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Terry Teachout: Farewell To A Good Man

A critic who loved the good, the true, and the beautiful -- but who also loved people, richly
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I am about to head back to bed for another exciting afternoon of Covid napping. I don’t want to do so without noting with extreme sadness the sudden death yesterday of my friend Terry Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. I say he was my friend, but we never actually met. We started corresponding off and on back in 2014, but I really became a devoted Terry reader when he would write about his beloved wife, Mrs. T., on Twitter.

Hilary (her real name) suffered from chronic lung disease, and lived an increasingly restricted life as she waited for a lung transplant. Terry’s love for her was the purest thing, and it lifted me up more times than I can remember to read him talking about what a blessing it was to love her. She died in 2020, and tens of thousands who never met Terry mourned with him. Not long ago, he found love again, with a woman he introduced to us only as Cheril. That she made our Terry so happy again, after all he had suffered, was all I needed to know about her. (And now, poor Cheril has lost her mother and her boyfriend in the same week.)

Terry was a true light in the darkness. Did the man have any enemies? I can’t imagine it. He truly loved people, and he truly loved art. I leave you this wonderful tribute to him by Titus Techera. Excerpts:

Politically, he was a conservative liberal. I find more decent political opinion on the right than the left, of course, but concern for justice is much more evenly distributed, and Teachout aspired to be just while being gentle; he almost never had a harsh thing to say about anyone. He was the living embodiment of the ideals of mid-century America, a reminder that liberalism was once generous and learned, while being patriotic. He was a child of small-town, heartland America, born in 1962, which shaped his character—he was both playful and mindful of good manners. To make use of his unusual talents as critic and playwright, though, he had to go to New York City, where he lived until his death on January 13.

Titus talks about how Terry’s deep Missouri niceness ought to have prevented him from becoming a critic:

It is paradoxical that he should have become a critic, since he lacked the studied contempt that gives moral power to criticism and above all the cruelty necessary to effect separations between what is honored and what is not. He was not shy about what he disliked or had no taste for, but the overwhelming tendency of his criticism was to applaud whatever deserved applause, whether for excellence, charm, good work, or even in certain cases good intentions. As a critic, he was a friend to and admirer of artists, whether famous or unknown, not a master.

I did not realize that Terry helped Titus, who lives most of the time in Romania, a leg up as a young film critic. This is part of Titus’s gratitude to Terry:

Our decadence is a troubling phenomenon Terry knew rather well—our tendency is to abandon in despair things that have not yet been taken from us, our heritage first. It didn’t make him despair, but it is perhaps why he worked so hard to find the right things and the right words to say about them in order to give people access to pleasures they could respect themselves for enjoying. His tendency was to find the best in the past and, if it should be found still worthy, if it could come alive for people, then that would be enough for now. He also wanted to find good things in the arts everywhere in America, not just in his home in New York.

It is somehow of the essence of being human to suffer where we love, to prepare ourselves to be devastated, and that is obvious above all in mourning. Perhaps it is not so different when we willingly go to enjoy a tragedy. We want the best for the best among us, in order to prove that it is worthwhile being human. I guess Terry Teachout spread his powers of comprehension among the arts in order to live up to our admiration. There is a kind of justice, after all, since we judge him to have succeeded. We pay in pain for the privilege of the pleasures he offered, and are almost grateful to do so. We will surely at another time remember how glad he was, that he treated being alive as a privilege to be enjoyed in gratitude, and that will gentle our condition.

Please, read the whole thing. Terry Teachout was, above all things, a lover of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Good, True, and Beautiful: such was Terry’s life, and such is his legacy.

For a glimpse of the kind of man Terry was, take a look at this Big Think interview from nine years ago: