Robert Hollander, RIP

Robert Hollander passed away on April 20th of this year, but having just learned the news about a week ago, I wanted, however belatedly, to mark the event. From the official announcement by Princeton University’s Office of Communications:

Robert Hollander, professor of European literature, and French and Italian, emeritus, and renowned scholar of Dante, died peacefully of natural causes at his family’s home in Pau’uilo, Hawaii on April 20. He was 87.

Hollander joined Princeton’s faculty in 1962 and transferred to emeritus status in 2003. His teaching and research centered on medieval Italian literature, with a focus on the work of Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio.* 

I took the two-semester “Great Books” course in literature that Hollander co-taught at Princeton in the late 1980s, and it changed my life. The first semester covered Greek and Roman classics, plus the Bible; the second semester began with Dante’s Inferno and ended with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I still own the very texts I bought for the course thirty years ago; every work retains its poignancy, and is still in some way indelibly imprinted on my mind.

The great irony is that I took the course less out of any intrinsic love of literature than to keep current on polemics about “Political Correctness” and “Western Civ,” which were a thing back then and, I guess, still are. Uneasily aware of my inability to hold my own in bull sessions on the subject, I decided, in my sophomore year, to take the two-semester literature sequence in tandem with a parallel two-semester sequence on political thought, the former running from Homer to Dostoevsky, the latter from Plato to Marx.

So my sophomore year of college was a four-course immersion in “Western Civ,” modeled on what I had heard was done at fashionably reactionary institutions like St John’s and the University of Chicago. Among the many things I learned from that immersion was the screwed-up nature of my intellectual priorities: until then, I’d been more interested in polemics about “Western Civ” than the thing itself; afterwards, the reverse became true. In one sense, the material itself is what changed my mind; in another sense, Robert Hollander played the protagonist’s role.

Robert Hollander, preeminent scholar of Dante, 'pioneer' of the digital  humanities and Princeton alumnus, dies at 87
Robert Hollander at Princeton; photo credit: Robert Matthews, Princeton University Office of Communications

Though Princeton was (and remains) a campus dominated by the political Left, there was never any shortage of outspoken conservatives on campus–a couple of outright reactionaries, some ordinary Republicans, but also a group of less overtly political conservatives, old-school Catholics with an old-fashioned sense of history, tradition, religion, decorum, pedagogy, and scholarship.

Hollander was, to my mind, the very best of this bunch, unapologetically conservative, but tolerant, critical, reflective, and open-minded. I had dinner with him once (in the company of many other people) at one of Princeton’s famous (“famous”) “eating clubs”; he spent a fair bit of the evening inveighing against political correctness, including parts of the PC ethos I happened to accept. He was, for instance, critical to the point of dismissiveness of the “Take Back the Night” marches that had recently begun on campus, public demonstrations against date rape featuring testimony by rape survivors from campus itself.

I still disagree with Hollander about that and other aspects of campus politics, but in retrospect see that he had some legitimate points to make about the excesses and irrationality of what later came to be called “woke culture”: the dangers of emotional over-zealotry and false accusation were very real. In any case, Princeton needed its Robert Hollanders as much as it needed its Cornel Wests, Richard Falks, and Susan Brisons.** The intellectual balance he provided was salutary and necessary, not just a matter of curmudgeonly reaction.

But of course what really mattered about Hollander was what he brought to literature, not to politics. I’m not the one to do justice to his contributions to literature as an academic field; I can only describe the very personal impact he had on me. For one thing, I don’t think I would ever have read Dante, Cervantes, Milton, or Goethe on my own had I not encountered them in his class–a demoralizing thought that will mean little to you if you haven’t read them for yourself. And even if I had read them, deprived of his lectures, I doubt I would have grasped the significance of half of what I’d read. In particular, I doubt I would have realized how much time I’d need to invest in future years to really “get” what was going on in these works, to whatever extent I ever did get it. And most days, I’m still not really sure I have gotten it, or do.

In retrospect, what strikes me most about the literature I read in that course is not how it served me in my academic career, but how it served me beyond that career, and beyond career as such. In the years since the course, I’ve re-read almost every one of the works on the reading lists of both halves of the course. It had never occurred to me before encountering them that works of literature could serve as companions in sickness and in health, in happiness and in misery. My love of them has outlasted my marriages and my academic career, giving continuity to a life otherwise marked by discontinuities and jagged edges.

