Lawrence mourns the death of Bertrand Goldgar, Professor of English

Photo courtesy of Communications
Grace Christiansen

Photo courtesy of Communications (Ian Wallace)

The Lawrence community
mourns the death of Professor of
English and John N. Bergstrom
Professor of Humanities Bertrand
A. Goldgar, who passed away
Wednesday, Oct. 14. He was 81
years old.
A native of Macon, Ga., Goldgar
earned a bachelor’s degree from
Vanderbilt University and both
a master’s degree and doctorate
from Princeton University.
He joined the Lawrence English
department in 1957, and for the
following 52 years he was one of
Lawrence’s most beloved professors.
Goldgar was an expert in 18th century
literature – including
Swift, Pope and Fielding – and
was admired both as an editor and
for his own articles and books.
Last year, Goldgar was celebrated
in Dublin as the co-editor of the
first volume of the new 15-volume
Cambridge University Press
edition of the complete works of
In addition to his extraordinary
academic career, Goldgar was
an integral part of the Lawrence
community. In 1976 he received
Lawrence’s Award for Excellence in
Teaching and in September of 2008
he was given Lawrence’s Award
for Excellence in Scholarship. His
dedication to teaching and scholarship
earned him the admiration
and adoration of both his students
and colleagues. He was always
available to talk to students –
whether it was 10 p.m. or 10 years
after graduation.
He proclaimed himself a
“curmudgeon,” but his wit and
humor were, and will remain, legendary.
For his 50th anniversary,
several alumni put together “The
Berton Anthology of Panegyrical
Literature” which, in the style of
18th-century satire, paid tribute to
this great man.
Goldgar is survived by his wife,
Corinne, his two children, Ben, 52,
and Anne, 50, and two grandchildren,
Sarah, 21, and Leah, 17.
Bert Goldgar was a tremendously
influential professor for
me, as he was for countless other
students. I like to think back to
moments in his 18th-century
Literature course when he licked
his lips and dove into reading a
passage, partaking of pleasure in
its turns of phrase, before he wryly
dissected it with equal pleasure.
As a colleague, he served as an
inspiration through his exceptional
commitment to his research and
teaching. I will miss him most as a
friend. While he was known for his
gruff exterior, those who were close
to him know he had a deep capacity
for generosity and sympathy.

– Karen Hoffmann ’87
Associate Professor of English and
English Department Chair

I mostly saw Professor Goldgar
at the “geezer” lunch table in the
old union. He was always full of new books, new films and new ideas. His knowledge of London made our family stay there twice as valuable. Beyond this, though, his warmth and twinkle made lunch the best fun of the day. I fear that he is irreplaceable.

– Dick Yatzeck
Professor of Russian

My first encounter with Bert was actually through The Lawrentian. When I was first applying for a job at Lawrence, I wanted to do some research on the individuals I would be meeting as a part of my campus visit. Seeing B. Goldgar on the list, I went to Google – and was horrified to see an obituary. What I had found, of course, was an online version of one of the many April Fool’s Lawrentian stories. When I arrived for my interview at Bert’s office, he was very much alive and well.
If Bert could be a demanding colleague in terms of his standards, he could also be a remarkably supportive one. When he found out I was planning my first research trip to his perpetual summer haunt, the British Library, he took a deep interest in all stages of the planning process. … He warned me about the lamentable new policies, which – at least in his telling – were turning the library into something resembling a high-school cafeteria. He even forced his daughter, a historian who teaches in London, to come down to the library and make sure everything was going smoothly for me.
Quite frankly, I find it difficult to think about Lawrence without Professor Goldgar. His presence in Main Hall, and at lunch in the now-closed Memorial Union Grill, will always be a part of this university in my memory. He will be sorely missed by all of us who knew him, but certainly not forgotten.

– Garth Bond
Assistant Professor of English

Bert was a better scholar in his 80s than most of us are in our 40s.
– Jerald Podair
Professor of History and Robert S. French Professor of American Studies

I was a music major when I took Prof Goldgar’s Satire class. I remember his eyebrows were near the sky when he handed back our first lot of papers – mine was on top and he had given me an A. He really threw me into confusion when he gave me an A for the course. Yes, I’m still bragging 30 years later. … I wound myself up into a frenzy about my scholarly direction before knocking on Bert’s door. “Professor Goldgar, should I change my major to English?” I said through adolescent tears. “Nancy [it came out like ‘Naintsy’], it’s an undergraduate degree. It doesn’t matter what you take.” Punctured, relieved, smitten.
– Nancy Pattan-Wood ’78

