In Memoriam: Professor Jonathan Goldberg

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The English Department at Johns Hopkins mourns the passing last month of Jonathan Goldberg, who was Sir William Osler Professor of English Literature at Hopkins before moving to Emory university in 2006. He served during his time here as both Director of Graduate Studies and Senior Editor of ELH. He was an astoundingly prolific scholar who published pathbreaking studies of early modern literature, writing and sexuality, and literary theory. He was also a beloved mentor and friend to generations of Hopkins students. In celebration of his many contributions to literary studies, we have gathered some remembrances from students and colleagues, below.

Jonathan Goldberg was an unstintingly generous presence to his students, his colleagues, and his friends. In his seventeen books, he wrote with the same unique availability, magisterially bringing to light the contradictions, complexities, and sometimes anachronisms in topics  as various as  the silences perceptible beyond the surface of Willa Cather’s transparent prose;  theories of melodrama in film and literature based on an aesthetics of impossibility; Sappho’s erotic resources for thinking and living;  the figure of St. Mark in writing and painting; and Lucretius’s matter, always in motion, but nonetheless made of the same stuff.  Jonathan had an intuitive grasp of the ways seemingly irrelevant particulars penetrate into shared domains of significance, and his writing forged bold and compelling connections between things, images and words. His was a major critical voice. He was also a rare friend. His death leaves a hole in my world.

-Sharon Cameron, Johns Hopkins University

Jonathan Goldberg once told me that he had been asked to write an essay on death for a collection, and that he had tried, really tried, but, in the end, couldn’t do it and had to beg off. Writing this in memoriam, I understand how he felt. I knew Jon for many years. At the start, when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, I was somewhat afraid of him. He could be cranky and … well, it was Hopkins. At the end, when we were scheduling Zoom talks around coughing fits, he was perhaps the person I most admired and trusted in our discipline. In the years between, he was unfailingly generous, interested, and frank—a mentor who gradually became a friend. I’ll leave his scholarship to others. (As I told a conference in his honor in 2012, I have an idiosyncratic preference for an early work of his, James I and the Politics of Literature [1983].) There is so much to praise.

I can speak, though, to the quality of mind that he brought to that work, and to much else besides. Jon had two attributes that I have met with in other people, but never combined. On the one hand, he was rigorous, not just in the obvious sense that he expected a high standard of thought from himself and others, but in the sense that he believed the obvious was just a place to start.  He was impatient with received ideas. Could the opposite be said as well, he would ask? If so, how did those ideas exist in tension with each other? For Jon, significance was in every case entangled and branching, opening itself up to “dialectical and oppositional possibilities,” as he put it in one place. I internalized this, as I imagine many of his students did. I once said, introducing him, that Jon was that voice in my head, always wanting to know: are we there yet? Was the argument over, or was there some way to fold it back on itself (again)? Jon was also utterly candid. If there was a hard truth to be said, he could be trusted to say it. In all the years that I knew him, and some of them difficult, I never knew Jon to evade or minimize a problem. This included his last illness, which he endured with dignity and honesty. I internalized this, too: Jon’s unflinching realism. Some difficulties just have to be faced.

On the other hand, Jon was extraordinarily open minded and intellectually accommodating. Approaches that ranged outside the usual ambit of literary critical reference did not faze him at all. What concerned him, again, was the quality of the argument: did it do justice to its own possibilities? Supposedly, Jon was once asked what made literary critics different from other practitioners, and he replied, “we can read.” This is the man exactly: what Jon cared about was the technê of interpretation. He was prepared to apply it to whatever materials came to hand and confident that it would yield results. You can see this in the array of topics he took up over the course of his career: the endless work of supplementarity in Spenser (he was a brilliant expositor of deconstruction), early modern handwriting, early modern women writing, early modern (and modern) sodometries, Jacobean power dynamics, Caribbean reappraisals of The Tempest, and, latterly, English modernist literary criticism. And you can see his dialectical élan in the work itself, too. Jon took very seriously the views of others. Each of his books puts itself in dialogue with a coterie of interlocutors, mostly early modernists, but also historians, theorists, and editors. That is, Jon not only believed that ideas existed in tension with one another, he made this integral to his own intellectual practice. He thought as he did; you thought as you did. If both of you thought in tandem, his prose seemed to suggest, the insights that emerged would be that much more subtle, more inclusive of (counter) meaning, and closer to the “there” you wanted to reach. And that prose, like Jon himself, was vigorous and direct. It made the subtlety of his thought your own.

“Now this is engagement,” he said of a piece I’d written recently, one in which I squared up to the views of an historian I’d long admired. I was gratified, of course, but also sad—this was one of our last conversations—because to engage in that way was what he had taught me, and now such engagement, with him at least, was ending. In Jonathan Goldberg, we have lost one of the most cogent, supple, and invigorating minds of our time.

