Thomas F. Gossett, Wake Forest professor and race and literature scholar, dies

By Cheryl Walker
December 12, 2005

Thomas F. Gossett, author of a landmark book exploring the roots of racism in American society, died Dec. 11 in Winston-Salem. Gossett, 89, was professor emeritus of English at Wake Forest University. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 15 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem.

Thomas F. Gossett

When published in 1963, "Race: The History of an Idea in America," was praised both for its wide-ranging look at the origins of racism and its readability. It received the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize from Phi Beta Kappa the next year.

"His book was regarded as a landmark study of race in the United States and it gained him considerable national reputation," said Edwin Wilson, provost emeritus at Wake Forest who hired Gossett to join the Wake Forest faculty in 1967. Gossett retired in 1987.

A new edition was published by Oxford University Press in 1997.

"When the new edition came out, it was widely praised by both whites and blacks as a very fair and comprehensive study of race in America," Wilson said.

In the preface to the new edition, scholars Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Arnold Rampersad wrote, "He maintained a balanced tone as his timely book negotiated what were at that time the largely uncharted waters of American racial history. The book offers an invaluable and as yet unsurpassed guide to the history of our understanding of this crucial aspect of American reality that is race."

Gossett's book influenced Earl Smith, Rubin Professor of American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest. "His work is exceptional," said Smith, who is a nationally-known expert on race and ethnic relations and has for years used the book in teaching his courses. "It was written at a time when most people, most intellectuals, carried a stereotype of blacks. This book allowed young people to come to a better understanding of race. The book is absolutely as credible now as it was then."

Gossett also received national attention for his more recent book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture." The 1985 book addressed how the 19th century novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe influenced attitudes toward race.

"Thomas F. Gossett's new examination of the novel and its consequences must be counted as the definitive study of a literary phenomenon," wrote a reviewer in the Dallas Times Herald. "His engaging scholarship brings to life the personalities and problems that led to the writing of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.'" The book also received a favorable review in the New York Times.

Gossett was a personal friend of acclaimed Southern writer Flannery O'Connor. He often took his students to her house to visit when he was teaching at Wesleyan College in Georgia. He had a large collection of letters by O'Connor and had published articles about them. He was also a close friend of award-winning poet A.R. Ammons, a Wake Forest graduate who occasionally returned to guest lecture at Wake Forest.

At Wake Forest, Gossett taught 19th and 20th century American fiction as well as introductory composition and literature courses. He also previously taught at Trinity University in Texas and the University of Illinois at Champaign.

A Dallas native, Gossett earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Southern Methodist University. He earned a doctorate from the University of Minnesota.

After retirement, he continued his scholarship and on many days for many years could be found working at his typewriter in a study carrel in Wake Forest's Carswell Hall. He had completed several chapters of a new book.