Terry Teachout, a cultural critic who contributed his overwhelming intellect to Broadway, ballet, bluegrass and virtually all forms of art in between, in his columns for The Wall Street Journal, The Daily News, and other publications, died Thursday at . a friend’s house in Smithtown, New York on Long Island. He was 65 years old.
His brother David confirmed the death, but did not give the reason.
Mr. Teachout belonged to a vanishing race of cultural mavens: omnivorous, humanitarian, worldly without pretentiousness, often conservative in their policies, but utterly liberal in their approach to the world and its bewildering diversity of peoples and cultures. He carried his erudition lightly, enjoying it and hoping that his prose would make others as well.
He wrote with ease on Haynie and Mencken, Ellington and Eakins, Bill Monroe and Balanchine. Born in a small town in Missouri and later graduating with an undergraduate degree in music journalism, he called himself a “knowledgeable amateur” and an esthete – someone who loved beauty in all its forms and believed his job was to find it and explain it. this.
He was fertile: his byline has rarely been seen anywhere in the last 30 years, and not least because of his weekly duties at The Journal. He was generally a critic of the Commentary; blogged for the Arts Journal; co-host of a podcast for the American Theater magazine; and for many years he wrote independent book reviews for The New York Times.
He has also written several highly regarded biographies, including “The Skeptic: The Life of HL Mencken” (2002), “Pops: The Life of Louis Armstrong” (2009) and “Duke: The Life of Prince Ellington” (2013).
He used some of what he had learned from searching the Armstrong archives to write “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” a one-act play that premiered in 2011 in Orlando, Florida. he also wrote librettos for three operas, all by composer Paul Moravec.
As an acolyte of William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Podhoretz emerged from a circle of young urban conservatives, spurred by the Reagan presidency and eager to go further; he once called for a “Ronald Reagan culture” who could “provide an affirmative vision of America’s common culture.”
But he tried to separate his policy from his criticism and made fun of those who mixed the two things up. Nor was he a cultural reactionary: he played bass in a high school rock band, loved the TV show Freaks and Geeks, and welcomed the possibility that film could replace the novel as the dominant storytelling medium.
“The older I get and the more I delve into all the arts, the more I’m sure there is a bigger, more fundamental sense in which everyone is trying to do the same,” he said in interview from 2004. “This deep similarity means that I understand that I am applying the same kind of aesthetic yardstick to, say, ballet and film.”
Terrance Alan Teachout was born on February 6, 1956 in Cape Girardeau, in southeastern Missouri, and grew up in Sikeston, about 50 miles south. His father, Bert, sold the equipment, and his mother, Evelyn (Crosno) Teachout, worked as a secretary for an accountant.
It was, as he recalled in his 1991 memories of “City Limits: Memories of a Small Town Boy”, an idyllic childhood full of textbook Americana – huge yards, parades and football on the occasion of the 4th of July. His mother was a beauty queen in high school. He loved it and missed it long after moving to New York.
“I remain a small town boy, uprooted and exaggerated,” he wrote, “and little has changed in me except where I live.”
Nevertheless, he was so prematurely that, at the age of 12, he persuaded his parents to subscribe to the propaganda magazine Soviet Life, published by the Russian government – not because of communist sympathies, but rather out of curiosity to live in a totalitarian state.
He spent a semester at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, before transferring to William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, near Kansas City. He specialized in music journalism – a diploma, as his brother said, that the school had created just for him.
After graduating in 1979, he began writing music reviews for The Kansas City Star, while playing bass in a jazz band and performing a series of no-win work. He wanted to become a great writer, but was depressed by his chances of doing it in a city in the Midwest. He entered postgraduate studies in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but left before earning his degree.
His first marriage to Liz Cullers ended in divorce. He married Hilary Dyson in 2007; died in 2020. In addition to his brother, his companion, Cheril Mulligan, survived.
The breakthrough came in 1981 when, to his surprise, Mr. Buckley accepted one of his submissions for publication in the National Review. A few years later, Mr. Podhoretz took a fragment of it for comment. In 1985, convinced that he had a chance for a literary career, Mr. Teachout moved to New York.
He got a job as an editor for Harper’s Magazine, and in 1987 he transferred to The Daily News. That same year, he began writing for The Wall Street Journal, a relationship that would last for the rest of his life. In 1993 he became a classical music and dance critic for The Daily News.
He also fell into a flock of like-minded young conservatives who felt ostracized by the liberal culture surrounding them. He helped set up a salon, The Vile Body; its name was loosely taken from a book by British writer Evelyn Waugh, who was experiencing a renaissance among young right-wingers at the time.
The salon has become a permanent meeting place for 20- and 30-dozen conservatives from the Washington-New York-Cambridge axis, including Bruce Bawer, Richard Brookhiser, David Brooks, Roger Kimball and John Podhoretz.
He has edited a collection of essays of 15 of them, “Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Culture and Politics” (1990), with an introduction by Tom Wolfe.
Together they argued that the liberalism of the baby boom was either a burned out leftover from the 1960s or, as Teachout wrote, a “frivolous romance” that barely masked rampant materialism. The real legacy of the baby boomers, they wrote, was ascending conservatives like themselves who were ready to remake American culture.
In The Journal, where he became a drama critic in 2003, Mr. Teachout gained a reputation as an advocate of regional theater. Last month, he wrote approvingly about repertoire companies in Philadelphia and Providence, RI, and their performances of “A Christmas Carol.”
Especially in the last few decades, his writing has grown more generous, although he has retained a deep reserve of anger towards writers he found loud and touched. He called Norman Mailer an “act of nostalgia” whose prose was “worth attention only for its flaccid horror.”
But this was as far from controversy as Mr. Teachout would normally be, and beyond the occasional mention of “offense” or multiculturalism in his reviews, he preferred to work in an apolitical register, judging art and culture on his own terms.
“I honestly can’t think of any important artist whose work I would avoid solely because of their politics,” he said in 2004. “Whether I accept their invitation to dinner or not is a different story.”