-David J. Baker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I would not have been able to complete my PhD without Jonathan Goldberg’s guidance.  He taught me how to be patient. Under his supervision, I learned how to unfold my thinking and how to revise my writing without giving up my intellectual freedom. When Jonathan said something was good to go, you could be sure it was. He had impeccable judgment, which was intimidating, and an amazing openness to new ways of thinking, which was exciting and inspiring. On the verge of publishing my first book and in the process of developing my second one, I turned to Jonathan for some advice. “Surely,” I said, “it gets easier.” “No,” he replied. “Every project is different.”  His tireless devotion to the critical enterprise (up until his last weeks of life), and the example of his work, help me, and I’m sure, others, to sustain belief in its possibilities

-Marcie Frank, Concordia University

Jonathan was one of my first teachers at Hopkins. In my first semester as a PhD student in the Humanities Center, I took Jonathan’s seminar, “Renaissance Literature and the History of Sexuality,” a topic that I knew nothing about. The class met every Friday afternoon, which I both looked forward to and felt nervous about. As a non-native speaker, I found Renaissance authors difficult, and the other readings (Foucault, Eve Sedgwick, Alan Bray, among others), abstruse. I was mostly quiet during class discussions, having nothing smart to say. All I could do was to spend long hours reading, trying to make sense of the assigned texts. (I still have the copy of The Faerie Queene I used in that class—page after page, its wide margins are covered with notes.) Needless to say, that was a long semester. Never did I know that I would someday write a dissertation that drew heavily on what I learned in that seminar; never did I know that I would later translate into Chinese Sedgwick’s Between Men, one of the readings in that class; never did I know that someday I would assign some of the authors I read in that seminar to my own graduate students. Indeed, Jonathan had had such a lasting impact on me. He was a brilliant, prolific scholar. His Sodometries: Renaissance Texts and Modern Sexualities was one of works that influenced me most. He was also a great teacher, strict, candid, and fair. If a paper was bad, he told you so; if it was good, he would let you know, too. 

Jonathan—and his partner Michael Moon—continued to be supportive after they left Hopkins for Emory. We kept in touch over the years, and I was constantly amazed by their generosity, caring, and kindness. I was deeply saddened when the news of Jonathan’s passing came. I will remember him, with love and gratitude. 

-Jie Guo, University of South Carolina

I think of Jonathan practicing piano. Conscientiously rereading every page that he assigned to his students. I once heard him say that his memory wasn’t that great, so he always had to do the reading. Maybe that was why his ideas always seemed fresh. He wasn’t telling us what he thought when he read The Faerie Queene twenty years ago; these were his ideas from this morning.

Why did I want to study with Jonathan Goldberg? If you had asked me when I was a student, I might have said that he was different from other scholars of Renaissance literature, that he liked style and imagination, and he had a problem with history. I might not have mentioned his skepticism, although I was very aware of it. Sometimes his skepticism was a little scary. Similarly, I might not have mentioned his study of the history of sexuality, which interested me and scared me. 

Today I think Jonathan was the best teacher because he exemplified virtues like discipline and honesty. In his incredibly thorough comments on my papers, Jonathan was always telling me to watch my inferences and not make up things about texts. He liked imagination, but he didn’t like wishful thinking.  

Really I’m repeating what I heard Dan Gil say a few years ago about studying with Jonathan. Dan was right.

-Aaron Kunin, Pomona College

Jonathan Goldberg is the reason that I studied Renaissance literature. He is also the reason that I am who I am. I came to Hopkins imagining myself as a scholar of the American Renaissance, but meeting Jonathan changed that, as it changed how I read and thought and talked and wrote. “Transformative” understates what it meant to be his student: to be part of his seminars, whether on race, colonialism, and sexuality, or on Spenser, Milton, and Marvell; to write a dissertation under guidance as generous as it was exacting; to have him as an interlocutor and dear friend in years to come. To be Jonathan’s student is to want to become different. It is to leave the old, tired thoughts behind and to try to think anew.

And so when I think of Jonathan, it is hard not to think of Socrates. At the close of the Symposium, Alcibiades articulates how Socrates has changed his sense of identity, and when he does, he remarks that to listen to Socrates is to be “absolutely staggered and bewitched … what an extraordinary effect his words have had on me—and still do.” Like Jonathan’s words—his criticisms and his encouragements—Socrates’s speech never stops its echo. “The moment I hear him speak,” Alcibiades avers, “I am smitten with a kind of sacred rage … my heart jumps into my mouth and the tears start into my eyes.” Socrates, like Jonathan, did not offer easy pedagogy, and when Alcibiades leaves Socrates, as whenever I left Jonathan, he does so perturbed but also inspired, knowing that now he “simply couldn’t go on living the way I did.” If Alcibiades sounds like he’s complaining, we know that he loves this process, this sacred rage, almost as much as he loves Socrates—as much, I would hazard, as Jonathan’s students loved him. I loved him for making me think that I am and must be otherwise than I have been. I hope that that thought will always be with me.

