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In Memoriam
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John N. King (2 February 1945–13 June 2020)

Posted By RSA, Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Submitted by Mark Rankin, Professor of English, James Madison University

John N. King passed away suddenly on June 13, 2020. From 1967‑69 he was Lecturer in English at Abdullahi Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria. In 1971 he joined the English faculty at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He held a Visiting Lectureship in English at Oxford University from 1978-79, and from 1981-82 he was Visiting Associate Professor of English at Brown University. In 1989 he was appointed Professor of English at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. In 2003 he was designated Humanities Distinguished Professor of English & of Religious Studies, and in 2004 Distinguished University Professor at OSU. Following his retirement in 2010 he divided his time between Washington, DC, where he was a frequent denizen of both the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress, and his home in Virginia.

An alumnus of the Bronx High School of Science in New York, he received the B.A.  cum laude from Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, in 1965 and the M.A. cum laude from the University of Chicago the following year. He completed his dissertation at the University of Chicago in 1973 under the direction of William A. Ringler, Jr., on “Patronage and Propaganda under Protector Somerset.” Over the course of a career which spanned more than five decades, King produced a remarkable body of scholarship dedicated to the literature produced in England during the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century. He took as his point of departure C. S. Lewis’s now-infamous dismissal of this material as “drab.” By challenging Lewis’s presupposition, King laid the groundwork for the subsequent development of the study of English Reformation literary culture and Tudor literature as sub-fields within Renaissance literary and cultural studies. These fields would not have attained their present form without his shaping influence. The clearest tribute to his groundbreaking scholarship lies in his ability to foresee the viability of these areas of inquiry decades before they migrated into the mainstream of the wider field. His work remains essential for anyone working on these subjects.

King was one of the first scholars to utilize the STC-II, Katharine F. Pantzer’s revision of the original Pollard & Redgrave Short-title Catalogue, to which he was granted access prior to the publication of volume 2 (I-Z) of STC-II in 1976. His first book, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, 1982), was the first major study to locate the origin of the English Protestant literary tradition in the generic and formal experimentation associated with the turbulent reigns of Henry VIII (1509-47) and in particular Edward VI (1547-53). It expanded the scope of earlier work, such as James McConica’s English Humanists and Reformation Politics (1965), and laid essential groundwork for major subsequent developments, including the British Academy John Foxe Project ( King was a member of its Advisory Board and one of its most stalwart defenders. In his review of English Reformation Literature, Douglas Nicholls praised King as a “worthy cartographer” of “one of the least appreciated but most crucial areas of English literature.” I am told by the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature (2009) that English Reformation Literature is the most frequently cited monograph in that collection.

King kept his focus on the political aspects of literary production in his three succeeding books, while he simultaneously expanded its scope. They include Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an Age of Religious Crisis (Princeton, 1989), Spenser’s Poetry and the Reformation Tradition (Princeton, 1990), and Milton and Religious Controversy: Satire and Polemic in Paradise Lost (Cambridge, 2000). These studies situate the achievement of canonical authors within the religious controversies, visual representative traditions, and cultural conflicts of the Tudor era. His was one of the first and most important voices in the so-called “turn to religion” in early modern studies, which now dominates the field. He also appreciated, sooner and more keenly than most, the potential of the interdisciplinary sub-field of the History of the Book to produce new insights within our discipline. His investigation into the relationship between books as material objects and their intellectual contents lies at the heart of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Early Modern Print Culture (Cambridge, 2006), as well as a monograph-in-progress, The Reformation of the Book: 1450-1650, for which he received a Guggenheim fellowship, and which remains unfinished at his death.

His scholarship is as wide-ranging as it is influential. King is editor or co-editor of three collections of scholarly essays: John Foxe and His World (Ashgate, 2002), Henry VIII and His Afterlives (Cambridge, 2009), and Tudor Books and Readers (Cambridge, 2010). His numerous editorial projects include a co-edited edition of John Bale’s Vocacyon (1553), one of the first autobiographical narratives in the language, published by the Renaissance English Text Society (1990); Anne Askew’s Examinations for the Early Modern English Woman series (1996); Voices of the English Reformation, a textbook of sources in English Reformation literature (2006); and an edition of narratives from Foxe’s Acts and Monuments for Oxford World’s Classics (2009). He was co-editor of Literature and History (1989-2010), and editor of Reformation (2005-10). His more than 100 articles and chapters have appeared in virtually every major journal in the field and include important essays on a contemporary bookseller’s manuscript account list (1987), the prominent evangelical printer John Day (2001, 2002), and the English Bible. His research enjoyed the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies; the American Philosophical Society; the Bibliographical Society of America; the Folger Shakespeare Library; the Institute for Reformation Studies at the University of St. Andrews, the Huntington Library; the National Humanities Center; the Newberry Library, the Rockefeller Foundation, and more. He mentored dozens of students at Ohio State whose careers continue his legacy. His interest in teaching extended beyond OSU to a series of ten National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars for College and University Teachers which he directed or co-directed, and one NEH Summer Seminar for School Teachers. The topics of these programs included “The English Reformation: Literature, History, and Art,” “Religion in English History and Literature from The Canterbury Tales through Pilgrim’s Progress,” “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Early Modern English Print Culture,” “The Reformation of the Book,” and “Tudor Books and Readers.”

John King was much more than a pioneering scholar. His eccentricities included a singular plant in his office which was watered by generations of graduate students, and which he dismembered among them at his retirement. I once overheard him explaining to an undergraduate why his office hours were always at 8 o’clock in the morning. “So that I can meet with you,” he deadpanned. He had a striking tendency to offer definitive pronouncements on subjects such as the consumption of cheese. He cultivated hobbies in botany and related outdoor activities and was an accomplished rare book collector and traveler. One of his former students accurately described him as “unstintingly generous in his support of people” whose “joy and glee were remarkable.” Participants in some of his recent NEH programs praise his “mind for detail and scope of knowledge that would be daunting if he were not so good at offering his insights with a touch of humor.” He “turns his erudition into valuable experiences” and proved “a helpful and dedicated mentor” in research as well as “valuable ‘book-related’ [walking] tours.” I have myself designed popular student walking tours of Tudor London and Oxford from John King’s models. He helped make the rare book collection at Ohio State University Libraries into one of the finest John Foxe collections in the world, and he augmented its considerable Reformation holdings with an unparalleled collection of books printed by John Day, the premier Protestant printer of the English Reformation. He was also instrumental in OSU’s fortuitous acquisition of the complete James Stevens-Cox collection of STC-sigla books.

His considerable achievement spanned the classroom and the rare book library, the halls of a major research university and the streets of Europe, where the authors, printers, and patrons we study lived and worked. His knowledge of these contexts was second-to-none, and he was always willing to share that knowledge with anyone who wanted to learn. He was affable to all who knew him, a remarkable man who hosted memorable meetings of Renaissance reading groups at his home and who did everything he could to help others succeed in an increasingly difficult profession. His eager willingness to share his prodigious knowledge over the course of many years was fueled by his striking blend of generosity and humor. John King was a towering presence in the field and in the lives of those who knew him best, an exemplary scholar and supportive mentor, as well as a good friend. He is survived by his wife Pauline, son Jonathan, and other family members.

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