinson, later to the dismay of his American Legion teammates. But the Alley Rats included one Catholic and two blacks, the first integrated team in central Missouri.
Bob closes the book with additional discussion of his relationship with his father, and trips to Boonville to visit him. He realizes that after his father died, he could continue to “go home again”, but never to stay. And years later he admitted that the book was actually about his father.
After more than 30 years at OU Bob retired as Emeritus Professor of English and moved to Phoenix, Arizona where he continued to work as an independent writer, lecturer, and consultant.
A separate obituary is published in this issue of the Boonville Daily News.