‘A genuine citizen’: The inspiring energy of Roger Sale

Roger Sale brought charisma and energy to his teaching, whether he was sharing his love of Chaucer with freshmen during his 37 years at the University of Washington, or with inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex in his retirement. He died May 11 in Seattle at age 84.

Students who took an English class from Roger Sale never forgot him. He was one of those professors who changed lives.

“Roger Sale’s range and energies, teaching style and substance were incomparable,” recalls Paul Hunter, ’68. “A genuine citizen, with literature but one of his powerful tools. Made me a better writer, made me want to read close and read everything.”

For some professors, reading student work can be a chore. But not for Sale, says colleague John Webster, an associate professor. “He said the first rule of reading papers is bottom to the chair. He took his students seriously as potential intellectuals,” Webster says, noting that more than 40 of his students read Sale’s blog—Roger’s Ale—and conversed often about reading and life.

In 1999, Columns ran an essay by Jeanette Martin, ’76. She was a member of a federally sponsored program called Upward Bound. The goal was to provide high school students from economically disadvantaged communities the opportunity to prepare to enter the UW. Martin spent two summers taking the English portion of the program.

“I believe somewhere in our high school minds, it was important to establish our identities, to show some superior knowledge in an attempt to counter balance a sense of lacking and put us on an equal footing,” Martin writes in the essay. “Professor Sale, with his establishment cigars and hippie-like hair, saw through our obvious attempts and without offense engaged us in discussion that led to an understanding of our true selves and strength of that knowledge.”

In addition to being a dazzling teacher, Sale was a well-known critic and author. He wrote 13 books including “Seattle: Past to Present” and a book of essays—”Fairy Tales and After”—in which he made the case for the importance of children’s literature. Sale offered his thoughts on A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter, among others.

In the 1970s Sale wrote a lot of criticism for The New York Review of Books, one of the few West Coast intellectuals to dip into the rarified air of a publication that seemed to exist then for deep thinkers on the East Coast.

Colleague John Webster remembers in particular an essay Sale wrote about one of the last Agatha Christie books that was published posthumously. Fans of the spiffy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot remember the book, entitled “Curtain,” because it’s the one in which he dies. Webster says that Sale offered his own backhanded compliment: “One of the things about a good Christie is you can read as much or as little as you like.”

In retirement, Sales enjoyed several book groups including one that spent a year reading James Joyce’s impossible tome, “Ulysses.” He gardened, he lunched with friends, he cooked and he traveled. Like Anthony Trollope, British novelist of the nineteenth century, Sale loved a ripping game of whist.

In a piece for the English department column, “English Matters,” Sale wrote: “As Rat says to Mole for foraging in Mole’s larder, ‘You deny yourself nothing.’ Indeed. … Over and over it feels as in Frost’s great phrase, ‘Work is play for mortal stakes.'”

Julie Garner is a staff writer for Columns Magazine.

“Standing on our Heads”
in memory of Roger Sale

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
—Lewis Carroll

A flash, a trumpet crash – you, standing on a chair,
bursting open the doors of our stuffy classroom,
pounding at the closed doors of our stuffy minds
with unholy energy, joy swinging through you.
I remember your laughter, your white socks,
that you found toes disgusting, but people generally
worth the trouble.  You were so young then
and I was even younger.

Now we are here, Mary
and the other Roger and I, and our hair has become
very white. We are here to say goodbye, to remember
who we were then, to marvel that we have just grown up,
grown old, to be ourselves—it seems you did the same.
Breath comes harder, knees are stiffer, naps
are comforting, still we have forgotten
to stop standing on our heads—it seems you were the same—
we keep writing, painting, loving, turning
the snowball world upside down to see it again
from a new angle.  In a dark time we still know
joy, we keep standing on our heads, and it is not right,
but it is necessary.

Susan Dewitt