By: Rowland Lorimer
Peter Buitenhuis 1925- 2004
Noted scholar Peter Buitenhuis was an English professor emeritus who devoted his retirement years to continued teaching and research. He taught in the Seniors’ Program and led countless discussions for the Philosophers’ Café. His devoted students remember him as a passionate, listening, caring teacher who always had a new outlook and a fresh approach to literature. He completed his most recent book in November, shortly before his death. Friend and colleague Rowland Lorimer writes the following reminiscence.
My first memorable almost-encounter with Peter Buitenhuis came as a result of our being next-door neighbours in the fall of 1975. Peter and his new wife, Ann Cowan, had just moved into the house next to me on Marine Drive in West Vancouver. Peter had a most obstreperous long-haired, citified white cat that tended to wander into the raccoon-populated Whytecliff Park forest that was our backyard, just before Peter and Ann left for work.
On this rainy fall morning while looking out my kitchen window, I saw the cat slip in the door mere seconds before Peter emerged from the house searching for it. As Peter followed the road not taken by the cat, I froze between approach and avoidance. Having sympathy, but having not yet formally met this Simon Fraser colleague and English department chair, I thought I could hardly interfere in his domesticity. Who knows the meaning of the rituals of others?
Months later, long after we had become acquainted, I related my conundrum and apologized for my behaviour. Peter’s reaction, I came to see, was typical. He was amused and accepted my apology in an offhand way and his attention to the incident passed quickly. Relieved that he was not offended, I was surprised at its quick passing. Years later, I saw his reaction as typical of Peter’s wonderful tendency to live completely in the moment.
Whether in his teaching, research, many literary trips to cities such as London, Venice, Edinburgh, Berlin, and New York, or in the frequent dinner parties he and Ann hosted for a wide variety of guests, or in his sailing, skiing, and windsurfing, I rarely saw Peter preoccupied with anything but the task at hand. Peter was an enormous steadying influence for a young academic (which I was back then) in being focused and involved in family, life, and academe. He gave me – and others, I’m sure – a sense of proportion that served me well in balancing intellectual pursuits and family life.
In his academic work, Peter was, more than many, a non- judgmental observer. His approach was to describe, not to organize, a rhetorical force to subdue author and text. Whether it was E. J. Pratt’s poetry, Henry James’s American writings, or British propaganda writing, Peter laid elements of these works open rather than containing them in interpretive shackles. Yet Peter’s choice of works – for example, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Orwell’s writing, propaganda, and Canadian literature – was considered. They helped legitimize feminism, anti-imperialism, and community self-articulation well before such perspectives were fully embraced by literary scholars.
The beauty of Peter was his obvious love for his children and his ability (in partnership with Ann, and his previous wives, Pat and Elspeth) to provide a foundation that has allowed them to become accomplishing adults. Peter did go gentle into that good night, but he did so leaving a legacy of intellectual curiosity, appreciation, and understanding, and a wonderful family – as well as former students and colleagues who benefited from knowing Peter. We each will carry our Peter with us for our lives.