Theory Teacher's Blog

Marshall Grossman and the Work of Mourning

This past Tuesday, Marshall Grossman died. He is remembered fondly on the University of Maryland English department’s website [here]. He was my professor for just one year, from the spring of 2000 to the spring of 2001, when I completed my masters degree in English. I met him again a few years later at a conference where we talked at length about the book he was then working on, Reading Renaissance Ethics. Though my time with Marshall was brief, his effect on me has been enduring and powerful — his rigorous scholarly work, his brilliant way of reading, and his challenging style of intellectual engagement. He was a model that I still aspire to emulate. So, I don’t know why I was surprised that when I heard the news of his death I spent the evening crying as I attempted to read some materials about pedagogy that my department was going to discuss the next day; death doesn’t usually affect me that way, as I tend to think of it as part of the natural order of things, but Marshall’s death hit me harder than I would have expected it to. I am crying a little bit even now as I write this blog post, five days later. Perhaps I feel deep down that my intellectual work with Marshall was not yet finished. I always assumed we would meet again soon and continue our conversations. So, I am writing this blog post today in honor of him, because I miss him, but it is of course also about myself — a literary connection between two selves that Marshall appreciated in his masterful book, The Story of All Things: Writing the Self in English Renaissance Narrative Poetry about the way we attempt to narrate historical events and personal experiences through figurative language.

To put it another way, I want to perform the ethical work of mourning that I described earlier this year on the occasion of Edouard Glissant’s death [here]. Back then I wrote that the death of a friend, parent, or writer we have read asks us to come to terms with our debt to them — the debt of our existence, and of our own thinking, and of our open-ended becoming that we owe to them. It is through them and their work on us that we imagine the possibility of our ethical relationship to the world. This, I think, is the project that John Donne’s many poems about death and mourning (about which I wrote for Marshall’s class) encourage us to undertake.

One of the things I liked about Marshall is actually summed up nicely at the conclusion of this YouTube video of him, made a few years ago by one of his undergraduate students, which splices together some bits of one of his lectures on Shakespeare’s Hamlet with an interview.

At the end, in answer to the question about what he wants from his students, he says he can’t ever know what that is in advance, and it would be even unethical for him to pretend to know that, because ultimately he doesn’t want the students to discover something about him, or even about the Shakespeare plays he teaches. Rather he wants them to discover something about themselves and their world. This, I think, epitomizes his scholarly and pedagogical style that resisted merely situating literary texts anecdotally within their historical context but instead encouraged readers to think about what kind of work these texts do. I remember him criticizing the kind of New Historicism (which I’ve also criticized at length [here]) that was in vogue at the time by noting that this method couldn’t explain why the literature was any good or even worthwhile. For Marshall, the wonderful literary qualities of the text mattered — mattered politically, even — for it was those literary qualities that prompted us to think about the contingencies of history and our ethical and figurative relationship to it.

And Marshall was also one of the most clearsited cultural theorists. What I remember so often admiring about Marshall is how he could mention a recent pop song or simply look out the window, describe what he was seeing in great detail (as he does in the epilogue to Story of All Things), then use that detail to explain a complex theoretical question (Lacanian psychoanalysis, for instance), and then start talking about a poem by Shakespeare or Milton, and somehow all of these three topoi (the mundane object of our present-day reality, the theoretical discourse, and the poetry) would illuminate each other and each shine all the brighter at the end of Marshall’s witty and lucid commentary. For those who have taken my classes in literary theory or who just read this blog once in a while, this might sound familiar, or at least I hope it sounds familiar, as one of my aspirations has been that you are always getting a little bit of Marshall Grossman whenever you read or listen to me.

Lastly, what I loved about Marshall was his acerbic and challenging wit. He was somewhat well known for his tough and sometimes sarcastic engagement with both his students and his colleagues. I remember some of my fellow graduate students being a bit afraid of him, but this too I loved even when I was the object of his criticism.  Criticism is an ethical project, and we can see this project in all of his scholarly work, and also in the political blog that he wrote for the Huffington Post [here]. As one of his colleagues said about him, “To know him well enough was to see an underlying sweetness to his disposition that expressed itself mostly by indirection. Beneath his sometimes sardonic persona, he was an incredibly kind man.” Marshall’s tough engagement inspired me to think harder and do better, but even more important than that, I think most who knew him would agree that any discussion, no matter what the subject, was never more alive than when he was participating in it.

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April 2, 2011 - Posted by | death

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