M.H. Abrams: A Pioneering Jewish Professor of English Literature

M. H. Abrams, who passed away on Wednesday, was the last surviving member of a “pioneering generation” of American Jewish literary scholars whose university careers began when the academic field of English literature was still largely off-limits to Jews. Adam Kirsch writes (2012):

Meyer Howard Abrams was born in 1912 in Long Branch, N.J., the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Until he started school at age five . . . he spoke only Yiddish, though his knowledge of the language has faded. His father, a house painter, was an Orthodox Jew, while his mother only “played along” at religious observance. While he and his younger brother . . . went to Hebrew school, Abrams recalled, his father “never pressed his sons to follow” his religious path. As a result, Abrams now believes, he “never got to resent religion, and could look at it with a neutral gaze”—a kind of sympathetic interest that is key to the insights of [his book] Natural Supernaturalism, which shows how much of modern literature is a recasting of age-old biblical tropes. . . .

[W]hile Abrams recalled that he experienced no overt anti-Semitism (though “if I looked for it, I would have found it,” he said wryly), he was given a “downright warning” by his faculty adviser that the “profession was not open to Jews.” . . .

In writing about [the influence of religious ideas on romantic literature], Abrams delves deeply into the Christian theological tradition. . . . Only occasionally, however, does he pursue what he calls “the redemptive imagination” back to its ultimate origin in the Hebrew Bible and in Judaism. The farthest he goes in this direction is a brief discussion of kabbalistic ideas of fall and redemption, and the Jewish component of the story of Natural Supernaturalism is left for others to tell.

Still, Abrams told me, his ability to see the Christian and post-Christian tradition in such novel ways might be attributable to his position outside that tradition. His own “freshness of outlook” he credited to the fact that he “didn’t take these [Christian] ideas for granted.” “Jews,” he pointed out, “had an outsider’s eye on a lot of Western tradition,” which may have helped them to see it in unexpected ways.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, Arts & Culture, Lionel Trilling, Literature, Religion, Romanticism


How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus