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Former Smith Professor Joel Dorius Dies

Raymond Joel Dorius, English professor at Yale University, Smith College and San Francisco State University, died at his home in San Francisco on February 14, 2006. A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, and a descendent of Mormon pioneers, he was 87 years old.

Dorius began his long teaching career at Harvard, where he took his doctorate. A protégé of the influential literary critic I.A. Richards, he served as tutor at Winthrop House, where he introduced a generation of students to classic film, poetry and the work of Shakespeare. It was the teaching and celebration of Shakespeare’s work that would occupy Dorius for the rest of his career. After an interval at MIT during World War II, Dorius taught for several years at Yale, where he edited the Yale Henry V, and wrote a series of significant critical essays. Dick Cavett, a student of Dorius’, recalls in his memoir the professor’s unforgettable lectures on some of the Bard’s more ribald passages. While at Yale, Dorius established himself as a passionate authority on tragedy in Elizabethan drama, and on the metaphysical poetry of Donne, Herbert and Yeats.

In 1958, he took a position at Smith College, where he became an unwitting hero of what later become known as the gay liberation movement. Dorius, together with literary critic Newton Arvin and colleague Edward Spofford, was arrested in 1960 for possessing photographic materials considered to be of a homosexual nature. Among the objectionable items seized by the Massachusetts police in the raid on his home were photographs of ancient Etruscan wall paintings. Before the case was decided, Smith fired Dorius. With the help of a circle of courageous friends, notably Professor Helen Bacon, later of Barnard College, Dorius fought the state’s charges, but was convicted on the prior testimony of Arvin. It took two years for the Massachusetts State Supreme Judicial Court to acquit Dorius, establishing a vital precedent on the use of search warrants. But Smith did not reinstate him.

After two years in New York and Hamburg, Germany, Dorius re-established his life, and his active teaching career, at San Francisco State, a post from which he retired in 1984. The Smith affair was brought to public attention by Barry Werth in The Scarlet Professor (2001). In 2003, Smith College publicly made amends to Dorius and Spofford by holding a public forum on civil liberties and establishing a fund in their honor. In later years, Dorius composed his memoirs, My Four Lives, in which he advocated for gay rights. Dorius was featured in such publications as The New Yorker and Out and in a PBS documentary, The Great Pink Scare.

Dorius is survived by his sister-in-law Arlene Dorius of Newport Beach, California, two nieces, one nephew, and thousands of friends and former students around the world whose lives he touched.

Remembrances may be sent in his name to the American Civil Liberties Union.

2/20/06

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