Obituary: Professor Harry Levin
Saturday 09 July 1994
WHEN in 1952 Harry Levin was asked to reorganise the Harvard Department of Comparative Literature following its lapse during the Second World War, he did the job so successfully that it is now impossible to conceive of the development of comparative literary studies without him. Under his guidance and inspiration the department became a Mecca for scholars and students who were keen to extend beyond the confines of a single literature.
His association with Harvard was lifelong. He entered its college in 1929, having migrated from the Middle West with the blessing of hard-working Jewish parents who, as he put it, wanted the best for their son but could never fathom his fascination with literature. Among his teachers were FO Matthiessen, Theodore Spencer and, above all, AN Whitehead. He was appointed a Junior Fellow in the 1930s, and after a brief period of interruption in which he tried his hand as a newspaper reporter, he returned in 1948, first as assistant, then as full professor. In the course of a long and distinguished career, he was awarded honorary doctorates by many universities, including Oxford and the Sorbonne.
Levin made his academic name with his ground-breaking study of James Joyce in 1941, the year Joyce died. The book, James Joyce: a critical introduction, appeared at a time when despite - or perhaps because of - the impact of Modernism, there was still much head-scratching over and suspicion of Joyce's creative vagaries (along with fellow spirits Levin had smuggled his copy of Ulysses, bought at Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris, past the American customs). His insightful interpretation, placing stress on the novelist's humane play of imagination, brought the later Joyce within the ken of a larger readership. Even so unlikely an author as SJ Perelman paid him a passing compliment in a short sketch.
Other key works include Christopher Marlowe: the overreacher (1952), The Power of Blackness (1958: on American 19th-century literature), The Question of Hamlet (1959), The Gates of Horn (1963: a study of French Realism), Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times (1976), and Playboys and Killjoys (1987: on the spirit of comedy over the ages).
The polyglot Joyce reflected the younger Levin's growing interest in the variousness of European literature, a concern which started during a postgraduate year at the Sorbonne, and which inspired him to deepen his knowledge of the languages and literatures of France, Germany, Russia, Spain and Italy. He claimed that what lay behind it all was simply an urge to escape the insular, anglophile gentility of so many American campuses of the day; yet while he succeeded in gaining an extraordinary breadth of literary and cultural awareness, it is also true that for many people at Harvard he himself came to epitomise an old-style civility (perhaps European rather than English) which acted as a gentlemanly foil to the more native-bred self-assertiveness of some of his colleagues.
Whitehead, his most treasured teacher, bequeathed him a system of 'universal interrelatedness' which served him well, though it had its disadvantages. Levin held firmly as a fundamental principle of comparativeness that the literatures of the world could be seen as parts in an overall imaginative design. Like all faiths in systems this could run to excess, and he would sometimes vitiate a point by overcrowding it with examples. But he was constantly borne out by his belief that the literature of the past illuminated the present.
Nowhere did this come through more strongly than in his teaching of and writing about his favourite novel, Don Quixote (called by his students his King Charles's head since it turned up whenever he spoke about fiction). He was an advocate and defender of the idea of humanitas; and his perception of quixotic humanism in Joyce did much to shore literary studies up against the nihilistic threat inherent in Modernism. By his own confession he found the even-tempered perspective of comedy more congenial in his later years than the unremitting account of human experience given by tragedy - a point of view which frames his last book, Playboys and Killjoys.
His wife Elena supported him unstintingly over many years, some of which were troubled by his deafness. They were generous hosts to students, either at Boylston Hall, the home of Harvard Comp Lit, or at their house on Cape Cod. In 1983 I was able to make a small return by inviting them to York during his year as visiting Eastman Professor at Oxford. It was a pleasure for me to see him, on a cold February day, kindle a glow of enthusiasm for the discipline he had more than anyone else come to personify: comparative literature.
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