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In Memoriam: Dr. John Erickson

Dr. John David Erickson of Lexington (87), died Sept. 8, 2021. Born Jan. 9, 1934, in Aiken Minnesota, he was the son of August and Agnes Erickson.

He was professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures from 1995 to 2012. The author of several monographs and studies on 20th-and 21st-century French and Francophone literature and culture, Erickson was one of the first scholars in the United States to write on and translate African francophone texts (Nommo: African Fiction in French South of the Sahara, 1979). He also taught at the University of Kansas, LSU and Rice University.

As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, he founded and was the editor for more than 40 years of what has become a major scholarly journal of French and Francophone studies, L'Esprit Créateur. In recognition of his multiple contributions, the French government honored him by awarding him the prestigious Chevalier de l'ordre des palmes académiques.

Surviving are his wife, Suzanne Pucci; daughters, Cassandra Erickson and Catherine (Bryan) Toon; his step-children Emilia Pucci and Giovanni Pucci; and three grandchildren, Veronica, Rachel and Robert. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Any contributions in his name would be welcome for the Southern Poverty Law Center or The Nature Conservancy.

Tributes to Dr. Erickson:

We knew of John Erickson well before we first met him. He was one of the leading figures in French and Francophone Studies who had, and will continue to have, a lasting impact on how we think, teach, and write, in fields that John helped shape. He was disciplinarily prescient, someone whose insight and instinct enabled him not only to grasp paradigmatic ways of knowing, but also to see how they would evolve, and to intervene in that evolution.

As founding editor of L’Esprit Créateur, a journal he established in 1961 as a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, John has had immeasurable impact, both on the field of French and Francophone Studies and on the professional lives of innumerable scholars. It was when we succeeded John as General Editors of L’Esprit Créateur in 2002 that we came to know the full reach of  his contribution. For more than forty years, John remained committed to a dynamic vision, built with intellectual acumen, professional deftness, and collegial generosity. L’Esprit Créateur has blazed many new paths that continue to be marked by John’s own creative spirit. The journal created a virtual community of readers and writers, just as John helped create a spirited community every year, when he and Suzanne showed such hospitality in opening their home for participants at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference. John will be missed.

Daniel Brewer and Mária Brewer, general editors, L’Esprit Créateur


I am a friend and former colleague of Suzanne’s, when she was teaching at the University at Buffalo. I remember her telling me, shortly after she arrived in Buffalo, that she had a partner teaching at LSU, and that their relationship would necessarily be a commuting one, with John coming up to Buffalo regularly, at least temporarily, while they hoped for a more settled future. As a consequence, Suzanne regularly gave dinner parties so that her Buffalo friends would get to know him. And I remember my first meeting with John: so impressively tall and handsome, warmly engaging, if somewhat formal, and more European than American is his general bearing. A worldly, sophisticated academic, he surprised me by the extent of his past experiences in the Middle East, including Morocco, a country I too had spent some time in, and in our conversations I was pleased to be able to share some experiences of my own with him.  His engagement with Arabic literature began long before it became a mainstream interest in the American academy. But in any case, he was on the cutting edge of post-colonial issues that were beginning to appear in literature departments (including my own English Department). Although I was, of course, pleased for them when both Suzanne and John were hired by the University of Kentucky, I was really sorry to lose them as frequent dinner companions, intellectual colleagues, and close friends.  I did occasionally visit them in Lexington, was saddened by John’s decline over these last few years, and mourn his loss, for Suzanne and the UK community. 

One last addendum: how can I not mention his love of his cat, that gorgeously aristocratic graceful creature – what was it, Russian? Persian? My own memory for species lags, but I do recall cat-sitting in Suzanne and John’s Paris apartment, and having to deal with, and acknowledge, its intelligent and very independent personality. How often did I see John, a large man, tenderly cradle this small blue-grey creature — I wish I could have captured the image on canvas. It spoke of an expansive sensibility. And that was John.

Claire Kahane, Professor of English Emerita, SUNY-Buffalo

Research Associate, Dept. of English, UC-Berkeley

Community Member, San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis

Board Member, Berkeley Psychoanalytic Society


At the request of then-dean of Arts and Sciences Richard Edwards, I chaired a committee to recruit a new chair for what was then the French Department at UK in 1994-95. John Erickson was an obvious choice for the job. He had done pioneering work in the field of Francophone studies and he had a broad reputation in the field through his position as editor of the prestigious journal L’Esprit créateur. At the time when he was hired, the French Department was in a difficult situation, and we knew that whoever took the job would face many challenges. John impressed the selection committee as someone who had the confidence and determination to deal with those challenges in a calm and equitable way. Under his leadership, the French program was able to bring in other talented faculty and reassert itself as a vital part of the College. 

