UMass prof Lenson recalled as multitalented mensch

  • David Lenson and his saxophone with guitarist Bo Henderson. Tobey Photos

  • A portrait of David Lenson as a baby with his mother, June, painted by David's father Michael Lenson. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BARRY LENSON

  • CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BARRY LENSON CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BARRY LENSON

  • David Lenson playing saxophone, which he began doing as a child. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BARRY LENSON

  • An early photo of David Lenson, age four. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BARRY LENSON

Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2020 2:47:59 PM

AMHERST — Friends and family of David Lenson can give a long list of the late writer and editor’s artistic and academic accomplishments: Lenson was the editor of The Massachusetts Review literary magazine for about eight years, an avid saxophone player, a poet, an author and a beloved professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

But just as notable was Lenson’s generous nature and ability to connect with others, they say.

“The word ‘intellectual’ gets thrown around a lot,” said Martín Espada, a fellow poet, UMass professor and longtime friend of Lenson. “David was an intellectual, but in the best sense … He was not a stuffy intellectual. Quite the opposite. David really found a way to take this enormous intelligence and project it out into the world so that we can all share something of it.”

Lenson, 75, died at his Amherst home last week. This week, Lenson’s friends and family recalled Lenson’s humor and intelligence, as well as his impact on the The Massachusetts Review and his students at UMass.

Jim Hicks, current editor of The Massachusetts Review and a senior lecturer in the UMass Comparative Literature Department, recalled Lenson as an “incredibly generous, open-hearted” mentor figure.

Lenson was also “really funny, kind of irreverent,” Hicks said, and would often walk across campus wearing purple or rose-tinted glasses paired with fairly formal wear.

His communications with others were “not formal in any way,” Hicks said, noting that Lenson often sparked an immediate connection with those he encountered. At UMass, this nature had the effect of making those who were new to the Comparative Literature Department “immediately feel at home,” according to Hicks.

Lenson also had a knack for engaging students in subject matter that they may have initially overlooked.

“He just made the works sing,” Hicks said. “He made them alive for students. When it’s big lecture courses like that for general education requirements, very few of them are literature majors, so someone with the gift of connecting students from every corner of campus is pretty rare.”

In addition to introductory classes, Lenson also taught perennial favorites such as his “Brave New World” course focused on dystopian fiction.

At The Massachusetts Review, Lenson’s ability to connect with others also translated to “a tremendous talent for finding new talent,” Hicks said, publishing early works of writers such as Lê Thị Diễm Thúy, author of the book “The Gangster We’re All Looking For,” and Eula Biss, author of “On Immunity: An Inoculation.” This talent extended particularly to new writers who sometimes had not published fiction before, Hicks said. 

“He would publish them for the first time, and within a few years everyone would know about them,” Hicks said.

In addition to newer voices, Lenson also added established philosophers and activists such as Cornel West and Judith Butler to the Review’s pages.

Lenson played the saxophone from a young age. Her would regularly perform over 100 times a year, according to Hicks, often with the Reprobate Blues Band. Lenson also played with acclaimed blues artists such as Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt and Junior Wells.

Lenson’s interest in the arts began early — and perhaps unsurprisingly. Growing up in Nutley, New Jersey, Lenson lived on a street that had been an artist’s colony in the 19th century. His father, Michael Lenson, was an acclaimed realist painter, while his mother, June, was a poet.

Lenson’s younger brother, Barry Lenson, who is also a writer, believes that this upbringing played an influential role in guiding Lenson’s work, noting that his brother had written poetry since childhood. In his professional career, Lenson became known for books such as “On Drugs,” published in 1995, and “Achilles’ Choice: Examples of Modern Tragedy” in 1975.

Lenson was married to visual artist and graphic designer Pamela Glaven for nearly 40 years before the couple’s divorce in 2019.

The creative tradition continues in the family, Barry said, noting that Lenson and Glaven’s daughter, Elizabeth, is also an artist, writer and musician.

Lenson’s enthusiasm for literature was contagious in the classroom as well. Barry noted that his brother “was instrumental in helping a lot of people decide to study literature” and inspired some to embark on their own careers in teaching. Lenson also played a significant role “helping to build a program that really got on the map in higher education,” Barry said, adding that graduates have gone on to prestigious doctoral programs.

Espada reflected on Lenson’s tendency to inspire, both in the classroom and in his personal life.

“David was a force of nature,” Espada said. “David was a presence. When he talked, he lit up the room, and that was true whether he was delivering a lecture to students or hanging out with another person backstage between performances with his band.”

Lenson also co-hosted a radio show on WMUA, “MR2,” where he would often interview visiting artists and writers alongside his co-host, the late Roger Fega. But occasionally, Lenson would also incorporate his love of baseball — particularly, the Boston Red Sox — with a recurring roundtable panel that Espada, a participant himself, believed to be “the strangest, funniest and most erudite baseball show anywhere on the air.”

Jules Chametzky, founding editor of The Massachusetts Review, credits Lenson with modernizing the literary magazine and introducing fresh ideas.

“He cleared up the office, he made a technological improvement, and he got some good, new people to work on the review and write for it,” Chametzky said. “He brought it into the 21st century.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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