Steven Marcus, Columbia Scholar and Literary Critic, Dies at 89
Posted April 30, 2018 8:00 p.m. EDT
Steven Marcus, a Columbia College professor who transformed literary criticism into a lens on history and society by revealing a subculture of Victorian pornography and psychoanalyzing characters in Charles Dickens’ novels, died Wednesday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 89.
His wife, Gertrud Lenzer, a former professor of sociology and children’s studies at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said the cause was cardiac arrest.
The Bronx-born grandson of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Marcus majored in English literature at Columbia, where he spent most of his academic and professional career as a leading New York intellectual.
He studied under the celebrated critic Lionel Trilling, with whom he collaborated on editing an abridged version of Ernest Jones’ three-volume biography of Sigmund Freud in 1961. That partnership spurred Marcus to apply a psychological prism to much of his own literary criticism.
In academia, he was most admired as a teacher and mentor. Kate Millett began writing “Sexual Politics,” her 1970 feminist classic, as her doctoral dissertation under his guidance.
Another former student, Richard H. Moye of Lyndon State College in Vermont, said by email, “Steven taught, both by example and by expectations, rigor, substance, conscientious hard work, depth, comprehensiveness and absolute thoroughness.”
In literary circles Marcus was respected, and sometimes challenged, as an unconventional critic.
In “Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey” (1965), he employed what poet and critic G.S. Fraser, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described as “an informal Freudian psychology” and applied it to an analysis of Dickens’ neglected early novels. The method provided insights into early Victorian society buffeted by radical change.
Fraser praised Marcus for connecting “glaring faults of staginess and sentimentality” in Dickens’ fiction to the “deep wounds in his personal life.”
In his anthropological survey “The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-19th Century England” (1966), Marcus likened pornographic fiction to utopian fantasy — “a world of grace abounding to the chief of sinners.” He called it “pornotopia.”
Some critics said “The Other Victorians” relied excessively on theory. But in The New York Times Book Review, novelist Elizabeth Janeway called it “a critical as well as an historical tour de force.” She added, “To expose Victorian hypocrisy is commonplace; far less common is the ability of Marcus to dredge and refine social truth from a swamp of pornography.”
Marcus’ “Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis: Studies in the Transition from Victorian Humanism to Modernity” (1984) challenged critics who claimed that Freud had concocted his seduction theory.
“In no region of cultural activity has Freud had a more profound and lasting influence on modern consciousness” than in the writing of biographies, Marcus wrote.
A political liberal who was opposed to the Vietnam War, he was drawn into the so-called culture wars of the 1990s and criticized exponents of political correctness as “soft totalitarians.”
While expressing sympathy for the long-term goals of those advocating social change, he chastised them for what he called Orwellian humorlessness and euphemisms that threatened “the decay of language.”
In addition to teaching and writing, Marcus was a founder of the National Humanities Center, an independent institute operating from North Carolina since 1978 to advance studies in the field. He was also the chairman of a 19-member panel created by Columbia University’s president, William J. McGill, that in 1979 candidly concluded: “Forty years ago, Columbia University was generally deemed to be one of the very few distinguished universities in the United States. Today, it is among a larger number of universities in the first rank.”
The report found “slippage” in the university’s social sciences departments, leaving them in less than “a position of distinct pre-eminence.” It said further that of the university’s seven science departments, only geology had become stronger in the preceding decade.
In 1993, Marcus was named dean of Columbia College and vice president for arts and sciences by the university president, George Rupp.
Marcus had once said, “It is easier to move a graveyard than to move a college faculty.” When he was named dean, he acknowledged that statement might now seem impolitic. “I’m in the course of learning how to qualify it,” he said.
But the dual role of dean and vice president proved unwieldy. After less than two years, he resigned to return to teaching — for health reasons, he said.
Steven Paul Marcus was born on Dec. 13, 1928, in the Bronx to the former Adeline Gordon and Nathan Marcus, an accountant who was unemployed for several years during the Depression.
Steven attended William Howard Taft and DeWitt Clinton High Schools, graduated when he was 15 and won tuition-free scholarships to Harvard University and Columbia. He rejected Harvard because his family could not afford the room and board. To save money when he attended Columbia, he lived at home and carried his lunch to school.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1948 and wrote a master’s thesis on Henry James under the guidance of Professor F.W. Dupee, the eminent modernist scholar.
After brief stints teaching at Indiana University and City College of New York, he won a fellowship to Cambridge University, where he conducted research on a Fulbright fellowship and published his first literary criticism, in The Partisan Review and Commentary.
After serving two years in the Army, mostly in Greenland, he returned to Columbia to complete his 1,105-page dissertation on Dickens, which became the basis for his 1965 book.
Marcus said that Lionel Trilling and another Columbia professor, Jacques Barzun, had influenced him most by pointing him “in the direction I wanted to have in academic life.”
In 1961, when he was teaching at Indiana University, a casual conversation with John Gagnon of the university’s Institute for Sex Research, founded by Alfred C. Kinsey, prompted him to write “The Other Victorians.”
Marcus returned to Columbia as an associate professor in 1963. He became a full professor of English in 1967 and the George Delacorte professor in the humanities in 1976. He twice served as chairman of the Department of English and Comparative Literature.
He was also a principal investigator in the Columbia Project on Conflicts in Values and Health Care. He became a professor emeritus in 2004. Marcus’ many books also included “Representations: Essays on Literature and Society” (1976); “Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence” (1978), with Willard Gaylin, Ira Glasser and David Rothman; and “Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis” (1984).
He edited “The World of Modern Fiction” (1967); “Art, Politics and Will: Essays in Honor of Lionel Trilling” (1977), with Quentin Anderson and Stephen Donadio; “Medicine and Western Civilization” (1995), with David Rothman and Stephanie Kiceluk; and a series of books called “Psychoanalysis and Culture,” with Arnold Cooper.
In 1997, Columbia bestowed the Mark Van Doren Teaching Award on Marcus for his “humanity, devotion to truth and inspiring leadership.”
His first marriage ended in divorce. He married Lenzer, a German sociologist, in 1966. In addition to her, he is survived by their son, violinist John Nathaniel Marcus, and a grandson.
In his book on the social scientist and Karl Marx collaborator Friedrich Engels — “Engels, Manchester and the Working Class” (1974) — Marcus lamented the decline of literary criticism “into aesthetic or political fashionability on the one side and academic stupor on the other.”
“Literature and literary criticism are very little if they cannot sustain the claim to cognitive status,” he argued. “Literary criticism, the study of literature, is nothing if it is not the study of meaning and meanings as they appear essentially in the forms of literature. It is, in addition, and by means of its own activity, the creation of further meaning.”