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In Memoriam Harry Berger Jr
by Susanne Wofford

A personal tribute from Susanne Wofford


Harry Berger, one of the most important Spenserians of the second half of the twentieth century, and on into this century, died at age 96 on March 12, 2021, at his home in Santa Cruz, CA. Born and raised in NYC, Harry Berger received his BA and his PhD in English Literature from Yale University, where he taught for 12 years before leaving Yale in 1965 to become one of the founding faculty members at UC Santa Cruz, the new experimental College being created by the University of California.  Berger remained at UC Santa Cruz for the rest of his career, deeply influencing generations of students and being himself liberated (if he needed that) by its wide-ranging, non-departmental, intellectual, interdisciplinary traditions which he also helped to create.

Berger’s first book, The Allegorical Temper (1957), a sustained reading of Book 2 of The Faerie Queene, established him as a major voice in Spenser studies. In it, he questions among other things the moralized reading of Book 2, asking whether indeed the Palmer could be seen as a reliable guide, and whether Guyon’s apparent victory in rescuing Verdant and destroying the Bower of Bliss was in fact a victory or a great failure.  Berger went on to write more than one hundred articles, which many of us carried around for years in piles of dog-eared Xeroxes (long before the age of the internet!), many of which were finally collected in two great volumes published by University of California Press:  Revisionary play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics (1988) and Second World and Green World: Studies in Renaissance Fiction-Making (1988); to be followed by Making trifles of terrors: redistributing complicities in Shakespeare (Stanford 1997) and Situated Utterances: Texts, Bodies and Cultural representation (Fordham 2005) which combined new essays with some already published. Upon retirement, he went on to publish some 12 books (including his most recent posthumously published Couch City: Socrates against Simonides (Fordham 2021)) if my count is correct!  A prolific and brilliant writer and literary critic, Berger received the lifetime achievement award from the International Spenser Society in 2003 and in 2006 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

According to oral history (which I think came from him), when Berger “retired” (though he continued teaching on and off almost until his death), he posted on the door of his office in Santa Cruz the following notice: ‘Someone else can write your letter of recommendation; no one else can write my book’. This from a man who had overwhelmed so many with generosity in writing of letters of all kinds, but who had not been able to complete a second book (in spite of the dozens upon dozens of essays and one collection of criticism) because of the intensity of his teaching.  And write those books he did, all after retirement, which also provided the time for what Nina Levine and David Miller called his ‘astonishing late-career reinvention of himself as an art historian’. I myself experienced his extraordinary intellectual generosity when he was a reviewer of my first book for Stanford University Press. The wonderfully creative and deeply intellectual editor of Stanford University Press, Helen Tartar (who later moved to Fordham University Press and brought Harry with her), enlisted Harry to read my manuscript. She had recognized in Harry an intellect kindred to hers, seeing that he was not only a shrewd and generous reviewer of the works of others, but an extraordinary writer, and she went on to publish many of his books. Their partnership helped to shape the intellectual landscape of the 1990s through 2014, the year of Helen’s untimely death.  Fordham, through the sagacious work of Thomas Lay, continued to publish Harry, and Tom made possible the surprise of yet again another Berger book with the posthumous Couch City (2021).

Harry signed his review of my manuscript, choosing not to be anonymous,  and sent me (as I remember them) about twenty single-spaced typed pages, which pointed out many things that needed changing and improving (including his comment that my references to Spenser scholarship were too few while my classics work was more thorough – this being in part because I was afraid of the classicists but thought I knew something about Spenser!), and after twenty pages of wonderful and terror-inducing commentary, he ended the review by saying ‘this book must be published’. He remained an important supporter, mentor and later friend, a person I think of as a teacher though I never studied formally with him (I did have the good fortune to ‘co-teach’ a course on Plato with him when he visited NYU and I surely was a student more than teacher then).  My earliest memory of Berger was when he came to give several lectures at Yale in the mid 1980s, and as a bunch of graduate students and junior faculty we debated his recent lecture with him while the dining room was closing down around us.

