Terry Teachout, Arts Critic With a Wide Range, Is Dead at 65
Terry Teachout, a cultural critic who, in his columns for The Wall Street Journal, The Daily News and other publications, brought his all-encompassing intellect to bear on Broadway, ballet, bluegrass and practically every art form in between, died on Thursday at the home of a friend in Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 65.
His brother, David, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.
Mr. Teachout was one of a vanishing breed of cultural mavens: omnivorous, humane, worldly without being pretentious, often leaning conservative in their politics but wholly liberal in how they approached the world and its dizzying array of peoples and cultures. He wore his erudition lightly, enjoying it and hoping that, through his prose, others might as well.
He was comfortable writing about Haydn and Mencken, Ellington and Eakins, Bill Monroe and Balanchine. Born in a small town in Missouri and later earning an undergraduate degree in music journalism, he called himself a “well-informed amateur” and an aesthete — someone who loved beauty in all its forms and believed it was his job to find it and explain it.
He was prolific: For the last 30 years, it has been a rare stretch of days in which his byline did not appear somewhere, and not only because of his weekly obligations at The Journal. He was a critic at large for Commentary; he blogged for Arts Journal; he co-hosted a podcast for American Theater magazine; and for many years he wrote freelance book reviews for The New York Times.
He also wrote several highly regarded biographies, including “The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken” (2002), “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong” (2009) and “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington” (2013).
He took some of what he learned from digging through the Armstrong archives to write “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” a one-man, one-act play that had its premiered in 2011 in Orlando, Fla. Not to be constrained by prose, he also wrote the librettos for three operas, all by the composer Paul Moravec.
An acolyte of William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Podhoretz, he emerged from the scrum of young urban conservatives energized by the Reagan presidency and eager to take it further; he once called for a “Ronald Reagan of culture” who could “present an affirmative vision of America’s common culture.”
But he took care to separate his politics from his criticism, and he derided those who mixed the two. 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 might have replaced the novel as the dominant storytelling medium.
“The older I get and the more completely I immerse myself in all the arts, the more certain I am that there’s a larger, more fundamental sense in which they all seek to do the same thing,” he said in a 2004 interview. “This deep resemblance means that I understand myself to be applying the same sort of aesthetic yardstick to, say, a ballet and a movie.”
Terrance Alan Teachout was born on Feb. 6, 1956, in Cape Girardeau, in southeast Missouri, and raised in Sikeston, about 30 miles south. His father, Bert, sold hardware, and his mother, Evelyn (Crosno) Teachout, worked as a secretary for an accountant.
It was, he recalled in his 1991 memoir, “City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy,” an idyllic childhood, full of textbook Americana — big backyards and Fourth of July parades and football. His mother was a high school beauty queen. He loved it, and missed it, long after he had moved to New York.
“I remain a small-town boy, uprooted and repotted,” he wrote, “and nothing much has changed about me except the place where I happen to live.”
Still, he was precocious enough to persuade his parents, when he was 12, to subscribe to Soviet Life, a propaganda magazine published by the Russian government — not out of any communist sympathies, but rather out of curiosity about life under a totalitarian state.
He spent a semester at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., before transferring to William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., not far from Kansas City. He majored in music journalism — a degree, his brother said, that the school created just for him.
After graduating in 1979, he started writing music reviews for The Kansas City Star while playing bass in a jazz band and holding a series of dead-end jobs. He wanted to become a big-time writer, but he grew despondent over his chances of making it in a Midwestern city. He began graduate school in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but left before receiving a degree.
His first marriage, to Liz Cullers, ended in divorce. He married Hilary Dyson in 2007; she died in 2020. In addition to his brother, he is survived by his companion, Cheril Mulligan.
A break came in 1981 when, to his surprise, Mr. Buckley accepted one of his submissions for publication in National Review. A few years later Mr. Podhoretz took a piece of his for Commentary. In 1985, convinced that he had a shot at a literary career, Mr. Teachout moved to New York.
He got a job as an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and in 1987 he moved to the editorial board of The Daily News. That same year he began writing for The Wall Street Journal, a relationship that would last the rest of his life. In 1993 he became The Daily News’s classical music and dance critic.
He also fell in with a gaggle of like-minded young conservatives who felt ostracized by the liberal culture around them. He helped start a salon, the Vile Body; its name was taken loosely from a book by the British writer Evelyn Waugh, who was then enjoying a renaissance among young right-wingers.
The salon became a regular haunt for 20- and 30-something conservatives located along the Washington-New York-Cambridge axis, including Bruce Bawer, Richard Brookhiser, David Brooks, Roger Kimball and John Podhoretz.
He edited a collection of essays by 15 of them, “Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Culture and Politics” (1990), with an introduction by Tom Wolfe.
Collectively, they argued that baby boomer liberalism was either a fizzled leftover of the 1960s or, as Mr. Teachout wrote, “a frivolous affair” that barely masked rampant materialism. The real legacy of the baby boom, they wrote, was the ascendant conservatives like themselves, who were poised to remake American culture.
At The Journal, where he became the drama critic in 2003, Mr. Teachout developed a reputation as an advocate for regional theater. Last month he wrote approvingly of repertory companies in Philadelphia and Providence, R.I., and their performances of “A Christmas Carol.”
Especially in the last few decades, his writing became more generous, though he kept a deep reserve of ire for writers he found flashy and affected. He called Norman Mailer a “nostalgia act” whose prose was “noteworthy only for its flaccid awfulness.”
But that was as far into controversy as Mr. Teachout would typically go, and except for the occasional swipe at “victimhood” or multiculturalism in his reviews, he preferred to work in an apolitical register, assessing art and culture on their own terms.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any important artists whose works I would shun solely because of their politics,” he said in 2004. “Whether or not I’d accept a dinner invitation from them is another story.”