BRUNSWICK, Maine — Herbert Coursen Jr., 78, a man who family and friends said used his every moment to its fullest extent, died Saturday after a lifetime in academics, athletics, activism and masterful practice of the written word.
Coursen, a former professor at Bowdoin College and others, penned 35 novels, 31 volumes of poetry and 16 critical books on the works of William Shakespeare — many of which earned him accolades in the literary world. He died Saturday in his sleep at his home in Brunswick, according to Nancy Randolph of Topsham, his publisher and editor for the past 20 years.
“He was a phenomenally brilliant writer and a phenomenally brilliant citizen,” said Randolph. “Writing really was how he lived his life. He was an evaluator and by writing, he evaluated what he was seeing and doing.”
Coursen, who held a doctorate in English from the University of Connecticut, taught at numerous higher education institutions, including 28 years at Bowdoin College as chairman of the English department until 1992. He is known far and wide as a fervent peace activist despite his history as an Air Force fighter pilot in the 1950s. Later in life, he became an active member of the influential group Veterans for Peace.
In 1970, he helped lead a weeks-long student strike at Bowdoin in opposition to the Vietnam War. John Rensenbrink of Topsham, who also was a Bowdoin professor at the time, said his and Coursen’s actions were condemned in some circles.
“I was always more concerned with the consequences of our actions,” said Rensenbrink. “He would just charge right ahead. I think that he was more of an impetuous doer and action-taker than most people.”
Rensenbrink said Coursen was always a man recognized by those around him not only for his talents, but for the energy with which he pursued them.
“He was just full of life,” said Rensenbrink. “He was just really someone who wanted to get as much as possible out of life, and he did.”
Henry Bird, who taught at Bowdoin with Coursen, said one of his fondest memories of the man involved a protest they staged together decades ago when the U.S. Navy was planning to use Popham Beach as the site of a shorefront invasion exercise. Coursen found himself in the spotlight nationally but under a cloud locally when an opinion piece he wrote opposing the exercise was published by the New York Times.
“I don’t think that popularized him with many Bowdoin alumni,” said Bird. “But a large contingent of us, especially Herb, decided this was just too much.”
Poet Robert Chute of Poland Springs, a longtime friend and colleague, often served as an editor of Coursen’s work and, at times, a reviewer. Despite Coursen’s political beliefs — which were often the subjects of his writing — he drew from his own personal experiences as opposed to going on a simple rant. That quality made Coursen’s work especially accessible, said Chute.
“What he wrote was always lucid and clear,” said Chute. “Even if he was dealing with something fairly deep and complicated, it always seemed to be direct and clear and available to you. That’s a real talent.”
In person, Coursen could be aggressive and at times abrasive when it came to making a point.
“If he was on the other side, he was going to let you know it,” said Chute.
But there was also a warmer, more jovial side to the man. During social functions he hosted with his partner of 20 years, Pamela Mount, the couple was known to entertain guests by performing jazz classics — he on cornet and she on the piano. Mount died in March of this year which, according to friends and family, was the source of a lot of sorrow for Coursen in his final months.
“He was incredibly fortunate to have Pam in his life for 20 years. To lose them both in the same year is very hard on us all,” said Coursen’s daughter, Virginia Wyatt, in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “Dad was a brilliant Renaissance Man and a wonderful grandfather.”
Coursen leaves behind three daughters and four grandchildren, according to his obituary, which he wrote prior to his death.
Doug Rawlings, a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, knew Coursen best through their involvement with Veterans for Peace, but Coursen also had a profound influence on Rawlings’ poetry.
“What he really did for me was encourage me to write what some people would consider to be a mistake, to write with deeper feeling than just personal, therapeutic writing,” said Rawlings. “He was always saying to just move from your own experience.”
Gary Lawless, a poet and owner of Gulf of Maine Books on Maine Street in Brunswick, said Coursen deserved more recognition than he ever received for his writing.
“In the poetry world, there are some people who labor for a long time and don’t get due respect for it, and then they disappear from the world,” said Lawless. “It’s sad when they go.”
But Randolph, his publisher, said Coursen’s death won’t end his legacy. With his family’s permission, Randolph said she wants his adaptations of classical literature to be used as college textbooks.
“I want to do that so students can see not just from those ancient words, but also from the ancient words made new,” she said. “I still think he should have won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He never got the credit he should have gotten.”
Services for Coursen had not been scheduled by press time.