John and his wife Suzanne Pucci made their beautiful home a welcoming center for sociability. For many years, they hosted lively parties for the participants in the French section of the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference. And anyone who thought that John never entirely overcame the reserve that we attribute to Minnesotans never heard him cheering on the Wildcats at basketball watch parties!

Jeremy Popkin, William T. Bryan Chair of History, University of Kentucky


Dr. John Erickson was a scholar of enormous erudition and a most subtle understanding of the human spirit and its expressions. John was a human being with genuine kindness, graciousness, modesty, honor, and a keen sense of fairness. We mourn John’s departing, but his noble presence will remain among us.

Milena Minkova, Professor of Classics, University of Kentucky


John Erickson was an expert in a field long removed from my own, but I used to talk to him about his researches and interests, and he would talk to me about mine as if we were students of the same discipline. And perhaps we were! There is a mind-set and hierarchy of values potentially common to all who love literature and are convinced of the value of humanistic learning. John was a gentleman and a real humanist and he was a fine colleague. He was open minded and liberal in the true senses of those words. I will always regard him highly and respect him.

Terence Tunberg, Professor of Classics, University of Kentucky


John exemplified the phrase “a scholar and a gentleman.” What a distinguished career and noble soul he was! His passing leaves a void difficult to fill, but his dedication to the profession he served will live on in his long years of publication and service.

Gloria Allaire, Associate Professor of Italian Studies, University of Kentucky


John Erickson was a respected scholar in the field of Francophone literature of Africa and founder and long-time editor of a seminal journal in the field of French and Francophone Studies, L’Esprit Créateur. French and Francophone Studies greatly benefited from his scholarly expertise and from his dedication to rebuilding the program after a difficult period. My favorite memory of John is his joy while hosting friends in his and Suzanne's lovely home, all the while doting on his favorite cat.

Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby, Professor of Russian Studies, University of Kentucky


I always admired John’s confident taciturnity. He only spoke when necessary and said no more and no less than was needed. He put his silence to great effect however. The following vignette illustrates this. I was attending my first department meeting as a new assistant professor. The atmosphere was tense because the dean of the college was there. The dean at the time was a callous man, good with the budget but, as was often said, bad with people. I don’t remember exactly why he was there or what we were discussing. That’s not important. What matters is John’s reaction to an unfortunate incident. At one point in the meeting, a member of the department, a lecturer (someone with little job security) made an observation that the dean did not like. In his churlish manner, the dean told this colleague to, in essence, pipe down, intimating that she didn’t have the standing in the department to speak out as she had. The colleague (rightly) gathered her things and walked out. An awkward silence occupied the room for what was probably only a few minutes. It felt much longer. John was the first to break the silence. In a measured and confident tone, he firmly yet respectfully scolded the dean for his incivility, explaining to him that we don’t speak to one another that way in this department. We value mutual respect and behave courteously toward one another. I have always admired John for that particular moment. It may not sound like much but it made quite an impression on me, a rookie in the business. That comment set the tone for my experience in the profession ever since. It started with John, with his taciturnity that only enhanced the power of his speech when he offered it. John embodied civility and respect in understated ways. Though he may be gone, his example lives on in the way we conduct ourselves everyday in our department.

Leon Sachs, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies, University of Kentucky


John’s was the first voice associated with the University of Kentucky I ever heard. His deep, calm baritone issued from my old 1990s answering machine when I was applying for academic jobs. I was immediately fascinated by him and this continued when he picked me up at the Blue Grass Airport in his minuscule blue Datsun sports car into which he, a tall man, was carefully folded, and drove me around Lexington, showing me the sites.

John was the first department chair I worked with and he shaped my earliest professional years. He was unfailingly kind, supportive, and encouraging. I will miss his love of his garden, his cats, and Paris, and I will miss his quiet integrity.

Jeffrey Peters, Professor of French and Francophone Studies; Chair, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, University of Kentucky


Upon first meeting him, you wouldn’t know that John Erickson was a world-famous scholar. He spoke about himself very little and instead expressed deep interest in what others were writing and thinking about. I recall with pleasure the many hours of riveting conversation with him and how often, after learning about something I was working on, he would send me an article or recommend a book that he thought might prove useful. 

I still can’t believe that John’s gone. I will miss talking to him about literature. I will miss talking to him about travel. I will miss comparing notes on the birds we’ve seen. With his brilliance (and yet all the while tempered by humility), his wit, his incisiveness, with his abiding investment in our society and our urgent need for intellectual responses to the array of crises experienced by the contemporary world, for me John will always remain intensely alive. 

