In Memory of Arthur Cash

He was already a distinguished professor, both in title and in fact, when I was his student for the first time, in the early 1990s. Dr. Arthur H. Cash had earned the rare title of “Distinguished Professor” from the State University of New York system in 1989, and I do not know if that title is what gave him the clout to hold classes in his dining room and kitchen rather than in whichever campus building the pesky registrar had located the class, or if I am getting it all backwards and his clout, with or without a title, brought us to his kitchen.

I learned this morning that Dr. Cash died Thursday, December 29, at the age of 94. His obituary appeared in he New York Times on December 30 but only today did it start to make the rounds of social media among his students. He retired in 1997 (a memorable party that I actually remember) but his retirement was an active one: his most recent book, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

I do not and can not claim any personal closeness with Dr. Cash; his wife, the novelist Mary Gordon; or his children beyond having memories of many evenings spent in his dining room listening to him read from his favorite novel, Tristram Shandy, and laugh at the many jokes in its pages as if he was seeing them for the first time, which he certainly wasn’t.

His table talk discussions of 18th century London were vivid: sometimes I remember my days spent in London in the 1760s more thoroughly than I remember my days in New Paltz, New York, in the 1990s, and then I remember that those two things were one and the same, thanks to Dr. Cash.

He wrote the definitive modern biography (two volumes) of Tristram Shandy’s creator, Laurence Sterne, which is partly why Sterne appears as often in the pages of this website as he does.

In the second volume of his Sterne biography, Dr. Cash concludes with a story that he was personally a party to: the re-burial of Sterne’s remains in 1969.

Laurence Sterne’s body was stolen soon after his funeral in 1768 and was sold to a medical school for dissection, which was a fairly common occurrence at the time. In a Sternian bit of comedy, someone recognized the body on the anatomy class slab and did what he could to have the author of Tristram Shandy buried. In yet another Sternian bit of comedy, all the confusion that this engendered meant that Sterne was buried in an unmarked grave and each person who ought to have known where the writer had been buried pointed to a different spot.

Two centuries later, the Laurence Sterne Trust was established and its members set to restoring the writer’s home (Shandy Hall, for which Dr. Cash wrote the visitor’s guide) and to locating Sterne’s remains for a final proper burial. At the churchyard where he had been buried anonymously, one skull was located that showed evidence of being the subject of an anatomy class, like Sterne had been, and that also was the same size as a bust that had been made from life while Sterne was alive and famous enough to have sculptors make portraits. A service was held for these remains on June 8, 1969.

Dr. Cash does not include himself in his description, but he made sure to cite others with whom he worked alongside. About the funeral and the possibility that the Trust might be burying the wrong remains, he quotes Kenneth Monkman, a scholar who helped found the Laurence Sterne Trust: “If we have reburied the wrong one, nobody, I feel beyond reasonable doubt, would enjoy the situation more than Sterne.”

In the final paragraph of his biography, Dr. Cash describes Sterne’s final, final resting place:

In this traditional churchyard, all other headstones face east. Sterne’s grave alone looks to the south, across lovely rolling fields and the stream that comes down from Byland to the pastures and woods of Newburgh Priory which rise on the other side. The sun strikes it squarely at noon.—Arthur H. Cash, Laurence Sterne: The Later Years

Dr. Cash loved his family. When I was a student of his, he was in his 70s and had two young children with Mary. He did not say things like, “They keep me young,” something I have heard other older people with young children say. He kept himself young, and I am certain they benefited. I know I did.

In that second volume of the biography, Dr. Cash includes a quote from Sterne as a dedication to his wife:

Let the torpid monk seek heaven comfortless and alone.——God speed him! For my own part, I fear, I should never so find the way…. Wherever thy Providence places me, or whatever be the road I take to get to thee——give me some companion in my journey, be it only to remark to, How our shadows lengthen as the sun goes down;—to whom I may say, How fresh is the face of Nature! How sweet the flowers of the field! How delicious are these fruits!

For an all-too-brief period, some lucky fellow students and I were companions with Dr. Arthur Cash on our journey, and I have nothing but the fondest memories of those classes that were more like dinner parties in a rambling old house in New Paltz.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 9 asks us to reflect on the word, “Shine.”

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