Ian Watt, a former British army officer who survived an infamous Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on Thailand's River Kwai and became a leading literary critic, died Monday at a Menlo Park nursing home.
The 82-year-old Watt was an emeritus professor at Stanford University whose two major works, "The Rise of the Novel" and "Conrad in the Nineteenth Century," are considered classics of literary criticism.
Because of his firsthand experience, he also wrote and lectured about the realities of life in the war camps popularized in the 1952 novel "Bridge on the River Kwai" and the 1957 movie.
Watt was born in Windermere, England, in 1917 and was educated at the Dover County School for Boys and at St. John's College in Cambridge.
When World War II erupted, he joined the British army and was wounded in the battle for Singapore in January 1942. Official reports listed him as missing and presumed dead, but he had been taken prisoner by the Japanese.
From 1942 to 1945, he was held at one of several Japanese camps on the River Kwai. Of the more than 126,000 Allied prisoners of war and Asian laborers imprisoned there, about 60,000 were forced to help Japanese engineers build a 258-mile railway through the Thai-Burma jungle and across the River Kwai.
The railway was built in a matter of months in spite of valiant efforts by the prisoners to sabotage the project. Their struggle inspired the Pierre Boulle novel and director David Lean's Oscar-winning movie with William Holden and Alec Guinness.
During construction of the railway, more than 12,000 prisoners died, mainly of disease. Watt, a lieutenant, suffered from severe malnutrition and thought he would die in the camp.
The time he spent ill was not wasted, however: Watt used it to read all of Shakespeare's plays as well as the works of Dante and Swift.
At a Stanford colloquium four decades later, he challenged the fictional accounts of events at River Kwai.
Watt disagreed with the movie's stereotyped portrayal of the Japanese as "comically inept bridge-builders." Such depictions, Watt said, only "gratified the self-flattering myth of white superiority."
He also took stern exception to the image of Japanese collaborator given to the British commander of the bridge camp.
The actual commander, Col. Philip Toosey, became a legendary figure in the camps for persuading the Japanese to allow the prisoners to organize work details themselves and to supervise the construction. This arrangement, Watt said, made operations more efficient and helped to ensure fairer treatment of the prisoners. Toosey's strategy was adopted by commanders at other camps along the river.
Toosey also was deeply involved in "V," an underground group of Thai and Allied forces that saved many lives by smuggling money, medicine and food into the camps.
"Col. Toosey, then, can hardly be accused of 'collaboration' with the enemy, although he did--with a greater imagination than anyone else--collaborate with the actual circumstances he found himself in," said Watt, who concluded that Toosey was "as near a hero as we could afford then and there."
It may have been Toosey's efforts through the underground organization that saved Watt from death by malnutrition. "There was a period when I expected to die," he said in a 1979 interview. "I didn't know how sick I was until they gave me some of the vitamin pills that had just come into the camp."
After the war, Watt earned his doctorate at Cambridge and studied at UCLA and Harvard. He taught at UC Berkeley and the University of British Columbia before joining the Stanford faculty in 1964.
He is best known for his 1957 work, "The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding," an analysis of great British novelists that was instrumental in turning scholars away from an emphasis on poetry to a fuller examination of the novel.
"It helped shift the attention of literary criticism from the older, so-called New Critical style, which emphasized poetry, to a new habit of sociological and cultural criticism, which was more likely to emphasize the novel," said Bliss Carnochan, an emeritus professor of English at Stanford and former director of its humanities center.
Watt's 1979 critical biography, "Conrad in the Nineteenth Century," exemplified the approach he pioneered in his earlier work, taking a more humanistic view of Joseph Conrad that related the novelist's life to his work, origins and times.
The late Robert Kirsch, in his review for The Times, noted that Watt included new research on Conrad's life, including an examination of the mysterious early period in France when the writer attempted suicide. He also brought insights to "Heart of Darkness" and "Lord Jim," ambiguous works that made Conrad a favorite in universities.
Watt, who was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1972, was also the author of "Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan and Robinson Crusoe," "The Humanities on the River Kwai," and "Conrad: Nostromo."
He is survived by his wife, Ruth Mellinkoff Watt, of Stanford; a son, George, of Bangkok, Thailand; a daughter, Josephine Reed, of Salt Lake City; and two grandchildren.