Berger left Yale after being denied tenure in 1965. Years later he told me that he was at first disheartened by this decision, but that after a few months he took a different view. He said, ‘I realized that wherever I went, I would take my stuff with me’. His “stuff” – a very Bergerian word – the wide-ranging matter of his intellectual life – went with him to Santa Cruz and into his many writings. ‘Stuff’ is used only twice in The Faerie Queene, if Osgood is to be trusted, once in the common sixteenth-century sense of cloth describing Malengin’s ‘vncouth vestiment/ Made of straunge stuffe’ (5.9.10), but once in one of the most important stanzas of the poem, and capturing something close to Berger’s sense, appropriately in and about simile:  the ‘stuff’ of Nature’s garment on Arlo Hill.

That well may seemen true: for, well I weene
  That this same day, when she on Arlo sat,
  Her garment was so bright and wondrous sheene,
  That my fraile wit cannot deuize to what
  It to compare, nor finde like stuffe to that,
  As those three sacred Saints, though else most wise,
  Yet on mount Thabor quite their wits forgat,
  When they their glorious Lord in strange disguise
Transfigur’d sawe; his garments so did daze their eyes.  (7.7.7)

The ‘stuff’ Berger would take with him was, like Spenser’s material, a vestment, a figure, a simile in and of matter, a transfiguration of the material nature of the text into interpretation.

For younger scholars, especially those of us coming out of Yale in the 1970s and 1980s, Berger became a mythic exemplar of the heroic and transformative afterlife of someone turned down at Yale (one thinks too of Maureen Quilligan and Marjorie Garber, shimmering figures of a generation or two later). Coming to California from what was the New Critical Yale, coming out of a private university world into a public one, to a state that was to be the birthing ground of new historicism, a place with noted feminist thinkers about the Renaissance (consider the importance of Janet Adelman at Berkeley) and rich in many theories, Berger brought his close reading skills, augmented by an interest in rhetoric and philosophy, to an emerging debate about the relation of close reading of all texts (literature, philosophy, painting) to history, gender, culture and politics.  As Louis Montrose suggested in the introduction to Revisionary Play in 1988, Berger was one of the very few of the new critical generation to digest and fully inhabit the multiple theoretical worlds that defined the profession of literary study from the 1980s on. Harry argued with New Historicism, taking many of its terms, and turning them on their heads, but always debating from the inside of the discourse, not as a foreigner to it, not as an outsider. He was deeply influenced by questions of gender and feminist accounts of sexuality; his close reading and interest in rhetoric and questions of irony in language (and his studies of philosophy) connected him to psychoanalysis and deconstruction. To this period of enormous excitement in Renaissance studies Harry brought his intense focus on the self-consciousness of the text – the text, but certainly not the author, understood and could represent its own complicity in the discourses it was mobilizing even when the author might himself or herself have been surprised to discover this deeper recognition in the text.  Appropriation: the text can represent its own complicity in discourses of misogyny, for instance, and can mobilize the reader to see our own complicity too – a point made powerfully in an earlier essay on ‘“Kidnapped Romance”: Discourse in The Faerie Queene’ (1989) and developed in his work on Spenser and Shakespeare in what I consider to be one of his most canny and powerful books (though not on Spenser), Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare (Stanford, 1997).

Berger is to all of us readers of The Spenser Review, of course, the great Spenserian, who taught generations of Spenser scholars who themselves went on to reshape the field, a Spenserian whose writings on Spenser are always challenging what seemed to be the established readings before Berger dug into those episodes. Whether in his early but still influential essay on circles in Book 6 (‘“A Secret discipline”’) or in rethinking Malbecco as anachronism, or in exposing the “stag party” at the garden of Adonis, Berger forced intense rethinking, and did so with joy, wit, and mischievous pleasure. He was a deep reader who turned the close reading techniques of his early years at Yale into a remarkable deconstructive weapon, almost always able to turn texts or critical assumptions on their heads.  The power of his work as a Spenserian has most recently been analysed in The Spenser Review’s  focused section of what was then his most recent book Resisting allegory: Interpretive Delirium in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, edited by David Lee Miller (New York: Fordham University Press 2020). [See ‘Responses to Harry R. Berger, Resisting Allegory: Interpretive Delirium in Spenser’s “Faerie Queene”’, Spenser Review 50.2.2 (Spring-Summer 2020)].

