- Robert K. Martin: Celebrating a SelfIn Memoriam
27 November 1941–20 February 2012
In the winter of 2003, I attended a symposium at Smith College designed to reflect upon the career of Newton Arvin and to make amends for Smith’s disgraceful treatment of Arvin after he was arrested in 1960 and pled guilty to charges of possessing pornography. I was drawn to the symposium for several reasons. The summer before, at a Nathaniel Hawthorne Society meeting—also at Smith—I had presented a paper on Arvin, one of the very best early critics of nineteenth-century American literature. At least as important for me, the symposium offered a chance to spend some time with Robert, who was one of the featured speakers. The talk on Arvin that Robert gave was one of his last. Afterwards, he thoughtfully wangled an invitation for me to dinner at the campus home of Smith’s president, Carol Christ. As honoured as I am to be the guest editor of this special issue of The Canadian Review of American Studies, I dearly wish the occasion had not presented itself.
Robert Martin was a dear friend and colleague—for long enough that I don’t remember when we first met. I had several chances to collaborate with him—co-editing a collection of essays (Roman Holidays: American Writers and Artists in Nineteenth-Century Italy), derived from the Hawthorne Society’s first-ever international conference in Rome, a conference that Robert (as incoming president) organized in 1998 and that, ironically, would prove momentous in his life. We had the chance to saunter around the Forum one day, talking the whole time, but I was startled to learn the next day that Robert had spent time at a local hospital after collapsing on the street. (Downplaying the significance of the collapse, he focused instead on what excellent treatment he had received from the [End Page 1] Roman physicians!) This event was an omen, however, for when he returned to Montreal and visited his own physician, he received the news that he had Parkinson’s disease. He lived only fourteen more years. What a shame! What a loss!
Robert and I also collaborated on a special issue of ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance devoted to the Hawthorne–Melville relationship. And we presented a paper together (which you will see in this special issue) on Melville’s The Confidence-Man—doing it as a spoken epistolary essay in “Dear Robert/Dear Lee” format. This was in Baltimore, at the American Literature Association meeting, and afterwards we took the water taxi across Baltimore Harbor to Fells Point, where we enjoyed a dinner of crab cakes. Robert loved good food and, even more, the chance to talk about literature while enjoying good food. During each of our collaborations, I had the special pleasure of enjoying his company, conversation, and good food at his home in Montreal. We worked at the dining-room table just visible to the right in the photo of Robert.
Robert had a distinguished scholarly career, all the more impressive because he spent so many years before his retirement serving as Chair of the English Studies Department at the University of Montreal, where he relocated (from Concordia University) in 1990. He wrote two ground-breaking books and edited or co-edited five others. He published one of his most influential articles, “Whitman’s Song of Myself: Homosexual Dream and Vision,”1 in 1975, and the article served as a teaser for the book that would follow. Citing the “sorry record of misreading Whitman’s poems,” he issued a clarion call for revision. “I am not inclined to be charitable,” he declared. “The record of absolute lies and half-truths and distortions is so shameful as to amount to a deliberate attempt to alter reality to suit a particular view of normality” (81). And so the battle for Whitman and the integrity of his writing was joined. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry grew out of Robert’s Brown University dissertation, “The ‘Half-Hid Warp’: Whitman, Crane, and the Tradition of ‘Adhesiveness’ in American Poetry.” Bold and provocative, the book and dissertation arose...