Garnett Sedgewick's student and successor as head of the UBC English Department, Roy Daniells, once described his mentor as "a small man with a large head, not deformed, but oddly shaped. He hailed from the Maritimes. He was a homosexual and like many bachelors with that tendency... he had a mother who lived to be about a hundred... He taught Chaucer as nobody in U.B.C. before or after could. He lived each part. His magnificent, resonant voice impersonated each of the Pilgrims." Sedgewick had learned his passion for Shakespeare and Chaucer from his mentor at Harvard, George Lyman Kittredge. Old fashioned but not a prude, he was a civil libertarian who ironically refused to teach women in introductory English courses and who segregated first year classes by gender up to 1941. Although he published a regular column in the Vancouver Sun, he published relatively little as an academic. First published in 1935, his work Of Irony: Especially in Drama (Ronsdale 2001) first appeared as part of the Alexander Lectures series at the University of Toronto. It examines the role that irony has played in tragedy from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century. [See biographical sketch below for more info.]
UBC Special Collections biography
"Garnett Gladwin Sedgewick was born May 20, 1882 in Middle Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia to Henry A. and Bessie Woollery (nee Gladwin) Sedgewick. He attended high school while living with relatives in Oxford, Nova Scotia and then taught grade school (1900/01) in Oyster Pond, Jeddare, Nova Scotia. He then attended Dalhousie University in Halifax, graduating with a BA in 1903 (Honours in Classics and English). Sedgewick served as principal of schools in Oxford, Nova Scotia (1903-1905) and Nanaimo High School (1905-1907), History Master at St. Andrew's College in Toronto (1907-1908) and a high school teacher in Vancouver (1908-1910). Sedgewick received his MA from Harvard University in 1911 and PhD from Harvard in 1913. He was instructor and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis from 1913 to 1918 when he became an associate professor and acting head of the Department of English at UBC. In 1920, he was made a professor and first head of the department. In 1934 he was the Alexander Lecturer at the University of Toronto (these lectures were later published) and in 1946 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He retired from UBC in 1948 and the same year was awarded an honourary LLD from Dalhousie. Sedgewick was known for his lectures on Shakespeare and Chaucer; he also wrote scholarly articles, radio broadcasts and a weekly column, "More Heat than Light" for the Vancouver Sun. He served on the University Senate and was involved with the Vancouver Art Gallery, Symphony and Little Theatre, as well as the Civil Liberties Union. The former undergraduate library at UBC was named in his honour, as were the Sedgewick Lectures, sponsored by the Department of English. Sedgewick died in Vancouver in 1949." -- From UBC Special Collections library, University of British Columbia
from TREK 2010
Many of the grads recalled anecdotes involving G.G. Sedgewick. Following are excerpts from several essays.
Robert L. McDougall, Class of '39:
The swing doors at the front of Arts 100 open, and a trim little man strides in. He wears slacks, a grey jacket, and a bow tie, and his head is held high. Can a man 5'4' tall stride? Garnett Sedgewick can, and his stride is that of an athlete, though I doubt whether he ever played and athlete's game in his life. He goes to the platform and places his copy of Hamlet and a single sheet of paper on the the podium. He frowns down upon the class, looking over his nose, and the look is a neat illusion because there are nearly 200 of them, arranged in tidy rows, who look down upon him from the amphitheatre heights of Arts 100. There is an air of expectancy. He descends from the platform and passes along the front row, mostly girls, marking on the forehead of each an X with a piece of chalk. They giggle. "That's for your sins of omission and commission," he says. He returns to the platform and launches into Hamlet. He seizes on the soliloquies, the agonized thoughts of a man facing an impossible task. "To be or not to be...." "O that this too, too sullied flesh might melt...." "Now might I do it...." But soon the text is blossoming into life itself. What is freedom, and how is it saved and how is it lost? Where do we take a stand and what cost are we prepared to pay? Where and how does the corruption of the individual meet the corruption of society? "Surely we must hate tyranny and love freedom," he says, his fist clenched above his head, as if lifted to the war clouds hanging over Europe. "But first," he adds, "You must know what freedom is and what tyranny is, and what springs they come from in the human heart." Pencils and pens are down. The lecturer smirks, wrinkles his nose, picks up the piece of paper from the podium. "And now," he says, "something for your rotten little notes."
R. Russell Munn, Class of '03:
On the Monday after the death of Thomas Hardy (January 11, 1928) Dr. Sedgewick announced that on Wednesday his Shakespeare lecture time would be devoted to a memorial to the dead writer. Word got around and the large lecture hall was packed. Instead of his usual tweed suit he appeared in full regalia gown and hood. In a short space of an hour Thomas Hardy lived before us as one of the great masters of our English language. It was an unforgettable experience.
One day he said to me, "Munn, do you know what your sentences remind one of? Balloons. They are so smooth and rounded and when you prick them, there is nothing there." That was his way and we all loved him for it. I am glad the library annex carries his name. I am intrigued by its being underground—like Hamlet's ghost urging us on to action.
