Robert A. Fenn

Robert A. FennProfessor Robert Anthony Fenn, Political Science Department, University of Toronto, died on Thursday 25th March, 1993, aged 58. Fenn devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to transcribing James Mill's common place books and, also, the notes Mill made in the books of J.S.'s collection at Somerville College, Oxford. His work is the basis for this electronic edition.

An examination of a document prepared by Fenn prior to seeking a publisher for the common place books, entitled 'Editing Principles' (available to download as a PDF) goes some way to outlining how he went about producing such an accurate transcript of James Mill's manuscripts.

Naturally, Fenn spent a great deal of time at the London Library in St. James Square, Westminster, where four volumes of Mill's common place books are held. Fenn published his doctoral research as James Mill's Political Thought through Garland in 1987, which contained a powerful analysis of Mill's political and philosophical position, based on a very close reading of the common place books. The dedication to the Librarian can be seen today in the Library's copy of Fenn's book. Dated 18th March, 1988, it reads: “With the compliments of the author & with very profound gratitude for the many services rendered by the Librarian & staff of the London Library during the course of my research.”

We are pleased to include several items on this page in remembrance of him, kindly provided by Larry Johnston.

University of Toronto newspaper obituary

Professor Robert Fenn of the Department of Political Science, an archival researcher who brought to light invaluable material on the early 19th-century political philosopher James Mill, died March 25 at the age of 58.

Born in Vancouver, Fenn received his BA (honours) from the Department of Political Economy at University of Toronto in 1957 and continued his studies at the London School of Economics & Political Science where he earned his MSc in economics in 1959 and his PhD in 1971. He joined the University of Toronto as a lecturer in 1962.

A specialist in political theory, Fenn helped to found in 1967 a scholarly association called the Conference for the Study of Political Thought, with members across North America. Within the community of political scientists he was most highly regarded for his work on Mill, a proponent of the school of thought known as utilitarianism. Fenn transcribed and translated thousands of pages from Mill's correspondence, his Common Place Books and his articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1816-23 and assembled a voluminous Mill bibliography. His PhD thesis on Mill's Political Philosophy was published in book form in 1987.

The material that Fenn amassed offers insight into the evolution of utilitarianism and liberalism as modes of British political thought. Professor Robert Mathews, chair of the Department of Political Science, said that much of this collection remains unpublished. The department hopes to arrange for publication of at least part of it and failing that will donate it to Robarts Library. “It may provide the basis for more substantial work by scholars in the future,” Matthews said.

Professor Richard Day of political science at Erindale College, a colleague and former student, recalls Fenn as a loyal, trustworthy and extremely principled person. “I found him a very good teacher,” Day said. “He would take the time to give special attention to a student he thought was deserving.”

Among Fenn's personal interests, his fondness for collecting rare books was surpassed only by his passion for classical music.

A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday May 1 at 11 a.m. in the music room at Hart House.

Excerpts from Remarks by a Student at Robert Fenn’s Memorial Service

“As students, we were always somewhat amused by Professor Fenn, who sometimes appeared to be the epitome of the eccentric academic, but we were also, undergraduates and graduates alike, very much in awe of him, in awe of his mind. This was a man, whom nothing escaped, not an historical fact, not a reference, not an anecdote...”

“Throughout the time I knew Bob Fenn, he taught Marxism, and British liberals of the 18th and 19th century, and in reflecting on his life and work in these past few weeks, it has struck me how interwoven these interests were for Bob, and more importantly how closely they were bound up with his being; what he studied and taught could not be separated from who he was. It was a significant part of him as an individual and as a teacher, that however strong his beliefs, they were rarely if ever an impediment to his love of truth. He encouraged his students to see the warts as well as the dimples. I remember as a sudent in Fennn's Marxism class how he refused to give in to the true believers on the one side or the dogmatic critics on the other; by his example he encouraged us to approach the text with a critical sympathy, and this was I believe ever his approach, whether the text was Marx, or Mandeville, or Mill.”

“The critical sympathy Fenn brought to texts, he also brought to students and their work.”

“He had his own point of view on most subjects, and rigorous notions about the standards of good scholarship, but he also practised a belief in scholarship not discipleship - there were no Fennites or Fennians. This lack of an intellectual ego, as it were, coupled with his incomparable grasp of historical and bibliographic detail made him in many ways an ideal supervisor...”

“Fenn also took a broader interest in the lives of his students. He invited us to dinner, helped us celebrate our successful defenses, and gave us tickets to the symphony.”

“Those of us who remained Fenn's students the longest, found he became more than our teacher; he was our friend in some of the very best senses. As one of his fourth year students from this year put it, “we were all quite fond of him.” We have lost a staunch ally and a most unforgettable character. We will miss him a long while.”

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