The first time I had class with him, one of the first things out of his mouth was that there would be no sitting in circles, no holding hands and absolutely no singing “Kumbayah.” He took great pleasure in making sure we understood all the possible innuendoes present in “Canterbury Tales,” shared with us the fact that he always identified with King Lear, and that Percy Shelley made no worthwhile contributions to English literature. There was always delight in his voice when he would tell the story of how he went to a staff meeting in 1987, didn’t like it, and hadn’t been back since …
Professor Goldgar helped shape my Lawrence career, taught me more about writing than I thought possible, made me laugh more times than I can count, and gave me a deep love of cardigan sweaters and Birkenstocks. A poem he enjoyed greatly was “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” written by Jonathan Swift himself, and I think that these four lines are quite fitting for Bertrand Goldgar: “Perhaps I may allow, the Dean / Had too much Satyr in his Vein; / And seem’d determin’d not to starve it, / Because no Age could more deserve it.” (ll. 455-458)

– Beth Carpenter, senior

He was profoundly influential in my academic life at LU. Specifically in his Satire class, where he taught me how to incorporate my subversive self into my understanding of what it is to be “academic.” I’ve always wanted to write him to let him know how meaningful his classes and views on literature were to me, so I guess now will have to do.
– Jessica Fogle ’00

As is the case with many of his former students, Bertrand Goldgar was my mentor and friend. In addition to deciphering the comments scrawled on my papers, Professor Goldgar was there to listen and offer advice, to laugh at my stories and share gossip, to eat my baking experiments and tell me they were good. In the last three years, I was lucky enough to hear many of his memories and make my own with him, ranging from escaping an evening bat attack in Main Hall together to riding back from 2009’s senior dinner in his car, trapped under an umbrella. However, these were the most thrilling adventures; most of my favorite memories of Professor Goldgar take place in his office, on worn-in chairs with a thermos of coffee, where we talked about our mutual hatred of Octoberfest and old people.
One of my favorite
exchanges took place one one particular night when I stopped in to say hi on my way back from the YMCA. I updated him on life and told him about a recent incident in which I’d been caught stealing a cookie off a full, pristine recital table outside Harper Hall. “Why would you feel bad about that, Nicole?” he asked incredulously. “If I see a cookie, I take the cookie. If it’s on a table, on a friend’s plate, I don’t care – I take the cookie.” I love telling this story and thinking about the solemn look in his eyes as he told me to “take the cookie,” which I suppose is tantamount to”follow your dreams” in the world of Goldgar.
I consider myself lucky to have known Professor Goldgar, who gave his all to me from the time I first met him three years ago until the very end. He always treated me first and foremost as a friend, rather than merely a student and for this I will always be grateful. Lawrence has lost an excellent professor, Main Hall has lost a lot of spunk, and many of us have lost a dear friend.

– Nicole Capozziello ’09

I can’t sum up BG of course, but if I were to try, I’d say he was a lovely curmudgeon who was fiercely dedicated to his students and took absolute joy in being hilariously naughty while also imparting great truths. He would, of course, completely mutilate that sentence with a red pen and well-deserved ridicule.
Our class gave the “Goldgar Crabapple” to the University after the ingenious idea supplied by the April Fools’ Day edition of The Lawrentian. BG was tickled with the idea, and even more so at the placement of the tree, outside of Youngchild Hall, peeping into Sampson House and the president’s office. Since it’s dedication, there have actually been at least three Goldgar Crabapple trees, which BG and I thought was hilarious – his memory will be a continuous sapling on the Main Hall lawn, and a nagging item to replace for the LU administration.
BG was lovingly sarcastic, right to the end. I visited him a few weeks before he passed away and gave him a card expressing how much he meant to me. He read it, and looked up with tears and love in his eyes, and said, “Laura, you’re such a damn sap.”
He loved scatology. He also loved good-looking co-eds.
He loved Corinne over everything.

– Laura Bryce Knudson ’00

Mr. Goldgar – I only found the nerve to call him Bert in the last couple of years, despite long encouragement from him – was a rare creature: a first rate scholar, a brilliant lecturer and a mentor who cared about the personal intellectual growth of individual students – even an interloping theatre major like me. And although he has a well-earned reputation as a purveyor of caustic wit and curmudgeonly satire, the moment I will remember most from his classes is his reading of the final stanzas of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” in a lilting cadence with the famous drawl now turned to serious and transparent purpose, making Eve’s words to Adam on the threshold of Eden come alive – I still cannot hear those lines in any other voice than Bert’s. So he lives on. Thanks, Mr. Goldgar.
– Rick Davis ’80

It’s difficult to imagine that only one year ago I dressed up as Professor Goldgar on Halloween, fresh on the heels of my first and only class with him. Perhaps it wasn’t the most tactful thing to do, dragging out a tattered copy of Paradise Lost, horn-rimmed glasses and some Birkenstocks with white socks. However, it was all out of love.
Professor Goldgar was a delightful man and teacher. He presented material in a way that was immensely resonant with the present while remaining faithful to context and history. He cut through bullshit. And despite appearances, he loved his students. I deeply cherish the care he took to know me.
Professor Goldgar profoundly affected countless students, and I am proud to count myself among them.