Of course he was not only a Spenserian, but a great Renaissance scholar, an insightful interpreter of Shakespeare (see his 2013 book on the Venice plays among others), a non-classicist devoted to the classics who wrote brilliantly on Plato, a scholar caught up in the excitement of thinking about art history as a visual text that needed reading, but one who immersed himself in the field while challenging its norms. As Lawrence Wechsler was quoted in his obituary for UC Santa Cruz: ‘And the marvels he could worry out of a text! And such a range of texts – Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Marvell, of course, but Plato, Dante, Theocritus, Beowulf, Pepys, Wordsworth and Frost. And not just texts, because he was a master at reading paintings, too: Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vermeer, the Dutch still life masters, even Alice Neel. Deep looking: the slow reveal.’

In my essay for A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr. and the Art of Interpretation I suggested that Berger can be understood as both Panurge, Rabelais’s great trickster who entrances the humanist giant Pantagruel, and himself a giant humanist. For Berger was first and foremost a humanist and a moral thinker – a classicist, the reader of Plato, the scholar of myth and epic. But he was also the trickster, guilty of multilingual puns and wordplay galore. His work combined the two – like Panurge who spoke in many languages (some invented) but finally came forth in idiomatic French to explain to the uncomprehending Pantaguel that he was hungry, Berger knew many languages but finally spoke in the most colloquial American English, using the power of the colloquial to bring complex theoretical ideas into friendship with everyday speech. This paradoxical and ironic linkage of high interpretation and the most colloquial of understandings enabled the deep, witty questioning of beloved truisms that made his criticism dazzling.

As I wrote in that volume, ‘Berger’s work takes us to the wellhead of our deepest intellectual desires, but once there he discovers to us the things we had to turn our eyes away from in order to get there. This trick qualifies the anagnorisis and narrativizes it – it becomes now a journey, an epic Spenserian journey where what seemed like the telos is actually the start of the voyage.’

Many in the Spenser and Renaissance literary world knew Berger better and longer than I did, including his many important former students and colleagues. Reading his obituaries, I learned of his sax playing and other features of a life outside of the scholarly and intellectual.  But I knew Harry as a profoundly generative thinker whose humour about the “stuff”, the material craftiness of the great texts to which he devoted his life, made what we do as literary scholars and critics seem worthwhile. His voice was distinctive – not only his “voice” as a writer and thinker, but his actual voice, his humorous, playful way of presenting the most profound thoughts and most disturbing recognitions.  I will miss that voice more than I can tell. I can still hear it, but wonder how I can convey to future students the vitality and lived intellectual discovery that voice brought to every topic. 


For a Full Listing of Harry Berger’s published works up until 2009, see the Bio-Bibliography in  A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr., and the Arts of Interpretation, eds Nina Levine and David Lee Miller (New York : Fordham University Press 2009), pp. 333-347


An oral history of Harry can be found here:


The UC Santa Cruz Newscenter published an obituary for him entitled: ‘Founding UC Santa Cruz professor and revered literary and cultural critic Harry Berger Jr. dies at 96’. It can be read here

Obituary in the Santa Cruz Sentinel is here.


Works cited:

Harry Berger Jr., ‘A Secret Discipline: The Faerie Queene, Book VI’, in Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser, ed. William Nelson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), pp. 35-75.

—- ‘The Discarding of Malbecco: Conspicuous Allusion and Cultural Exhaustion in The Faerie Queene III, ix–x’, Studies in Philology 66 (1969): 135–54.

—- ‘“Kidnapped Romance”: Discourse in The Faerie Queene’, in Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance, ed. George Logan and Gordon Teskey (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989, pp. 208–56.

—- ‘Actaeon at the Hinder Gate: The Stag Party in Spenser’s Gardens of Adonis’, in Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Literature, ed. Regina Schwartz and Valeria Finucci (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 1992), pp. 91–119.

—- A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare’s Venice (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr., and the Arts of Interpretation, ed. Nina Levine and David Lee Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).



  • Winnipeg Blogger 7 months, 1 week ago

    A well sourced and highly intriguing review. So glad I was able to enjoy this today.

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Cite as:

Susanne Wofford, "In Memoriam Harry Berger Jr," Spenser Review 51.2.5 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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