While he may have had some legitimate fears about "physical vigor," being tall, skinny, asthmatic and tubercular, he had no need to worry about the others - which may well have been written to describe him. He was a Scholar with a capital S, one of the first to take on the bizarre and difficult mind of Ezra Pound in the seminal critical work, Ezra Pound's Mauberley. His works included six books of memoirs, three novels, scholarly papers on George Eliot and Oscar Wilde, a bibliography of American decorative book-cover art, a children's book and even a volume of satirical haiku. At the time of his death in September at the age of 87, he was working on a bibliography of little-known American publisher Stone & Kimball.
John taught in the English Department at UCLA for more than 30 years, becoming an emeritus in 1978, and was a legend - for his funny and inspiring classes and his genuine interest in, and care of, his students. He came into my life in 1974 and became "my other dad." I was his "other daughter.”
But this is not where the story begins. It begins in Shanghai, China, where John was born to missionary parents. A sickly child, at age 3 he overheard the doctor telling his parents, "You'd best prepare for not seeing John anymore." He grew up in the native quarter of the ultimate international city, learning more, it seems, from his Chinese amah and cook than from his Presbyterian mother and father.
His earliest lessons were in the value of being a chameleon. He could trade insults in the Wu dialect with local Chinese urchins as easily as he could perform the role of proper Presbyterian son. At 19, he found himself in the San Gabriel Valley, attending Occidental College during the week and Pasadena's exclusive country clubs on weekends.
John Espey did go on to represent California in the Rhodes Scholar class of 1935. He left his undergraduate work at the school he affectionately called "Oxy" to become a fellow of Oxford's Merton College - a Merton Man - another of the roles he would fill gracefully, and with self-deprecating humor, throughout his life.
It was at Oxford that John became the man he was to be - Cecil Rhodes' ideal of the scholar who loved to learn, the man who could be unselfish, courageous and kind, the one who would, always, take an interest in his fellows. He also did his share of refined partying, drinking copious amounts of sherry and playing intricate pranks on his English classmates. He added his own twist to Rhodes' ideal, a dry sense of humor that would infect his scholarship, his writing, and his friendships.
John returned to California with a B.Litt. from Oxford, a degree that would provide him with his share of explaining to do (since Oxford did not confer doctorates on those who studied English language and literature, but rather its own quirky degree, one that didn't translate into the academic world of the United States).
John had an ineffable ability to see the humor in everything, and it served him well. In 1944, Knopf published Minor Heresies, a book of reminiscences of his childhood in Shanghai. Two others quickly followed. Excerpts were printed in The New Yorker, and for good reason. The stories of young John amongst the "heathens," as his parents called the Chinese, were charming, witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. But they were also touching, and even critical, of Christians' belief that they could somehow "civilize" the most civilized of societies, and of naive Americans and their coddled children.
John's favorite stories from the trilogy were reprinted by the University of California Press as Minor Heresies, Major Departures in 1994. At the time, novelist Amy Tan called them "compassionate and yet honestly critical, and always mindful of the ways that human nature both undermines and uplifts us." Still, after all those years.
In many ways, John Espey represented not only the exalted qualities sought after by Cecil John Rhodes, but also those sought after by UCLA and its students. As an institution of higher learning, UCLA could not have hoped for a more enthusiastic educator and autodidact. He spoke of Melvyl and Orion (the two computer systems used to catalog books at the university's libraries) as though they were pals of his: "Well, I sat down with Melvyl, and we found that there are two copies of Double Trouble in the UC system, unfortunately residing for the moment in Irvine and Davis.”
Once, as a high school theater student, an assignment required me to find a scene for two women from a Henrik Ibsen play. I didn't want to do the same old A Doll's House (everyone else was doing it), but I couldn't, for the life of me, find anything else. John appeared triumphant one evening, having spent all day in the University Research Library, and pleased as punch. He handed me a copy of “Lady Inger of strat", an early play of Ibsen's so bad that the playwright himself had tried to prevent its publication. But it had the scene I needed, and I got to wow my teachers with a play they had never heard of. Lady Inger and her fight to save her beloved strat became a running joke in our family.
As a research university, UCLA could count on his undying love for scholarship to produce works both great and obscure - two qualities most lusted after in the academic world. His 1955 criticism of the Ezra Pound poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley would lead the way in Pound scholarship, providing poets and literary critics a framework for reading (and, amazingly, understanding) that difficult poet's work.
"It's a small little book, but it has had a lasting impact. It's still cited by everybody today," says Stanford professor and literary critic Marjorie Perloff, who remembers meeting the man behind that influential text when she moved West in the 1960s. "John was very generous. You could call and ask him a question about any little detail, and he'd be on the phone with you for hours. He was a scholar of the old school. The important thing for him was to get a detail right."
Literary and scholastic ability and attainments.
John published numerous essays on Pound, and worked on the companion to Pound's Cantos, but never, Perloff says, did he consider his contributions criticism. "He wasn't interested in participating in theoretical discussions about Pound's politics or economics. His work was about finding facts. He found things out just for the fun of finding them out.”