Arthur Mayse, Class of '35:
There were certain professors I recall with deepest respect and affection. Dr. Sedgewick was one, that peerless Elizabethan who did me the honor of borrowing my necktie. Marched right down from the dais, he did, fixed me with a stare like a rattlesnake charming a rat, then yanked the tie off my neck. (I never got it back, either).
Hugh M. Palmer, Class of '36:
A small figure of a man, sitting cross-legged on top of a table in front of the class, he was sartorially distinct from his colleagues. Grey Harris tweed, suit, shirts as often as not of creamy flannel, a discreet, Paisley-patterned bow tie which he himself had loosely knotted, horn-rimmed spectacles behind which his normally solemn grey eyes would sometimes twinkle. Large face, smallish head, with thinning grey hair. Bow ties—and he had scores of them—were his favorite article of dress. To a group of us he once quipped, "I could do without almost any article of clothing, so long as it isn't one of these," and his hand went up as if to reassure himself that the bow tie was still in place.
How clear one's memory is of that diminutive, comic, erudite man sitting there trying to impart something of the glory of Elizabethans and of the plays of Shakespeare to a grab-bag assortment of undergraduates.... "I would rather have lived in Elizabethan London, with all its open drains, with all its squalor, with all its disease, than to have lived in any other age or in any other city," he would declaim to us.
... He would wait until all had taken their places and then, instead of merely walking into the room, he would make an entrance—on wet days his raincoat romantically worn like a cloak. Usually his hand went up as if to toss back a lock of his hair, or in a wonderfully deft gesture he would slip the raincoat off his shoulders and lob it on to a chair. One could almost hear the flourish of trumpets. Minutes later he would be asking rhetorical questions of the class as he strutted up and down, as upon an imaginary stage, quoting favorite passages, reciting the blank verse in a manner that maximized its meaning and imagery.
... Behind the mincing walk, the gesturing, the articulation that verged on the precious—was a man of deep scholarship.... He was a man who, although a specialist in Shakespearean studies, had a great sense of the sweet of history and a grand feeling for the liberating forces that had produced the [modern] humanist tradition, to which he himself subscribed.
Philip Akrigg, Class of '37:
I saw many sides of the man: the fastidious, cultivated good taste, the rambunctious clowning, the finely tempered literary sensitivity, the razor-sharp mind, the short-fused temper. Once, in a spurt of anger, he called a friend of mine "a god-damned fool" in front of the class, because he had made a mess of scanning Chaucer. (When my friend when around to Sedgewick's office to say that, since he was a god-damned fool, he obviously should drop out of English Honours, Sedgewick magnanimously explained that he had got out of bed on the wrong side that morning and, with a jocular shove, propelled him out into the corridor.) I learned about other aspects of Sedgewick. One was his generosity. Heaven only knows how many students he helped with money even though his own finances were a bit precarious. When, after World War II, a vet with a wife and three children lacked any decent clothes to wear at an interview for graduate fellowship, Sedgewick gave him a blank cheque made out to Chapman's.
... Sedgewick patting himself on top of his bald pate while he plotted strategy in mid-lecture, or sucking in his cheeks while he considered a moot point or savoured a nuance. Sedgewick walking about the campus, his coat flung like a cape over his shoulders. Sedgewick holding a couple of hundred students absolutely spellbound while slowly he pulled a handkerchief from up his cuff, flicked it, buried his nose in its white folds, gave a tremendous blow, and equally deliberately stuffed it up his sleeve again... Garnett Sedgewick, like every other great teacher, was a showman. Both in and out of the classroom he constantly dramatized.
... He would put a question to see how well the class was prepared. Sometimes nobody would answer. The question would be put again, with still no answer. There was a third time of asking. Then, bearing down on the front row, Sedgewick would put the question directly to one particular student. When that student failed to answer, the professor would flick his fingertip against the nose of the ignoramus and so proceed to the next and the next until either he got his answer or tired of the game. As an alternate ploy he would sometimes retreat to a corner at the front of the room and despairingly bump his head against the wall. Of course, not all students relished having their noses flicked in class, or their ears lugged in the corridors. "Who does he think he is?" demanded on recalcitrant, "Peter Pan?" A few people always did insist that Sedgewick was a charlatan.
... At rugby games the diminutive Sedgewick, deep in greatcoat, a long blue and gold scarf coiled about his neck, was almost a mascot for the UBC team. Rugby was always his game. How he scorned the "amazingly fast waddle" of the "dinosaurs" who played Canadian football!
... World War II brought dark days with the casualty lists carrying the names of former students. And there was the unhappy matter of the forced evacuation of the Japanese-Canadians from the West Coast. Sedgewick spoke out publicly against the operation and feeling ran so high, I am told, that at the end of one meeting he had to be rushed out of the hall by a rear exit.
... Almost without exception those who met him in the classroom came away convinced that if only Sedgewick had had the physical stature he would he would have been one of the great actors of the stage.... Taking up Romeo and Juliet, he acted out Romeo, became Romeo, then suddenly became Juliet too, acting out the young girl's part. And not a student smiled at the middle-aged professor.