But there’s another, more important thought that I want to be with me, one that has little to do with Gilman Hall, Johns Hopkins, or even the discipline of English literature. I want to remember a visit I made to his home in Stowe, Vermont a few summers ago. I want to remember the care that he and Michael Moon took to keep my family comfortable: to take us on walks where my kids could marvel at the animals they otherwise wouldn’t see, to prepare meals that skirted my daughter’s allergies, to make sure that our rooms were cool enough in the evenings. I especially remember a morning when Jonathan mesmerized my children with how he played classical piano. I remember the light in the room. I remember Jonathan’s yellow t-shirt and grey sweatpants, his deft fingers on the keys as he delighted, and delighted in delighting, my kids. All would agree that Jonathan had uncommon, formidable capacity as a critic. But he also had so much capacity for love.

-James Kuzner, Brown University

As may be gleaned from my interest in Donne, Crashaw, and the other metaphysical poets, I have a taste for hyperbole.  But it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that my debts to Jonathan are excessive, immoderate.  Jonathan Goldberg: a principal authority in his several fields.  That is, the most provocative and innovative one, whose vast body of scholarship reshaped all those fields in such daring and thrilling ways.  There’s that Jonathan Goldberg, with his—I’ll just say it—intimidating brilliance, which is, perforce, widely accredited.  But also to have the joy of being personally acquainted with Jonathan himself, in addition to his work, was to know someone exceptionally warm, supportive, and generous, as I will try to convey in the following Hopkins reminiscence. 

I went to Hopkins in 1984, one year out of college, to study Milton with Stanley Fish.  And it was in his year-long seminar on Milton that I first met Jonathan, who would turn out to be—first as my mentor and then also as my friend—among the most important people in my life.  As a guest speaker, Jonathan presented on Milton’s “On Shakespeare” from his then forthcoming Voice Terminal Echo (1986)—still a favorite of mine and not to be overlooked as the middle work in that dazzling first run of books from 1981’s Endlesse Work: Spenser and the Structures of Discourse to 1992’s Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities.  (And Jonathan was, of course, only getting started.)

Stanley Fish left for Duke at the end of my first year.  Jonathan came to Hopkins from Brown two years later, after I had already finished my course work.  Even though I’d not taken a class or even sat for my exams with him, Jonathan very kindly took me on as his dissertation student.  The dissertation on Spenser and secrecy that I wound up writing under his supervision was supposed to be a Milton and secrecy dissertation.  Milton, as I said, was what I came to Hopkins to do, and Milton was the sole subject of my dissertation prospectus, which after endless drafts Jonathan at last approved.  Or I should say mercifully allowed me to stop drafting—that kind of writing comes hard to me, and I fear I’m not good at it—in order to get me to work on the dissertation itself.  Knowing how to begin it also proved hard.  Dryden wrote that Milton told him that Spenser was his “original,” so I tried my hand at starting there, with a Spenserian prehistory of the gestures of veiling and withholding that I was interested in in Milton.  When I got back the draft of my opening chapter—now on Spenser—covered with Jonathan’s pointed commentary in that beautiful cursive handwriting of his, I started to envision two chapters on Spenser in what I thought would still be a mostly Milton dissertation.  Not long after, I realized that I had in the works a full dissertation on Spenser’s career.  That is, if my adviser would allow me to wander so far from my original path.  He did. 

Everyone knows how rigorous, how exacting Jonathan was.  My work is better for it.  But I have benefited equally from Jonathan’s forbearance, even indulgence, in letting me go about things as I did.  My Spenser dissertation became my first book, which I now see (though for some reason I didn’t at the time) also arrived as an echo of his. 

-Richard Rambuss, Brown University

I met Jonathan my senior year at Hopkins when I finally got around to taking my English major requirements. He was teaching the survey of 16th and 17th century British literature, a course I had been dreading for reasons that I can no longer remember. Of course, Jonathan’s lectures that autumn completely blew me away, as did his seminar on Willa Cather and Patricia Highsmith the following semester. It is not an exaggeration to say that Jonathan was responsible for my decision to apply to PhD programs, a goal which had never seriously occurred to me before those classes my senior year. But only later on did I realize what a truly rare gift it had been to be in an undergraduate classroom with Jonathan. It was a space where long, unsettling silences often engulfed the whole class—drooping silences without which it would have been impossible to notice the strangeness of the texts we read, more often than not hiding in plain sight. Had we uncovered this strangeness or simply gotten out of our own way? Was queerness a quality or was it a relation that Jonathan had helped us to cultivate? When years later in graduate school I encountered Jonathan’s observation in Willa Cather and Others that in Cather’s novels “‘the thing not named’ ramifies in a number of directions around an unnamable numinosity,” I read it as a description of the conditions for thinking and dialogue in the classroom that in my experience Jonathan had been singularly able to foster. I learned to read with several members of that Hopkins English department, but from Jonathan I also learned, over the course of only two semesters, that I wanted to teach, and how I wanted to do it, and that, in the transferential space of the classroom, certain kinds of teaching are necessary to enable certain kinds of reading. How do you teach the practices of the unsaid? Jonathan and I were friends and in close contact from the autumn of 2003 until just weeks before his death, but I am still learning what I learned in those Hopkins classrooms. I will miss him so much.

-Zachary Samalin, New York University