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  • “Art, Imagination, Storytelling”An Interview with Karl Kroeber

This interview with Karl Kroeber was originally published in English Department Updates (Fall 2009), a semiannual alumni newsletter of the Columbia University Department of English & Comparative Literature. Mallick is coordinator of the newsletter.

Although Kroeber did not want a memorial service after his death, he asked that this interview and his “Address to Columbia College Students” be assembled in a pamphlet for distribution. Jean Taylor Kroeber, his wife, and their children combined these with a short biography in “Karl Kroeber, 24 November 1926–8 November 2009,” which was distributed at his commemorative service, April 8, 2012, in St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University.

michael mallick (mm):

You taught your first class at Columbia in 1952 and your last this spring—any changes in fifty-seven years?

karl kroeber (kk):

A scholarly answer: yes and no. In the early fifties the students were all male, all white, everybody wore a tie, and you addressed each by his last name prefaced by Mr. A high percentage of students were from the twenty or so excellent Catholic high schools in and around New York; a smaller but solid percentage were Jewish—in those years the other Ivies had harsh quotas, which meant we got a lot of wonderful boys from Bronx Science and Stuyvesant; almost nobody from New England prep schools. Probably 80 percent were from New York City and environs and the “Middle Atlantic States,” a euphemism for New Jersey. Essentially these were the same kind of students—sons of immigrants—who entered Columbia College with my father, son of a German immigrant, in 1892. Probably 70 percent of my students entered wanting [End Page 68] to become doctors, another 15 percent lawyers, the rest various kinds of professional men. They wanted to make a decent living, most of them came from non-affluent circumstances, but their primary aim was not money but to become fully educated so they could, as trained professionals, effectively contribute to improving society, making it a better place for themselves and their children. Teaching such students—especially the ones who were the first in their families to attempt higher education—was to me profoundly exciting and rewarding.

Today’s classes, besides including two genders shading into earth-tones away from zinc, never using last names (just as well, many are hyphenated), and dressing as sloppily as possible, come from all over the world—many foreign-born and those not seeming to have lived in fourteen exotic countries before coming to Columbia. They all appear to have four-figure IQs, take far too many classes, and have absorbing extra-academic interests. Teaching such students is profoundly exciting and rewarding.

So I see vast shifts; but all I remember from my actual teaching is one year after another filled with fascinating students, every one unique, from whom I learned most of what I know, and whose individuality provided continuous stimulation and pleasure. I’ve always worked hard at teaching; I held long office hours, assigned a lot of writing and took pride in getting the papers back very fast, heavily annotated, and, at the other end (too often forgotten in discussions of teaching responsibilities, which don’t finish with a final exam), written many thousands of recommendations. I enjoyed doing these things as the central part of academic life, all of which (even some committee work) I have found exhilarating. Maybe, I’ve reflected, a little too much so for being the husband and father I might have been.


To me, and I know others, the most remarkable feature of your teaching is the extraordinary range of classes you have taught—can you explain that?


Well, maybe I’m scatter-brained. Maybe I get bored easily. But also, I suspect that that if you look closely you’ll see I’ve been teaching the same three things disguised as different topics. All my [End Page 69] courses are at root about art, imagination, and storytelling, always inflected by a persistent fascination with natural science.


I can live with the three topics, but the science puzzles me.


Well, it is tricky, and I’m not confident about my powers of self-comprehension. But as I’ve thought back on my career, especially why I probably have taught more different courses than any other professor in the entire history of the Columbia English Department, the science inflection kept intruding. Partly it is family history; after all, my father was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. More important, although my mother and father were both profoundly interested in art, music, and literature (they even published in PMLA!), my father enjoyed translating Housman into German, and, of course, my mother wrote one of the great books of the twentieth century, Ishi in Two Worlds. But the guests in our house when I was growing up were almost all scientists, often quite distinguished, people like Oppenheimer and the geographer Carl Sauer, or polymath historians like Leonardo Olschki. I learned then that excellent scientists are often deeply interested in the arts and respond to them with insight and originality, whereas few humanists have the slightest intellectual interest in any science, and nowadays sometimes little in actual works of art.

Both at Wisconsin and Columbia I often found scientific colleagues more intellectually stimulating to talk with than humanists. Most humanists have little curiosity; they want to tell you what they know, which they regard as philosophic truth. Scientists are curious; they want to find out what you might know that they don’t—and if it can stand up to criticism.

