• Random

    Photogravure etchings at www.kamprint.com and http://kamprint.com/xpress/

    Photogravure etchings at www.kamprint.com and http://kamprint.com/xpress/

  • Subscribe to Blog via Email

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Random

    Photogravure etchings at http://kamprint.com/ & http://kamprint.com/xpress/

    Photogravure etchings at http://kamprint.com/ & http://kamprint.com/xpress/

Steven Marcus, 1928 – 2018, Professor of English at Columbia College, In Memoriam

Steven Marcus

In retrospect there seems to have been an elegiac cast to Steven Marcus’ teaching, an awareness that the unimpeded literary and cultural endeavour could not last forever. Already in 1963 the Vietnam War threatened to displace peaceful pursuits not only in the far-off theater of war, but in the halls of learning as well. In that year an entire semester devoted to ‘Hamlet’ might have been seen by some as idle, but Steven Marcus conveyed by manner and tone, by his extraordinarily charismatic presence, and by his wide-ranging and never-pedantic erudition, that this was the most important thing we students could be doing.

The play ‘Hamlet’, and Steven Marcus’ class, begin with ‘Who’s there?’ He pauses, then asks ‘Isn’t that the key question of the play, and of your life?’. Immediately the inquiry gets personal, as we wonder how our own, and Hamlet’s, identity will unfold.

The course ranged over all of English literature and drama, before and since, a line from Hamlet like the tea-soaked madeleine bringing forth a world of free association. Steven Marcus inhabited a Victorian world with high seriousness and wry humor, the ultimate
litterateur. He was one of the last ‘men of letters’ for whom the vast range of reference in, say, the poetry of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound was as natural as conversation. His scholarship was entirely unforced, rather it grew from the keenest pleasure that curiosity could provide. And this pleasure he conveyed to students, artlessly and by example, so that we eagerly sought to develop our own learning. Marcus was at his best as a teacher, a particular sort of teacher — not an instructor or a retailer of lessons, but as a source of inspiration, someone who expanded the boundaries of cultural pleasure far beyond the limited boundaries of ordinary reality. His response to the impending crisis was to immerse himself, and us, even more deeply in the Western literary and cultural tradition while the chance still existed.

Steven Marcus’ intellectual heritage came by way of his own studies with Lionel Trilling at Columbia, in the Partisan Review milieu of mid-century New York. Trilling led the way, as the first Jew at Columbia, his acceptance eased by his donnish-English demeanor. Ironically Trilling was the great champion of authenticity, who pioneered the use of Freudian psychoanalysis to ferret out hidden meanings in literature. Marcus took up where Trilling left off, adapting the anglophilac style for dramatic effect in the classroom. It helped him, and us, to enter more fully into the spirit of English literature, as participant observers. He wisely chose not to use psychoanalysis as many later critics did, to decode or reduce literature to formulaic drives. Instead he used it as a method to reveal the irrational sources of the power of stories to move us. This is about as close as literary criticism can get to sympathetic companionship with literature.

The great value of literature for Marcus was not merely the enjoyment of entertaining stories — though that was not to be scorned, as he made clear in an essay on Dashiell Hammett. These stories reflect and at the same time re-make society. They supply insights unavailable elsewhere into what concerns us most, and even character-roles that readers adopt as models for their own places in the world. Social themes, to be sure, appear in literature, but themes invented by novelists also escape from the pages of books and inhabit society. Society itself is to a great extent a set of shared understandings of the meanings of public and private events. ‘Culture wars’ such as those currently raging represent competing visions of society that threaten others’ place in it. The interaction of literature and society that Steven Marcus wrote and thought about thus has real and fateful consequence.

Printed from: http://www.kamprint.com/views/?p=1080 .
© Peter Miller 2018.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.