This past year, even as I lost my job, my car, my house, my cat, and saw the destruction of my second marriage to divorce and suicide, the one thing I made sure to do was to keep track of the whereabouts of my “Great Books.” I may not know where my birth certificate is, or be able to find the title to my car; the meager sales proceeds to my house remain indefinitely in escrow, and my wife’s death certificate lists her last spouse’s name and address as “unknown.” But no matter, because at least I know where I’ve stored my copies of Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Milton, and the Bible. Therapy is great, and friends are important, but nothing beats that. Priorities.

I encountered Hollander (or rather, the Hollanders) once again decades later, when he and his wife Jean gave a brilliant plenary lecture on Dante at a conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, most likely in 2012, if memory serves. I bought their translation of The Inferno the day after the lecture, and tore into it the minute I got it. Before the lecture, I probably couldn’t have told you why anyone should care about or read Dante’s Inferno; after the lecture, and on re-reading their translation, I had trouble understanding why anyone wouldn’t. I had, twenty years earlier, appreciated Dante in a vaguely intellectualized way, but not in a way that resonated at my core. Twenty years later, things had changed, and I was able to make Dante my own. But I wouldn’t have gone back if Hollander hadn’t urged me back, and I wouldn’t have read to the end of the book if I hadn’t read his translation. I owe him twice or three times over for that one.

Amazon.com: The Inferno (The Divine Comedy series Book 1) eBook: Dante,  Hollander, Robert, Hollander, Jean: Kindle Store

Robert Hollander was one of the best lecturers I’ve ever encountered anywhere. I used to wonder, when I taught college, whether I ever gave a single lecture in 26 years that measured up to what he used to do in every lecture he gave, class after class. He was an intellectual powerhouse and an inspiration, and his class was among the handful I took that became the unconscious paradigm of my own pedagogical efforts, feeble by comparison if you consider the outcomes, admirable only if you acknowledge the intention. Taking his class was one of the single best–but really, one of the most fortuitous–choices I’ve ever made in my life. I couldn’t begin to calculate the benefits I’ve enjoyed, not just by reading and re-reading the works we covered, but by making them part of the intellectual, moral, and psychological equipment through which I see the world. Some debts can never be repaid, but are worth incurring despite the default involved. The word for that is “civilization,” and I’m grateful to Robert Hollander for gifting it to me, comparatively speaking, for free. RIP.


*Here’s the memorial notice from The New York Times; here’s one from The Washington Post.

**Susan Brison, now a Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth, was at the time a visiting professor in the Philosophy Department at Princeton, and one of the most riveting of the speakers at Take Back the Night. She has since written a book about the ordeal she described at the march I attended. In this connection, I can’t help remembering that one of the things that Hollander said at the dinner I mentioned above was that while the “Take Back the Night” march was a worthwhile thing, it had no place at a specifically academic institution; responding to the trauma of rape was something worth doing, but “not what we’re about.” Brison has, in my view, conclusively proven him wrong on that point. Responding to the traumas of rape was precisely what the university was, and should have been, about.  

That said, the very march at which Brison spoke also featured a false accusation of rape by Mindy Brickman, one of the marchers later that evening. I was present for that narrative, and completely taken in by it until it was exposed as a fabrication weeks later. So Hollander was not entirely wrong to urge caution.

***A reader of the Facebook version of this post (Michael Young) asked for some details about what we read in the class, and how it was run. The first semester (taught not by Hollander but by a lecturer whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten) covered Homer’s Odyssey, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Sophocles’s Philoctetes, Plato’s Phaedo, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Genesis and Exodus from the Hebrew Bible, the Gospel of St Matthew from the New Testament, and Augustine’s Confessions. The discussion leader was Elizabeth Brunazzi, an extraordinarily talented teacher, later a colleague of mine at The College of New Jersey, and now a translator in Taos, New Mexico. Robert Fagles gave a guest lecture on Aeschylus.

The second semester, taught by Hollander, began with Dante’s Inferno, and then moved to Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust, Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The discussion leader here was Jeff Nunokawa, another extraordinary teacher, now a Professor of English at Princeton. (Belated realization: we also read Montaigne’s Essays, an incredible oversight on my part, considering that Montaigne has been my bedside reading for the past few months.)

The class itself consisted of two fifty minute lectures and one discussion section per week. Grades were based on two 5 page papers and a final exam per semester. Students were expected to cover the material, but grades were decidedly (and blessedly) not the focus of the course.

I’m not sure whether the course still runs at Princeton. The equivalent course at my own university, originally only a semester long, was eventually discontinued, not because some “woke” left-wing mob objected to its reactionary content, but because the bean counters in admin claimed (without a shred of evidence) that it decreased enrollment, and adversely affected the university’s revenue stream. So off it went, to be replaced by some pointlessly anodyne substitute. Enrollment is still tanking.

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