Edward William Tayler

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1931 - 2018
Lionel Trilling Professor Emeritus, Columbia University

Edward William Tayler, a professor of literature at Columbia University whose transformative lectures on Shakespeare and Milton inspired thousands of students and earned him the university's highest honors, died on April 23, 2018. He was 87.

The cause was heart failure.

Tayler was the Lionel Trilling Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Columbia, where he taught 16th- and 17th-century poetry and prose and other canonical works for nearly four decades. A short, agile man with brown curls and piercing blue eyes, he was known for astonishing his students into literary epiphany.

Some students criticized Tayler as theatrical, but many called him life-changing. The dramatist Tony Kushner, whose plays include Angels in America, credited Tayler's Shakespeare lectures with inspiring him to become a playwright. "I thought I was going to faint, I was so overwhelmed… it made the world look different," Kushner recalled. The award-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri said of his class, "It was perhaps the closest I came to a religious experience."

Tayler's courses included Literature Humanities, a survey of the Western canon. The New Yorker film critic David Denby, who featured "Lit Hum" in a book, described Tayler as "brilliant;" a "hipster wit" who helped students "feel like they are reading literature for the first time."

A course that Tayler created in 1983, Logic and Rhetoric, "taught students to think while pretending to teach them to write," a student said.

In 1968, Tayler was scuffed up by police while protesting alongside students against Columbia's perceived racism and support for the Vietnam War. He was an avid Norton Commando rider and squash player who liked his martinis bone-dry, with a twist.

Tayler was born in Berlin in 1931 to William Robert Tayler, an engineer, and Violetta Klavin-Zeiden, a Latvian emigrée, and raised in Westfield, NJ. He obtained his BA from Amherst College in 1954 and his PhD in English from Stanford University in 1960, joining Columbia's faculty weeks later. He also taught at Stanford, Princeton, and the Bread Loaf School of English.

Survivors include his third wife, Christina Lee Moustakis; children (all Taylers) William Edward, David Stanley, and Letta Melville from his first marriage, to the late Stanley Craig Tayler, and Edward William and Jesse Watt from his second marriage, to Prof. Irene Smith Tayler; grandchildren Jesse, Paraskevi, and Ellison Tayler, and Kellon McGuire; and many in-laws.

Upon retiring in 1999, Tayler was Columbia's most decorated teacher. "Your students call you magical, learned and passionate, tough yet tender, witty, humane, wholly unique," read his 1996 Outstanding Teaching citation. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Humanities grants. Colleagues published two collections of Renaissance essays in his honor.

Tayler wrote four books but placed publishing second.

Teaching "must come first and ought to be considered the noblest of endeavors," he said in 1989. "To read Homer, Virgil, and Milton with young people vitally concerned with such authors as these-now that, I thought, must be a thing worth doing."
Published on NYTimes.com from Apr. 27 to Apr. 28, 2018
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