- “Unmapped Territories”The Career of Karl Kroeber (1926–2009)
Jean Taylor Kroeber, widow of Karl Kroeber, has granted permission for SAIL to reprint his “Address to Columbia College Students Elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, 18 May 2009” and “An Interview with Karl Kroeber.”1 Conducted by Michael Mallick, the interview was published in the newsletter of the Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University (Fall 2009). Jean Kroeber feels that the two selections “together pretty much said what he needed to say.”2 Both were included in the commemorative booklet distributed at the memorial for Kroeber, held at Columbia University on April 8, 2010. They present an overview of Kroeber’s fervent dedication to teaching and scholarship as well as his perceptive responses to the political and educational changes in his lifetime. The quotation in the title of this introduction are Kroeber’s final words to “Address to Columbia College Students.”
Born on November 24, 1926, in Oakland, California, Kroeber was the son of Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the founders of anthropology, and Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, author of the acclaimed Ishi in Two Worlds (1961). He grew up in Berkeley with his siblings Theodore, Clifton, and Ursula. In 1930 his father bought Kishamish, the Napa Valley farmhouse that became the family’s summer home. There Kroeber became close to Juan Dolores and Robert Spott, Alfred’s Native American friends who often visited the family home.
As a young man, Kroeber served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In 1947 he received his BA from the University of California, Berkeley. The next year he worked as a radio announcer in Keokuk, [End Page 65] Iowa, before entering graduate school at Columbia University in New York. He and Jean Taylor, who became a sculptor, married in 1953. Three years later he received a PhD in English from Columbia. From 1956 to 1970 he taught at the University of Wisconsin. During their years in Madison, Jean and Karl Kroeber had three children: Paul, Arthur, and Katharine. In 1970 he became a faculty member at Columbia University, where he was named Mellon Professor in the Humanities in 1987. In June 2009 he retired and died later that year on November 8.
Gene Ruoff, my husband, first introduced me to Kroeber, who directed his dissertation on Wordsworth at the University of Wisconsin. They later coedited Romantic Poetry: Recent Revisionary Criticism (1993). Both my husband and I owe our careers to Kroeber, who wrote many recommendations for us over the years.
In the interview with Mallick, Kroeber describes the origin of the Newsletter of the Association for Study of American Indian Literatures. Founded in 1972, it became Studies in American Indian Literatures in 1980. Karl edited and supported it from 1977 to 1987. Under his editorship, the Newsletter and SAIL became important resources for teachers, who depended on their essays, book reviews, and bibliographies for information about Native American literatures. Kroeber strove to achieve a balance between oral traditions and contemporary written literatures. I worked closely with Kroeber when I was bibliographer (1977–87) and book review editor (1977–82). From 1987 to 1988, Kroeber arranged for SAIL to be absorbed into DISPATCH, the newsletter for the Center of American Culture Studies, Columbia University. Subsequently ASAIL members resurrected SAIL as a separate journal—the only one devoted to Native American literatures. Now published by the University of Nebraska Press, it is edited by rotating members of ASAIL. At the 1999 Chicago convention ASAIL honored Kroeber for his contributions to SAIL and to scholarship on American Indian literatures.
Kroeber’s own studies have expanded greatly our understanding of Native literatures, especially oral narratives. His edition of Traditional Literatures of the American Indian: Texts and Interpretations (1981; expanded edition, 1997) is an important resource in the field. [End Page 66] Among his other significant studies are Retelling/Rereading: The Fate of Storytelling in Modern Times (1992), Artistry in Native American Myths (1998), and his edition of American Indian Persistence and Resurgence (1994). His illuminating interpretations offer readers new ways to approach these literatures.
Enjoy these two examples of Kroeber’s wit and wisdom. As I read...