Legendary Professor Passes
Brandeis Prof. Emeritus Allen Grossman Ph.D. ’60 (ENG) passed away in Chelsea, Mass. on Friday, June 27 at the age of 82 as a result of Alzheimer’s complications.
The late professor had a monumental impact in shaping the humanities at Brandeis, was an accomplished poet and inspiring mentor to his students.
Grossman was born in 1932 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He received his doctorate at Brandeis in 1960, and began teaching here while he was still a graduate student. He went on to join the Brandeis faculty, where he remained for the next three decades. In 1991, he became the Andrew W. Mellon professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University, where he taught until his retirement in 2005.
Prof. William Flesch (ENG) started teaching at Brandeis in 1985, when Grossman was a senior faculty member.
In an interview with the Justice, Flesch described Grossman, saying, “It was like talking to a Hebrew prophet a little bit, talking to him. And he had a sense of humor, but what he didn’t have was irony about himself. ... Most brilliant people are disappointed in the world and the way they handle that disappointment is by being ironic, but he wasn’t and he didn’t.”
Grossman came to epitomize not only the English department but also the humanities at the University more broadly. In an address to incoming students, a 30-year-old Grossman described the humanities as, in a sense, “a means of coming to life by way of the dead.”
Prof. John Burt (ENG) explained that Grossman was “instrumental” in shaping a year-long introductory humanities course called “University Studies in Humanities,” or UHUM for short, required for new students from 1981 to 1991. The first semester dealt with classical and biblical literature and the second with literature after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The first-year students who landed in the UHUM section taught by Grossman had no idea they were audience to one of the most legendary professors to set foot on campus. They were in for an experience that, for many, would define their Brandeis education.
Paul Solman ’66, former Justice Editor In Chief and the business and economics correspondent for PBS NewsHour, reflected on the sense of awe he felt under the late professor’s tutelage.
As an underclassman, Solman took a course with Grossman predominantly focused on Irish literature. It was when he witnessed Grossman casually describe Irish poet William Butler Yeates as being on the “thither side of the eschatological watershed” that he realized how fortunate he was to have snagged a seat in Grossman’s classroom. “It was a parenthetical statement, it wasn’t part of the lecture,” said Solman. “I realized I was in the presence of an intellect that I could only dream ... of fully understanding.”
In some cases, his students quite literally did not understand him. Grossman had an unusual accent that, according to Solman, was a means of learning to speak around a speech impediment.
In one famous instance, a student from Grossman’s 19th century literature class turned in a paper that used the phrase “fantasy echo.” “[Grossman] breaks down at times, because he would be so overcome by a phrase in a poem that he would just experience it while you were listening to him,” said Solman. Such a moment occurred when Grossman read this bizarre phrase in one of his student’s essays.
As it turned out, the student had not come up with the phrase at all —he’d borrowed it from a phrase he heard Grossman himself say in a lecture. He’d been saying “fin de siecle,” a French phrase meaning end of the century, commonly used to reference the cultural spirit of the late 19th century.
Grossman found himself easily enamored with poetry in part because he experienced it as something of a secular religion. However, unlike many others, who see poetry as a means of quasi-religious worship, Grossman was also “insistent on poetry’s intellectual content,” said Flesch.
Grossman made poetry a vital piece of Brandeis. “His poetry readings were hugely important cultural events,” wrote Burt in an email to the Justice. Burt also suggested that the strong focus the current incarnation of the Brandeis English department places on poetry is a result of Grossman’s influence.
According to the Poetry Foundation’s biography on Grossman, he “did not align himself with any one poetic community. Instead, his poetry is often described as coming out of the modern Romantic tradition of lyric poetry, and he writes in a high style, reflecting the influence of William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane.”
Among his many awards are the Bassine Citation of the Academy of American Poets, the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, the Witter Bynner Prize and a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book The Ether Dome (1992). In 2009, he was awarded the Bollingen Prize, one of the most prestigious poetry prizes in the country.
In some ways, the humanities legacy Grossman worked to instill in the University has fizzled. The University studies of humanities program ended the same year Grossman left. There continues to be a University humanities requirement, but it doesn’t provide the depth of grounding in Western literary culture that the UHUM program provided.
Yet Burt explained that everyone who graduated after taking the course cited it as something valuable. Grossman met individually with nearly every one of his students and was a legendary figure in academic poetic spheres as well as among his students.
“Grossman was an utter phenomenon,” Solman said. “If you had any intellectual pretensions, you had to take a course with him.” Grossman is survived by his second wife, the former Judith Spink PhD. ’60, sons Lev, Austin, Jon and Adam, a daughter Bathsheba, six grandchildren and a great-grandson.