Harold E. Pagliaro, 94, a Swarthmore College professor who devoted his life to teaching and writing about English literature after experiencing the horror of World War II combat, died Saturday, Feb. 15, of cancer at his home in Swarthmore.
Called “Harry,” he was a renowned scholar of 18th-century English literature and a guide and mentor to students and colleagues during 28 years at the college.
“Harry taught and led with great wisdom and vision,” said Swarthmore president Valerie Smith.
After retiring in 1992, he remained a respected figure on campus. He wrote sonnets and three books, including a chilling account of what it was like to fight with the Allied forces on the front lines in Europe.
“A memoirist and poet as well as a scholar, Harry remained dedicated to literary arts in his retirement as well as his teaching career,” said Professor and Chair of English Literature Betsy Bolton.
His passion for his subject was so great that he made notes in the margins of important books in the college library. “It was as if his seminar teaching could not be constrained to the time and space of a classroom,” Bolton said.
Philip Weinstein, a retired professor of English literature, said Dr. Pagliaro was so familiar with Western literature that he seemed to embody the values associated with the humanities.
“Intensely intellectual, fiercely alert, a productive scholar of Romanticism as well as a loyal defender of Swarthmore College, Harry contributed immeasurably" to the school, Weinstein said.
Born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Dr. Pagliaro graduated from high school in Portsmouth, Va., where his family had moved for his father’s engineering job.
When he returned to New York, Dr. Pagliaro enrolled at Columbia College in Manhattan and studied engineering at his father’s request. After two semesters, he was drafted into the Army at 18.
Trained at Fort Benning, Ga., Dr. Pagliaro was deployed directly to the European front as a solo replacement soldier. No fellow trainees went with him to his assignment in France. He survived near-constant danger and injuries, ultimately receiving a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
“The experiences haunted him for the rest of his life,” said Peter Schmidt, a Swarthmore professor of English literature.
After being discharged from the Army in 1945, Dr. Pagliaro earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in literature from Columbia University. He taught literature and Romantic poetry before joining Swarthmore’s faculty in 1964.
His reputation preceded him: Even before he arrived on campus, 50 students signed up for one of his poetry classes.
Dr. Pagliaro told the college: “I wanted to give a real shape to my life, to commit myself to a profession that would quicken the best part of me in useful work.”
He was the author of a 1987 book on the English writer William Blake, Selfhood and Redemption in Blake’s Songs, and two critical editions, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1963) and Major English Writers of the Eighteenth Century (1969).
In 1970, Dr. Pagliaro became a full professor. He chaired the English literature department and the humanities division at various times. In 1974, he was named the college’s second provost and served until 1979.
On finding a cache of letters he had written to his parents from the front, he set out to tell of his war experiences. His 1996 book, Naked Heart: A Soldier’s Journey to the Front, described fighting beside combat veterans with whom he had had no prior contact. At extreme risk in battle, he knew nothing about the mission, the strength of the enemy, or the importance of the objective.
This lack of information added to his fear, he wrote. The anxiety ended when German shell fragments shattered his lower leg. He was removed from the front and spent nine months recovering. The experience left him grateful for his life.
“I would not give up the experience of war even if I could,” he told interviewers. “But I would kill or die before letting anybody force me to repeat it.”
His other later works included Henry Fielding: A Literary Life (1998) and Relations Between the Sexes in the Plays of George Bernard Shaw (2004).
Dr. Pagliaro was married to Marjorie Strickland. They divorced, and she died in 2010.
He married again in 1966. Besides his wife, Judith Egan Pagliaro, he is survived by children Robert, Susanna, and John; a son, Blake, from his first marriage; five grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.