Also when I was a graduate student here two of the professors who were very helpful to me were Joe Mazzeo (who wrote a history of biology), and Marjorie Nicolson, whose most important work is about the relation of science and literature. Also I was lucky in that the two colleagues I admire most and to whom I owe the greatest debts over many years (I met both at Wisconsin), Carl Woodring and Martin Meisel, challenge the rule that humanists are arrogantly ignorant of the most important sector of intellectual accomplishment of the past four hundred years. Martin was originally trained [End Page 70] as a scientist and has a wonderful, I’d say unparalleled, grasp of its history, combined with an indecently detailed knowledge of G. B. Shaw and Victorian melodrama. Carl is so profound a humanist scholar that early on he perceived more clearly than any other professor I know that without in-depth understanding of what modern science has done and is doing you’re bound to misinterpret the cultural history of the past 250 years. This made him the most diversely successful of dissertation directors anywhere in our field in the mid-twentieth century. It is no accident that Carl and Martin have the solidest and widest knowledge of modern European literature, painting, and music of anyone I know in our profession.

My own scientifically oriented research, beginning in the early seventies, has been primarily pioneering in relations between literature and ecology, which has gained me some credit among environmentalists. I’m suspicious, however, of environmentalism that doesn’t ground itself in solid, high-level science (I’m dubious about Thoreau) or doesn’t follow Aldo Leopold and grow out of long-term working in [the] natural world and with plants and animals. Visiting a western desert to report sensitive feelings is just another form of our lousy contemporary me-culture. What’s really turned me on over the past two decades is the amazing developments in neuroscience, the basis of my book Ecological Literary Criticism. The two purely literary studies I hope to be granted life enough to finish will investigate the biology of the mind.

Inadvertently, you’ve just had an experience painfully familiar to my students—they ask a simple, sensible question and get buried in an avalanche of my rhetoric. Sorry about that. Have we time for something more, or did the bell ring while I was orating?


Could we squeeze in something about art, imagination, and storytelling, and still leave a little room for your interest in American Indian literatures?


No problem if you can listen as fast as I talk. Always my interest has been focused not on aesthetics but on specific works of art. Whatever the title of a course, I always teach specific poems, plays, novels, or specific paintings or specific movies. In the jargon of our profession I do nothing but “close reading,” because that is the only [End Page 71] way to enter deeply into works of art which are the most complicated, and enduring, artifacts—the only things man makes which approach the dynamic intricacy of nature. Great works of art are endlessly fascinating, challenging you to figure out how they were made and why they are made the way they are, and the different ways in which they can grab and hold other people’s attention. Every work of art worth studying exhibits a high level of human skill and embodies significant ethical value, and nothing is more difficult, but also more rewarding, than learning to appreciate that particular manifestation of skill and the worth of its ethical form.

I teach that Percy Shelley was right when he said every great work of art is “a fountain forever overflowing.” Every student gets something unique to himself or herself from whatever work we study, and if I can provoke each of them to articulate their experiences, I learn a lot. My part of the conversation—and the best criticism is always conversation, never monologue; discussion, not lecturing—is expressing what I am getting from my latest encounter, perhaps my fiftieth, with the work we’re examining together. I scribble notes in the texts I teach from, and almost always when I teach from a book I’ve used before I wonder, “who was the dope who wrote these comments?”

Works of art are works of imagination, the amazing human faculty that should be, but isn’t, the central focus of all study of art. Imagining is not daydreaming or fantasizing á la Emma Bovary, and [is] the very opposite of dreaming. Imagining is reality-oriented, the deliberate exploration of possibilities that may help us discover the greatest dangers and the most beautiful complexities of real life (what Flaubert did with blood, sweat, and tears in creating Madame Bovary), which is still far beyond anything we have so far learned. Imagination develops slowly—an infant has no use for possibilities; in our childhood we learn mostly by imitation, as with language. Imagination matures only after we have physically matured—there’s never been a great work of art created by an immature person. But it is imagination that enables humans, the only creatures who possess it, to go on learning, growing mentally, and being creative far, far into old age—Sophocles and Titian. [End Page 72]

The primary form of the imaginative exploring and discovering is storytelling. Sometimes it is scientific storytelling—Einstein observed that in science imagination is more important than knowledge. One sunny day Copernicus asked himself, what if, despite what I and everybody else sees, we’re moving, not the sun—and the story of modern science began to unfold. But the purest and longest-lasting forms of storytelling appear in art: Mycenaean culture vanished long ago, but Odysseus coming out of the wine-dark sea toward Nausicaa, his hands torn and bleeding from jagged rocks by which he saved himself from the cruel sea, is just as alive today as he was three thousand years ago. Hundreds of years after their death Rabelais’s and Shakespeare’s words can make us explode with laughter. So you see, as I’m doing right now, whatever I teach I’m talking about art, imagination, and storytelling.