Virginia Blum, English Department, University of Kentucky


I first met John Erickson when I was an M.A. student in French and Francophone Studies at UK exactly 20 years ago. He was kind and smart and his teaching and advice enriched my time as a student at UK. I can still remember the films we watched for his course, and the way storytelling in them compared to the medieval narratives on which I was most focused. By the time I returned to the university to begin my career here, John was nearing retirement, and I am grateful for the time I have been able to spend in his and Suzanne’s company these past years. He was a gifted storyteller himself, and I particularly recall one evening when he recounted a trip he almost took through the Sahara Desert. My heart goes out to Suzanne, to whom I send my heartfelt condolences, as well as to the rest of his family and loved ones.

Julie Human, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies, University of Kentucky


John Erickson was our friend, a friend we looked forward to seeing at all UK events, and especially in casual gatherings when we shared a meal and conversation. We had the good fortune to spend an evening with John and Suzanne in June 2021. John seemed as lively and engaged as he ever had – we talked about current events, books, travel, a bit about his life. We were so happy to spend that time with him (and Suzanne), and now with his passing, we also feel lucky to have had such quality time so recently. Very specific things we will always remember about John: his gentle presence, genuine interest in what you might say, his quiet but clever humor, handshake (or hug) like a vice grip – including in June this year. He also once said at a small dinner gathering when I (Lisa) accidentally shattered a cherished porcelain utensil “all things have a life cycle”; the kindness of that comment has stayed with me all these years since. And while it is so hard to let go of a beloved friend here in this world, John might possibly tell us “all things have a life cycle.” John, be free of your mortal pain, and smile on us all as we move through our own cycles on earth.

Lisa Cliggett (UK Anthropology, friend, and colleague through Social Theory) and Charles Hite (friend)


We have known John and Suzanne since they arrived to the University of Kentucky. Over the years, we have had many occasions for celebrations and outings, but most especially, wonderful dinners at their house. Suzanne treated us to culinary delights and John always had a bottle of good bourbon at the ready.

John was a quiet and thoughtful person, and an engaging scholar whom we had the privilege to have known. We shared academic interests in Africa, the site of all three of our academic specialties. Aside from his research, we also all shared roots in Scandinavia, and enjoyed many conversations about his family roots in Sweden and Norway. John was also very engaged in maintaining their large garden. Occasionally, he encountered snakes and would call upon Thomas to come and remove them. Unfortunately for Thomas, but not for Suzanne, they had always disappeared by the time Thomas arrived. John will be missed.

N. Thomas Håkansson, Monica Udvardy, and Pablo (our Havanese, who John loved)


I didn’t realize how much I loved my stepfather until I stood at his bedside, in the hospital. I was surprised at how familiar his body was to me: his arms and his shoulders, his feet and his legs. I had seen them many times, of course, at the beach, through a bathrobe, or just in passing. And now, as we held each other’s hands, I understood how much John had become a part of me, and I a part of him. I understood that the distance created over the years by petty discord, jealousy and the endless internal struggles that gnaw at our resolve was, in fact, an illusion. I had always loved him. And he had always loved me. Unburdened by the weight of a thousand worries and concerns, we were able to be close to one another.

John was not an easy person to be close to. He often bristled on contact. He seemed perfectly satisfied with long stretches of solitude. He was at times moody and difficult, driven, it seemed, by an internal urge to disengage from those around him. Yet, who knows? How much did I ever really understand him? How much do we actually know about the hearts of the people we love? I witnessed, over and over, John’s fierce protection of all living things. He literally would not allow a cockroach to be killed underfoot. Anyone who has lived in Louisiana can picture the size and horrible aspect of these creatures. And yet, John would rush to them with the urgency of a boy, corral them into his cradled fingers before any of us could get to them, and release them out into the yard.

He was always relentless in his care and his love for the animals around him. His cats, from Boots to the beloved Abyssinians: Trotsky, ’China and Zanni. And the birds in the park in Paris, to whom John selflessly lent his own body as a perch. These were city pigeons, and they covered him from head to foot, as he sat cross-legged and uncomplaining on a bench by the water. John’s reverence for the natural world was unwavering in the face of propriety or decorum. He served the creatures he loved.

And he loved watching my children play. To this day, they call him, “Grandpa John”. Even in his more reserved moments, their spontaneity would often tease a smile out of him. To my amazement, he would sometimes begin to play with them. And it brought me back to when I was small, and John would drive me to the supermarket in his blue Datsun 280z, where we would go grocery shopping together. I loved these trips. We would make up stories together. We were travelers in a rocket ship, through space and time. We were fearless and united in our mission.

We’re still on the mission, John. Only now, we’re more united than ever.

I’ll see you on Albertson’s moon.

Until then, you have my love—as always.



John represented the best of Minnesota! He was kind, soft-spoken and highly intelligent! He had a natural curiosity about the world and great interest in learning about the many cultures and peoples all over the world. Our conversations about politics were fascinating and enlightening. He had a gentle, soft-spoken demeanor that engaged interest among whomever he spoke with. He was indeed a man of honesty who cared about others. We will greatly miss his sincere concern about the world and devotion to his strong ideals and values!