Later, after he had said all he cared to say on Pound, John, along with his friend and fellow UCLA English Professor Charles Gullans, would turn the phrase "you can't judge a book by its cover" on its head. Together, they would haunt used bookshops, collecting and later cataloging the works of Margaret Armstrong, Frank Hazenplug and other decorative cover artists of the early 20th century. Obscure? Yes, definitely. But fun, too. His thrill at finding an abandoned copy of Henry Van Dyke's Days Off, with a mint-condition Armstrong cover deep in the bowels of Dutton's North Hollywood, would be topped only by the bargain price he'd have paid for it. "Oh, I had to make a big investment today. That wily Dave Dutton took me for $2.50."
Those who benefited the most from John Espey's version of Cecil Rhodes' "qualities of manhood" were UCLA's students. His students (and there were hundreds, no, thousands of them) say without fail that he was the best professor they ever had. Janet Zarem '67, M.A. '75 took him for sophomore survey English. "He was never condescending," she says. "He treated us, even though we were only 19- or 20-year-olds, like we actually had minds in our heads. His office was dominated by a huge, chintz-covered chair - for the students! He sat stuffed behind a desk in the corner of his own office, with his long legs, just so his students would feel comfortable." Devotion to duty, sympathy, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship.
Philip Saltzman '51, M.A. '53 had read John's stories in The New Yorker. "I was impressed. There were no creative-writing classes at the time, so when I saw that he was teaching 'The Short Story,' I enrolled immediately." Saltzman remembers Espey as "a terrific teacher. Very laid- back. Nothing was structured, he just chatted about writing and writers, and about how he had done it.”
Those lucky enough to have him as their graduate adviser, my mother included, state definitively that his generosity, his humor and his kindness changed their lives. John lent poor Ph.D. candidates money, never expecting to be paid back. He wrote them long, encouraging letters, nudging them gently to finish what they'd started. He bought them meals and shared wonderful, funny stories with them.
At times, teaching would require a heroic effort. He suffered crushing depressions throughout his life, and for years treated them with healthy doses of gin. His battle with depression, inherited from his father, would provide harrowing material for one of his later novels, Winter Return. John would ride out his darkest days determined to continue to teach and write, no matter his personal pain. Exhibition of moral force of character.
You did not have to be a student to reap the rewards of John's company. Among those he championed were novelists Alison Lurie and Diane Johnson. Both were faculty wives (Johnson later entered the graduate program) who - bored and lonely - had taken up writing. No one would give them the time of day except John, who listened to their stories, told his own and helped them to begin to become the writers they longed to be. Talk about instincts to lead and to take an interest in his fellows.
And, then, there was my mother. As a pathologically shy graduate student in the early 1960s, she could hardly hold her head up to address her professors. It was John who supported her choice to write her dissertation on the Hollywood novel, though others thought the subject "lacking."
"He knew more than anybody else in the department, so all the misfits, the people who fell between two stools, ended up with him [as an adviser]. The thing is, he never said a mean word to anyone, never, in all the years he taught," my mother says.
John had married his college sweetheart, Alice Rideout, in 1938. They had two girls, Alice, born in 1949, and Susan, in 1951. During his wife's long battle with cancer, he became her caretaker and his daughters' protector, though he was never a model of health himself.
In 1974, a year after his wife's death, John Espey would call my mother, beginning what would become a 26-year relationship. During that time, John never stopped encouraging his old student, always supporting her work and making her laugh. One nonfiction book, one memoir and five novels later, my mother can say, without question, that he was the best teacher she ever had. Together with my sister Lisa See, the three collaborated on two historical novels, Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road, under the pseudonym Monica Highland. Books they would gleefully call "airport reading for smart people." This time, it was all for fun.
John loved UCLA, even followed the football team through good times and bad, which perhaps we can count as a sort of fulfillment of physical vigor, as shown by fondness for and success in sports. He was true to his school, to all of his schools, till the end, speaking at the 60th reunions of his class at the Shanghai American School and Occidental. In 1996, Occidental gave him the (honorary) Ph.D. he never had.
"He was proud of what he knew, but never arrogant," says Zarem, still the awestruck student. "He understood that not everyone would know him or his work. His scholarship was not mainstream, but he didn't care if he was off in the corner. He loved his corner, and he was willing to share his corner so generously. He taught me that you can do your own specialized work and still be a human being.”
John was as generous a father, husband and comrade as he was a scholar, artist and teacher. He was too wickedly funny, too human, to be the "ideal man" that Cecil John Rhodes was looking for, but I say he was more. He was the man who, at age 62, and still tall, skinny and asthmatic, taught me, then a rowdy 10-year-old, how to ride a bike - his physical vigor proven, once and for all.
10 THINGS I DIDN'T KNOW BEFORE I KNEW JOHN
I didn't know that navel oranges are much sweeter than Valencias, and easier to peel.
I didn't know that sometimes it's appropriate (and fun) to judge a book by its cover.
I didn't know how much fun my mom was capable of having.
I didn't know that men could be so gentle.
I didn't know how to feel safe.
I didn't know how to watch birds.
I didn't know the doing little favors, just because you want to, can make you a hero.
I didn't know that consistency, patience, honor or class.
I didn't know how much you could love someone you weren't related to, and how much they could love you.
I didn't know how much I would miss him.