Man of letters Stephen Gray dies at 78

Stephen Gray’s literary legacy comprises novels, short stories, biography, poetry and journalism, written with incisiveness and wit.

Stephen Gray, the South African novelist, poet, biographer, literary scholar, editor, critic and academic, died in Johannesburg on Thursday 22 October after a short illness. He was 78.

Born in Cape Town on 30 November 1941, Stephen Richard Gray was to become a protean literary talent, writing in every genre, acknowledged as the expert on Herman Charles Bosman, acclaimed as a biographer, renowned as an editor of classic South African literature and respected as a critic and university teacher.

Schooled at St Andrew’s College in then Grahamstown (now Makhanda), Gray went on to the universities of Cape Town, Cambridge and Iowa. His long career teaching English literature ended in 1992 when he retired as a professor of English at what was then Rand Afrikaans University, now the University of Johannesburg.

Gray combined an academic career with that of a prolific writer, publishing six novels and a collection of short stories, beginning with Local Colour in 1975 and ending with My Serial Killer and other Short Stories in 2005. His first volume of poetry, It’s About Time, was published in 1974 by David Philip, which also published his Selected Poems 1960-92 (1994). 

As a biographer, his Beatrice Hastings: A Literary Life was one of the best books of 2004, followed the next year – the centenary of Bosman’s birth – by Life Sentence: A Biography of Herman Charles Bosman. Gray edited an illuminating collection of intimate recollections, Remembering Bosman, published by Penguin in 2008.

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It was for Penguin Modern Classics that Gray edited new editions of great South African literature, including Traveller to the East by Thomas Mofolo, Cattle Thief by Frank Brownlee and Jock of the Bushveld by J Percy Fitzpatrick. Years before, in 1978, had come the definitive edition of Sol T Plaatje’s Mhudi, edited by Gray and with an introduction by fellow scholar Tim Couzens, published in the landmark Heinemann African Writers Series.

Gray occupied with eminence, incisiveness and wit both sides of the literary world, as writer and critic. He was a steadfast contributor to the Weekly Mail and its successor, the Mail & Guardian, his journalism covering literature, travel and literary detective work.

In Remembering Bosman, Gray writes about the acquisition of Bosman’s papers by the University of Texas in Austin, which he subsequently visited. He notes: “It is a strange thing indeed – having to go all the way to the Humanities Research Centre to discover the full range of one of South Africa’s great writers.” Literary scholars in search of the full range of Gray’s papers will have to make a similar journey, but for ordinary South Africans the wealth that is Stephen Gray’s all-encompassing literary legacy can be found in his many books. As a man of letters, Gray and his words will never die.

He is survived by his sister in London, Marianne Gray.

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