Liz Sela, sister-in-law


I knew John through his wife Suzanne, a dear friend, and I admired him deeply. My fondest memory of him is the day that all of us spent together in the sunlight of Toledo, Spain in 2014 – during a Psyart daylong conference outing – exploring the  picturesque streets and monuments, the view of the city from above (recalling Goya) – laughing, drinking, eating, and relishing life in the incomparable way that Spaniards themselves do. That joyful memory summons John’s image and spirit, smiling and bathed in sunlight, as in all my photos. He will be deeply missed by many of us in the Psyart community, and we send our love and support to Suzanne, whose devotion to John is a testimony to what they shared.

Jerry Aline Flieger, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Rutgers University


Ellen Furlough, my wife, was a member of UK History Department. Ellen taught French and modern European history. John, Suzanne, and Ellen were ardent Francophiles. Their passion quickly converted me. We saw many French films at Kentucky Theater, then debated their merits over a glass of wine.

John and Suzanne helped Ellen with difficult translations of documents she found in French archives. This was especially useful in 2010, when Ellen was invited to give a talk at a conference in Brittany. The occasion also marked my first trip to France. John and Suzanne went out of their way to show me Paris, while Ellen was in Brittany. Sipping coffee with them on a Montparnasse boulevard, then sharing a meal at a nearby bistro that night are cherished memories. They helped demystify Paris by giving good tips about navigating the Metro, fun walking tours, and how to talk to shopkeepers. John’s relaxed and upbeat manner set the tone for my travels in France.

John Erickson was a true gentleman and scholar. He was cosmopolitan, erudite, and so very kind. He brightened the lives of all who met him.

Frank Davis, Medical Librarian, University of Kentucky (retired 2019), husband of Ellen Furlough, Professor of History, University of Kentucky (1953-2020)


I met John at LSU when I first went to visit Suzanne Pucci who I had befriended at Cornell University. Later I often visited John and Suzanne in Kentucky and occasionally in Paris. 

I admired John's work in French and Francophone literature and beyond his contributions to literature, I deeply appreciated his interest in social issues. I found him to be generous in sharing his scholarly knowledge, easy to talk to and particularly respectful of women. 

Nelly Furman, Professor Emerita, Cornell University.

John was a delightful friend, a true gentleman in every sense of the word.. Always a calm presence, cordially welcoming you into his and Suzanne’s beautiful home to share their joie de vivre. The pioneer of Francophone Studies, UK was so fortunate to be able to hire him. I remember one situation in particular; John and I were discussing/arguing about Egypt and its role in the Middle East. I was wrong, although I didn’t realize it at first, but John didn’t give up on me. It took me awhile to realize he was right, but I was able to come around to his point of view over time precisely because of the way he argued. His way of disagreeing was low key and his way of correcting you was firm but not confrontational, truly the mark of a great teacher.  He is sorely missed.


Francie R Chassen-López, Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History, University of Kentucky


John Erickson had the stunning ability to pick readings for class that would revolutionize your understanding of the world. He was often ahead of his time in his choice of texts and not afraid to challenge the canon. John introduced me to the 20th-century French author Marguerite Duras and her groundbreaking ways of remembering and telling stories. John’s silenced pauses between his thoughts replicated perfectly Duras’s lingering but untold memories in her writing.

Jeorg Ellen Sauer, Senior Lecturer, French & Francophone Studies, University of Kentucky


John was an intellectual power house, though you wouldn’t know it from his manner. He was kind, unassuming, and almost courtly in his attention to others. He remembered your interests and engaged you in conversation about them, never promoting his own reputation but happy to share his ideas. He was a consummate gentleman.

Ellen Rosenman, Provost’s Distinguished Service Professor (Emerita), Department of English, University of Kentucky


There can be no doubt that John was an eminent scholar, but we knew him best socially as a kind friend and a thoughtful listener. No matter who was speaking to him, he would quietly and patiently absorb what they had to say, and his response would be both insightful and empathetic. The world needs more good listeners like John, and it is diminished by his passing.

Chris Pool, Professor Department of Anthropology, University of Kentucky; Kathleen Pool, Associate Director, Kentucky Humanities


John Erickson was a model friend, academic, and spouse. We were lucky enough to have spent time in Paris with John and Suzanne on sabbatical and during research trips, as well as visiting with them in Lexington. No matter how long the interval, John always picked right up where we’d  left off, intellectually and socially. He had the true gift of interpersonal warmth and attentiveness, complemented by his ready, radiant smile. Indeed, the essential John was someone who generously shared his beautiful Abyssinians with us, even knowing how much we coveted them.

Kate Nicholson. Professor Emerita, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Oregon; Bill Ray,  Professor Emeritus, French Department, Reed College