Professor Edward Rosenheim

'Socratic' English scholar
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The Independent Online

Edward Weil Rosenheim, English scholar and teacher: born Winnetka, Illinois 15 May 1918; Instructor, then Associate Professor, University of Chicago 1947-62, Director of Broadcasting 1954-57, Professor in English 1962-88, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature 1980-88 (Emeritus); Editor, Journal of General Education 1954-56; Co-Editor, Modern Philology 1968-88; married 1947 Margaret Keeney (three sons); died San Francisco 28 November 2005.

Edward Rosenheim was a distinguished scholar in the field of 18th-century English literature, a specialist in the writings of Jonathan Swift and a beloved teacher at the University of Chicago. In an age when institutional loyalty is increasingly uncommon, he was, remarkably, resident in the university for nearly 70 years, and taught in it for over half a century. In recent years, he liked to describe himself as its "oldest living inhabitant".

Rosenheim naturally gravitated to the age of Pope and Swift, where his wit served both him and those authors brilliantly. His Swift and the Satirist's Art (1963) undertook to clarify the nature of Swift's achievement as a satirist, arguing that, whereas much satire does not attempt to persuade its readers, since it is attacking objects which are already the subject of ridicule (as in Pope's Dunciad), Swift chose instead to persuade "those to whom his assaults on men, ideas, and institutions had immediacy of meaning and effect". Swift wrote, that is, less for posterity than for his contemporaries, with particularised commitments to historical circumstances.

Such an art form is arguably more in need of "unpacking" for modern readers, and it is as a careful explicator of works like A Tale of a Tub that Rosenheim's book makes its lasting contribution. He also edited The Selected Prose and Poetry of Jonathan Swift (1961).

Edward Weil Rosenheim was born in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1918, the son of Edward Rosenheim, a businessman, and Fannie Rosenheim, for many years the owner of a local bookshop, and arrived at the University of Chicago in 1935 from New Trier High School. With a few intervals - he served in the US Army as a captain in the Infantry Division during the Second World War - he remained in Chicago, carrying out teaching commitments well into his formal retirement, until 2004 when he moved to San Francisco. Even there, he continued to teach, tutoring adolescents with learning difficulties.

Rosenheim joined the English faculty at Chicago in 1947, was appointed a Professor in 1962 and, eight years later, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in English, becoming Professor Emeritus (though continuing to teach) in 1988. His wife Peggy, a lawyer, whom he married in 1947, served as a distinguished Dean of the School of Social Service Administration in the university from 1978 to 1983.

He left an indelible imprint on the University of Chicago, especially as a teacher. Former students include the late Susan Sontag and the director Mike Nichols, who later wrote of his undergraduate days:

I stopped going to class . . . [though] there was one class that I did attend because I loved it so much. It was called "Humanities 3", which is the

kind of name classes had in those days. Our teacher was Mr Rosenheim. I loved him . . . Ned Rosenheim was my hero . . . He was truly Socratic in that he got your mind working and providing the answer to his and your own questions . . . [Once] he presented us with what he called "Rosenheim's Othello". He said, "Here's my Othello. In the first act Othello discovers that his wife is cheating on him and he kills her. For the next three acts he regrets it. All right, what's wrong with it?"

In addition to his book on Swift and satire, Rosenheim was also the author of What Happens in Literature (1961) - a distillation of the kind of classroom teaching for which the university's introductory college course in the Humanities became so well known.

In the 1950s, Rosenheim was also involved in broadcasting, serving for several years as the moderator and the producer of The Round Table, becoming famous as the "voice" of this nationally syndicated programme at a time when television was in its infancy. In more scholarly vein, he co-edited for 20 years from 1968 the learned journal Modern Philology, a title he himself was happy to call a misnomer, since virtually all of its many learned contributions were on pre-"modern" literature.

Despite his intense love for the university, Rosenheim was equally happy in less intellectually elevated environments. He bought a house in the small Michigan town of Pentwater in 1955, and spent summers, weekends and Christmas there. Two of his closest friends were the local GP and the County Agent, and Rosenheim, who disliked change of most kinds, rejoiced in the fact that for over 50 years Pentwater enjoyed an unflinchingly stable population of 900 residents. (He also owned a 40-acre Christmas-tree plantation in the same county, surely a first for an academic specialist in 18th-century English literature.)

An Anglophile, though of a distinctly unsnobbish sort, Rosenheim first visited England in 1937, and was dismayed to discover on his next visit, 30 years later, that some things had changed; but he relished the diversity of English society, equally enjoying the shops on Lordship Lane, Cockney cab drivers, and lunch at Magdalen's High Table. Thereafter a frequent visitor to England, he liked to work in the old Reading Room of the British Museum.

In Chicago, Rosenheim's penchant for satirical humour spilled over into his luminous presence as a campus personality. He helped devise a mock conference on the poetry of William McGonagall, whose splendidly fatuous poems deal mainly with disasters like floods and train crashes. The conference delved solemnly into McGonagall's textual niceties, presented new historical readings of them, and even supplied a Chicago School Aristotelian criticism of this great master. McGonagall himself rose from the dead (in the form of a faculty member with a plausible Dundonian burr) to recite his best poems to an appreciative audience.

Rosenheim also wrote the lyrics and book for the annual Faculty Revels, which persist today and are not afraid to revive some of his greatest hits. He was a founding member of the Society of the Fifth Line, a group of otherwise distinguished Chicagoans who met annually to trade limericks constructed as much for wit as for ribaldry.

David Bevington