James Woodress, a noted biographer who helped elevate the reputation of Willa Cather to its current prominent place in American letters, has died. He was 94 years old, and died in his sleep on May 19 at his home in Mt. San Antonio Gardens in Pomona.
Born in Webster Groves, Mo., on July 7, 1916, Woodress earned a degree in English at Amherst College. He married Roberta Wilson, who died in 2007, and they began a life of shared work, travel and friendships around the world. Working for UPI in Manhattan, he earned a master’s degree at NYU and then served in the Army in World War II. While in Italy during the American occupation, he studied Italian and began an interest in Italy that culminated in his dissertation at Duke University that became his first published scholarly work, “Howells and Italy” (1952).
Woodress began his teaching career at Grinnell College in Iowa and then moved on to Butler University in Indiana. In the mid-1950s he taught at California State University at Northridge, including time as chair of the English department and the dean of the College of Humanities. In 1966 he moved to UC Davis, where he directed graduate studies in English and served again as department chair.
When asked what the most important thing was in teaching, he replied, “Concern for students. You have to pay attention to what they need; it is all about the students.” He was a considerate and concerned mentor to many undergraduate and graduate students even after his retirement in 1987.
In nearly 40 years of college and university teaching, he wrote three major biographies that remain standard works on the authors treated — Joel Barlow, Booth Tarkington and Willa Cather. He also founded American Literary Scholarship, an annual review of international response to the work of major American authors. His biography, “Willa Cather: A Literary Life,” appeared in 1987 and is still in print from the University of Nebraska Press. He also wrote and edited numerous studies of other American writers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Writing and teaching on Guggeheim and Fulbright awards, he was twice a visiting professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. In recognition of his distinguished career, in 1985 the American Literature Section for the Modern Language Association awarded Woodress its Hubbell Medal, given annually to a person “whose total body of work has been a major influence on the study and teaching of American literature.” The University of Nebraska gave him an honorary doctor of letters degree in 1995.
A resident of Mt. San Antonio Gardens in Pomona for 14 years, he will be honored with a musical celebration of his long and productive life at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his name can be made to the Homeship Fund, Mt. San Antonio Gardens, 900 E. Harrison Avenue, Pomona, CA 91767. Arrangements have been made through Avalon Pasadena Funeral Home.