Friends and colleagues are quick to say that Jim Justus was kind, good-humored, and a real Southern gentleman. Whether they are fondly remembering his sense of humor, his scholarship on Southern literature, or his gentle demeanor, they all agree that Jim was a supportive colleague and generous friend.
To understand Jim Justus, whose work and life reflected a keen attention to place, one has to know his roots. Jim grew up in Newport, a small town in the foothills of eastern Tennessee, before moving to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for a B.A. and M.A. He was a Southern gentleman through and through: friends recall that he never left his house without a necktie, jacket, and his Southern gentleman’s hat.
In 1961 he received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, and he began teaching for Indiana University’s English Department in fall of that year. Jim’s research revolved around Southern literature from the Civil War era, William Faulkner, and Robert Penn Warren. In 1981, his book The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren won the Jules F. Landry Award for an outstanding contribution to the study of Southern American literature. This award and the excellence of his scholarship marked him as one of the foremost critics of Southern literature in the United States.
In addition to Southern writers, Jim studied talking in the South to understand how oral sounds shape and reveal culture and a sense of place. He was fascinated by the Southern voice, the grotesque, and humor, and in 2004, published Fetching the Old Southwest: Humorous Writing from Longstreet to Twain.
Jim’s teaching record was as impressive as his scholarship. His classes, from the 200-level to the graduate seminars, were frequently overenrolled. His favorite class was “Introduction to Fiction,” and he chaired or served on over 100 Ph.D. committees. Colleagues describe Jim as a generous senior colleague who was very smart and always kind to younger faculty and graduate students.
Outside of the university, Jim was an active and involved member of the Trinity Episcopal Church. He loved travel, fine food, and good wine. He and his partner, Dr. Wallace Williams, lived in a home just outside of town, where they built community with their neighbors and established a flourishing garden.
Everyone who knew Jim was left with gratitude for having known him. To put Jim in the words of his close friend Jody Hays, “His was a life very well lived.”