Though I was never his student, Ralph Cohen was my teacher. He instructed me and inspired me-—by his attitudes and actions as much as by his words.
The first of many threads linking me to Ralph was spun in 1989, when I opened an envelope with shaking hands to learn I’d been appointed a fellow at the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change at the University of Virginia. I had little idea where Charlottesville was located, but my grasp of intellectual geography was much more confident. Like many scholars in Australia, I knew that the University of Virginia was an intellectual epicenter: the home of New Literary History—one of the most influential and prestigious journals in the humanities. Both New Literary History and the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change were Ralph’s creations. He used them to create an intellectual network that spanned the globe and that included literary critics, art historians, and philosophers. But as director of the Commonwealth Center, Ralph went far beyond the ambit of a humanities institute, inviting astronomers, biologists, and scholars from many other fields to engage in conversation under his watch.
Meanwhile, Ralph’s status as editor of New Literary History was legendary. He created, out of nothing but his own will and imagination, the first journal of literary theory—a model for many other journals to come. Somehow, he seemed to know what everyone was thinking and writing—long before e-mail and blogs—and to seek out the most provocative and pathbreaking work. He was the quintessential matchmaker, mediator, and connector, encouraging scholars with clashing views to engage in dialogue, coaxing them out of their comfort zone. While some of the most distinguished thinkers in the world were his friends, he always found time to read the work of graduate students and junior professors. A distinguished scholar of eighteenth-century literature in his own right, he was also a collaborator on countless essays, an invisible coauthor and vibrant presence behind the scenes
It would be hard to exaggerate the esteem in which Ralph and the journal were held. When Chip Tucker and I edited an issue of New Literary History to commemorate Ralph’s retirement in 2008, the tributes came pouring in. Here is the philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum from Chicago: “Ralph deserves honor for using his power to give permission to young unknown people to do daring things . . . Many people in the academy use their power to network or to bolster reputation. Ralph, by contrast, is a virtuous person . . . wanting neither glory nor adulation, but rather for both writers and readers to understand both texts and human lives better.’” Helene Cixous, Paris: “To say Ralph Cohen is to evoke virtue and the virtues of Friendship par excellence . . . Here is a man who knows how to listen. He has always been for me the plenitude of acceptance and assent, granting an unlimited freedom to whatever I am and do.” Hans Gumbrecht, Stanford: “No word captures better the style of Ralph’s presence than the adjective ‘alert’ . . . He is more irreplaceable than anyone before him in the field of literary criticism . . . He has been the presence of judgement and of standards in our world, he has been the central condition of quality.”
Ralph’s former students—now distinguished scholars such as Mary Poovey, Clifford Siskin, and Gordon Hutner—spoke of his mesmerizing presence as a teacher. Ralph demanded of his students that they consider questions they had never been asked to consider, in all their brute and terrifying simplicity: What is literature? What is history? How do they connect? There was the unforgettable event of the Ralphian monologue; the hoarse cadences rising in increasing insistence to a final guttural explosion; the remorseless, penetrating glare. His students had to learn how to learn all over again
When I returned to Virginia as a professor not long after my stint at the Commonwealth Center, Ralph and Libby were the first to take me under their wing. Seeing me wandering through the corridors of Wilson Hall, they took pity on a foreign transplant and invited me to lunch, drove me around town, introduced me to people they thought I might like to know. They were an unforgettable tag team: Libby the energetic, forceful, straight-talking dynamo; Ralph smiling beatifically in the background, giving his trademark wry chuckle whenever Libby paused for breath. Their hospitality and generosity were a gift when I most needed it.
How would I describe Ralph Cohen? Here are some words: irreverent; visionary; sardonic; restless; erudite; inquisitive; fearless; ecumenical; tolerant; imaginative; endlessly curious; kind.
- Rita Felski