Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ralph Freedman

 Ralph Freedman (1920-2016)

           This week I have had to take time out from my garden, my heat-prostration, my grandchildren, my Netflix, and my scheduled writing to work on a “memorial minute” or short obituary essay about my recently deceased colleague, Ralph Freedman (1920-2016).  It is the custom of our faculty, and the faculties of many institutions, to remember our defunct colleagues in such fashion; and a fine custom it is.  Contemporary American culture is awash in cheap fame, celebrity, notoriety, and vulgar adulation.  It scrimps on respect for genuine cultural achievement and  licit admiration for the stewards of our spiritual treasury.

            Ralph Freedman was one of those stewards.  I did not know him particularly well.  We were friendly colleagues, certainly, but not close friends.  He deserves a better Boswell, but fell victim to his own longevity.  Stately old institutions, which may seem to the outside observer to move at the gait of exhausted turtles, actually move apace.  Since Ralph retired about thirty years ago, there are not many people around here who knew him personally.  Am I alone left to tell the tale?  He was one of the three original members of our Department of Comparative Literature.  The others were its founder Robert Fagles (d. 2008), the eminent translator of Homer, and Joseph Frank (d. 2013), the biographer of Dostoevsky.  I was already a professor of English when in the ‘Seventies I, with others, was invited to a shared appointment.  Ralph told me I had the one essential for success: a surname beginning with the letter F!

            I had my doubts about the solidity of the idea of “comparative” literature.  One cynical definition of “interdisciplinary studies” was “an English professor with a slide projector.”  In like manner I sometimes thought that a “comparatist” was a French professor who having read all of Balzac had read some Dickens as well.  But medieval European literature was radically “comparative” in a different way, and the new department offered me new teaching opportunities.  Medieval vernacular literature has the character of an iceberg.  Its submerged base, international Latin culture, is almost always as important as what rises into view.  Medieval literary education, the aim of which was to teach young boys to read, write, and declaim Latin, was rigorous, prescriptive, and fundamentally unchanging over long centuries.  When the national languages of Europe eventually emerged as possible vehicles of “serious” literary expression, a writer was likely to be self-conscious about choosing to use one.  Dante, whose Divine Comedy was a major step in the creation of the Italian literary language, wrote a whole book in defense of the vernacular language, but wrote it in Latin.  Chaucer, who appeared on the scene at a time when many conservative English aristocrats still operated in a French-speaking world, had quite consciously to decide whether to write in Latin, French, or English.  He also knew Italian literature to an impressive degree.

            So “comparatism” made sense to me as a medievalist.  Later I would come to appreciate the survival of a similar, quasi-medieval linguistic cosmopolitanism among my new modernist associates.  Professional colleagues come to know each other very well, and then again they may hardly know each other at all.  I knew Ralph as a cosmopolitan and polyglot expert in European Romanticism, with particularly impressive command of its German roots.  One does not too frequently hear Hölderlin cited on the question of academic calendars, but it is memorable when it happens.  I knew him—how to put this delicately?--as a charmingly flustered and challenged administrator of the graduate program, a man who almost seemed to revel in the faintly facetious stereotype of the absent-minded professor.   I was vaguely aware that he had had an “adventurous” youth, but only now, after his death, did I learn just how adventurous.  He was raised in Hamburg in a Jewish family that faced, and miraculously survived, the deadly hostility of the Nazi regime.  At nineteen he made his way to England.  This was in 1939, and just in the nick to time.  It is hard enough to be a writer at all.  Fate now decreed that he would have to write in English, though all that for a time was pushed aside by emergent occasion.  He soon made it across the North Atlantic despite the U-boats.  He began college at the University of Washington, became an American, became a front-line soldier in North Africa, in Sicily, and in the Italian push, became an intelligence “asset” in post-War Austria—the background to one of his two published novels.  He studied philosophy as a graduate student at Brown before landing in the graduate program in Comparative Literature at Yale.  His doctoral dissertation there would eventually lead to a study that can rightly be called famous: The Lyrical Novel.  He would go on to write numerous other important books, including well-received biographies of two giants of modern German literature, Rilke and Hesse.

            One should insult no man by suggesting that his bibliography is his life, but in an academic context it would be wrong to pass over its distinction.  He moved to Atlanta after leaving Princeton, and I saw him only once in the last three decades.  He told me he was considering writing up his memoirs, and I learned from some of the newspaper obituaries that he was in the process of doing so at the time of his death.  I hope they were left in publishable form.  He certainly deserves a better biographer than I, though my own most recent days are all the richer for the intentional remembering of him.