James A. Winn, whose scholarly writings on Queen Anne, John Dryden and other subjects showed the influence of his side interest as a professional-caliber flutist, died on March 21 at his home in Brattleboro, Vt. He was 71.
His son, Philip, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Professor Winn, who taught most recently at Boston University, was interested in a wide range of topics. His book subjects also included Alexander Pope’s letters and the poetry of war. He wrote essays on Bach and on the Beatles.
In all of that work, he sought to expand the often narrow scope of academic inquiry. His 2014 biography, “Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts,” for instance, examined that British monarch’s often discounted reign (1702-1714) through the lens of the cultural offerings of the period.
“James was always from the beginning interested in interdisciplinary things,” Robert Freeman, former director of the Eastman School of Music, who advised Professor Winn when he was a student at Princeton, said in a telephone interview. “He believed that the academic world tends to isolate itself into a bunch of silos.”
Professor Winn himself was certainly not a silo-dweller; when he wasn’t teaching English or writing about the Restoration, he was performing with orchestras or small ensembles, or working on a recording.
“He could easily have been the principal flutist of a major orchestra,” Dr. Freeman, a longtime friend, said, “but I don’t think that interested him.”
What did interest him was applying the perspective he had as a musician to his scholarship, which he did most particularly in a 1998 book, “The Pale of Words.” There he argued for research and teaching that took into account more than just the written word.
“Much of what humanists study originates in performance, and all good teaching ought to be alert to the living excitement of arts and ideas,” he wrote.
His best-known book, “John Dryden and His World,” had come out 11 years earlier. Pat Rogers, in The New York Times Book Review, called it “the most important biography of Dryden ever written.”
In the book, Professor Winn lamented that Dryden, the poet, critic and playwright of the Restoration period, was underappreciated, something he thought could be remedied by “removing the prejudices and simplifications about his culture that keep our ears from hearing his mighty music.” Dr. Rogers thought the book succeeded in doing just that.
“He challenges us to rethink our stereotyped notions of a Puritanism that is hostile to art, or of a monolithic ‘Restoration culture’ that is all rakes, prostitutes and Pepysian encounters in the playhouse,” the review said.
James Anderson Winn was born on July 31, 1947, in Charlotte, N.C. His father, Albert, was a Presbyterian minister and theologian, and his mother, Grace Walker Winn, was an educator. Albert Winn’s ministry and teaching posts took him to several Southern cities during James’s childhood. Music was part of the household.
“When my great-uncle Dwight died,” Professor Winn wrote in an unpublished memoir, “my parents received a small bequest, which they used to buy a piano rather than a television, a great decision for all.”
James sang and played ukulele from a young age. He started playing flute in the sixth grade, choosing the instrument, his son said, because Albert Winn still had the flute he had played in high school, making it the most affordable option.
In 1960 the family moved to Louisville, Ky., and Professor Winn was able to study the flute with Francis Fuge, the principal flutist of the Louisville Symphony. He graduated from Atherton High School in Louisville in 1964.
Years later, in a 1988 interview with The Times — when Professor Winn, then teaching at the University of Michigan, had just published the Dryden biography — he commented on how being raised in the South, with its rich history, had influenced him.
“We grew up with a very large sense of the past,” he said. “What I found attractive about the age of Dryden and Pope at the time I fell in love with it was that it seemed to me old and fine, elegant and polished, complex in ways that I didn’t then understand — and don’t now.”
Professor Winn attended Princeton, where Dr. Freeman, then a junior faculty member there, encouraged him to continue studying music even as he pursued an English degree. He performed with the university orchestra and even sang with the Footnotes, an a cappella group of which he was also music director. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1968, then spent two years in the Army, playing flute in the Continental Army Band.
He received a Ph.D. from Yale in 1974, writing his dissertation on Pope’s letters, a subject he turned into his first book, “A Window in the Bosom,” in 1977.
Professor Winn taught at Yale from 1974 to 1983, then went to the University of Michigan, where he was founding director of its Institute for the Humanities.
Professor Winn’s father, who was active in the civil rights movement, published a book in 1993 called “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War,” and in 2008 Professor Winn took up a related area in “The Poetry of War.”
“Like the ocean, great fires, and destructive storms,” he wrote in that book, “war is attractive to poets as an instance of the sublime, an experience bringing together awe, terror, power, and reverence on a grand scale.”
His biography of Queen Anne, his most recent book, had an unusual appendage: He tracked down 28 pieces of music from her time, arranged with some of his musician acquaintances to record them and set up a website where readers of the book, using a password, could hear them.
Professor Winn’s marriage to Kathe Fox ended in divorce in 1994. In addition to his son, he is survived by another child from that marriage, Ellen Winn; by his wife, Lucy Chapman, whom he married in 2009; and by four grandchildren.
Professor Winn joined the Boston University faculty in 1998, taking emeritus status in 2017. He was director of the university’s Center for the Humanities from 2008 to 2016. He performed and recorded with other members of the faculty, including the pianist David Kopp. In his final months, he was editing a recording by the two of them of Bach, Schubert and Fauré. In a blog he had been keeping on CaringBridge.org, he told friends and family members on Feb. 25 that the CDs were ready.
On that same blog last June, he wrote of attending his 50th college reunion at Princeton.
“I got together with those classmates who were in my a cappella group, the Footnotes,” he wrote, “rehearsed them as rigorously as I could, and directed a small and satisfying arch-sing with six members of the class of 1968 and two guests from adjacent classes. Small spaces have pitches, and we sang in an arch that resonates to B-flat. The sound when we reached a cadence in that key was wonderful.”
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