– Melody Moberg, senior

He was encouraging to me in so many ways, and also enraging, as when he was ranting about “women’s libbers” – it was the early ’70s – and how most of us girls would let our LU education go to waste once we became housewives. Touché, Mr. G. – not with professors like you.
– Kathleen Krull ’74

Professor Goldgar influenced everyone he met – everyone who knew him and many who didn’t had an opinion about him. He loved to tease students about their involvement in what he perhaps considered “less academic” departments, but it always struck me that even English majors with minors in those departments still loved Professor Goldgar. To me, he had a way of criticism, which made the receiver almost proud to have gotten his attention. Once he came to class carrying a poster, which he read aloud to us: “Avoid jokes that target people or groups of people.” He read this with a deadpan glare, daring the class to come up with a joke that meant something without targeting people or a group of people. With his wit, his critical ear, and his high standards, Professor Goldgar reminded everyone to take learning seriously and to take loving it seriously, too. I’ve thought about him many times this year, and I miss his opinions and his wit very much.
– Jessica Newsome, senior
“We’ve got a lot to do today, so let’s get started. [Pause.] I think I’ll start with some jokes, though.”
“Why, of course you may write your paper on Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’! I will read it, and I will puke all over it as I do so.”
“This is a good paper, but not as good as it thinks it is.”
“I knew I could count on you because you all had childhoods and I never did. [Pause.] I sprang full-grown. [Pause.] From the head of Satan.”
“There’s a book out now, which is in Conkey’s – very unusual for a book.”
“I was right in principle but wrong in fact, as we scholars say.”
GOLDGAR: “I’m sorry, were you raising your hand?”
FEMALE STUDENT: “No, just raising my bottle.”
GOLDGAR: “Oh, that’s an action I should have recognized!”
“She doesn’t know how to write in the English language, which is rather a handicap given her chosen profession.”
“Is Milton really putting himself in this poem? Well, perhaps a better question would be, who cares?”
“He cites one of the best possible sources on Swift, ahem.”
“As Rik Warch stated in Sunday’s newspaper, Lawrence is no longer going to dispense knowledge in the classroom, so there’ll be no more lectures here. Instead, we’ll put on some music, hold hands, and just hold the poems up to our foreheads.”
“Like all other periods, the Seventeenth Century was one of transition, but unlike all others, this one really was.”
“I am beginning to greet your papers with a deep ‘ho hum.'”
“Life is too short to read John Fowles.”
From the “Berton Anthology”
“St Rik’s First Letter to the Berthians, Ch. 13”
If I speak with the tongue of a native Georgian but have not love of the felicities and firepower of the English language, I am not Bert.
If I have the gift of prophesying who will crib off the Internet, and understand all mysteries of freshman syntax both written and spoken,
and have faith that by the end of the term I will be able to move the mountainous sophomore from Manitowoc in the back row to audible speech, but have not love enough to drown the year’s first lot of papers on Milton in red ink, including footnotes1, I am not Bert.
If I give all I have to those knowing of Lilliputians and a Lost Paradise and deliver my brain to be expanded but have not humor, I gain not Bert-like knowledge.
Bert is patient and kind with the very young who have missed the point. Again.
Bert is not jealous, save of those still able to smoke.
Bert is not boastful of spending faculty meetings in The Grill.
Bert is not arrogant about indelibly etching himself on five decades of Lawrentians.
Bert is not rude. Unless provoked, in which case it is called righteous disdain.
Bert does not insist on his own way, but doesn’t grade on the curve either.
Bert is not irritable or resentfu
l. He’s.curmudgeonly.
Bert does not rejoice in the wrong, but rejoices in the right – and has been witnessed quivering with excitement as he restores the balance with a few cutting remarks and a giggle.
Bert bears all university presidents, believes all things satiric, hopes to outlast Dintenfass, ignores all curriculum fads.
His tenure never ends.
As for the current crop of English majors, they will graduate; as for university presidents, they will retire; as for gender studies, we can hope.
For our knowledge is imperfect, which is why there is graduate school.
When I was an undergraduate, I spoke like an undergraduate, I thought like an undergraduate, I reasoned like an undergraduate – you know? When I became a follower of Bert, I put aside my undergraduate ways.
For then, we saw in a mirror dimly, as through a fog of late nights2 and Bert’s wreath of cigarette smoke, even though we were face to face. Then we knew in part (B+); now we understand fully, even as we were once fully understood.
So Chaney, Povolny and Bert abide, these three. But the greatest of these is Bert.
1 There are no footnotes in this document
2 Ibid

Photo courtesy of Communications