And I’m guessing that explains your interest in Native American literature.


Literatures, Michael. When Columbus got his continents mixed up, there were over five hundred distinct native cultures in North America alone—distinct languages, social structures, religions, economic practices, etc. That had something to do with what happened to me. In the early 1970s I dropped into a meeting of ASAIL, Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures, the acronym expressing hostility aroused by the recent FBI mess at Wounded Knee. Native Americans wanted to start a journal about their literature, but although they all disliked whites, their deepest distrusts were of “traditional enemies.” So they asked me to be editor because I was not Indian, free of hereditary feuds. So I became first editor of Studies in American Indian Literatures, a pretty poor one, in part because nobody at Columbia—president, vice-president of arts and sciences, provost, dean, or chairman—was willing to give the project the least support. None of the Americanists were interested, except Jack Salzman, who against all odds made a success of the Center for American Studies, until they rode him off campus on a rail.

It is hard to believe now, but then it was almost impossible for a Native American to get published; none of the big anthologies included anything literary, contemporary or traditional, from [End Page 73] natives. I’m proud of having contributed a little to changing that—all the anthologies now carry native material, the Library of America includes a big section of native poetry in the first volume of their American Poetry. By 1990 the best way to get your novel published was to pretend you were a native. I was helpful also in getting a dozen or so junior English faculty, mostly west of the Mississippi, who were interested in Native American literatures promoted to tenure, although LaVonne Ruoff (wife of a student of mine) at University of Illinois–Chicago did more, and the American historians, who were miles ahead of American lit people, were crucially helpful. Native American studies are now big everywhere, except Harvard. Yale, Princeton. I’m delighted that joining our department this year is John Gamber, himself a Native American, and I think the best young scholar in the field today. That’s happened, let me say very loudly, because of Jean Howard, who did a spectacular job as a provost charged with increasing minority faculty at Columbia. She didn’t miss a beat when she shifted to chair of our department and has worked tirelessly and skillfully to put us ahead in the Ivy League in this area—now supported by our terrific colleague Frances Negrón-Muntaner. For me, it is like a wonderful going-away present.

After the first few years in this field all my teaching, and writing, focused not on the contemporary but traditional native literatures. The point is that these were all oral literatures—none of the native North American cultures had writing. This was a tremendous revelation to me—especially because I entered the field just when American anthropological linguists, like Hymes and Tedlock, were beginning to publish revolutionary analyses of the formal qualities of texts, some contemporary, but most from the vast collections made by Boas, my father, and Sapir and their students of traditional tellings. Most professors of literature know zilch about oral literatures (even though in the total history of literature probably 96 percent has been oral), and the few exceptions know only something of the fine work of Parry and Lord with the Homeric epics, which are part of an atypical Mediterranean tradition. Native American oral literatures have, I believe, much more ancient roots and never use [End Page 74] the formal devices we are familiar with, such as rhyme, repetitive meter, fixed stanza pattern. Their literary form is entirely different from ours. In part this reflects that oral cultures are for us almost unimaginably different from cultures founded on writing. If your culture exists, is enacted, only when you or others speak, you attend to what you say and listen to others in a fashion different from the way we listen or read, not least because when every utterance is recognized as the primary means by which one’s culture is manifested, you are much more careful and conscious about what you are doing with language and its astounding capabilities for linking people’s inner lives.

This is what made teaching traditional native literatures especially exciting for both me and the students. The oddity of the subject drew a broad spectrum of applicants (I had always to limit enrollments)—students of literature, of course, but also of different sciences, from the biological to computer people, and, of course, students in anthropology, psychology, and religion. For the first three weeks everybody was baffled, but as I kept hammering away at close readings of short texts, forcing students to write about what they weren’t understanding, they became intrigued by the very difficulty and began to make discoveries, and class discussions became steadily richer. I learned a tremendous amount about the material in every class, and by the end of the semester almost everyone was taking pleasure in having attained some understanding, but more in realizing that they’d just begun to scratch the surface. In that sense I think these classes were consistently the most successful, in the Socratic sense, that I taught, because we all learned how ignorant we were, that is, how wonderfully rich the world is in things to be discovered.


Karl, thanks very much.


My pleasure—love to talk about myself. [End Page 75]

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