An Interview with the Damrosch Duo

From wit to world culture, Leo and David Damrosch keep it all in the family

The Harvard Crimson: What courses are each of you teaching now and what is your favorite part about each of them?

David Damrosch: I’m doing a world literature survey course, for undergraduates: Literature 11. My favorite part of it is really finding interesting juxtapositions of works around the world. I have a lot of fun teaching it; for example, the Moliere play ‘Tartuffe’ along with Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s ‘The Love Suicides at Amijima’ is really fun... In this, what’s really interesting is these two playwrights are contemporaries and have never heard of each other, but they’re both writing dramas about the rise of a bourgeois merchant class in an old feudal society. So, it becomes an interesting conjunction to think about that.

Leo Damrosch: This semester I’m teaching two courses that are old favorites of mine, one of them is called “The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self” that I think began 12 or 13 years ago, and it’s been fine-tuned fairly well. I’m going to teach it again this summer at the Venice Summer Harvard Program. The other one is called “Wit and Humor.” It’s a kind of an eccentric course. It’s a subject that is totally neglected in my field, where it’s regarded as recreational. If people do talk about comedy its in a very high-minded way. This is about why things are funny or don’t seem funny.

THC: You both went to Yale. And now you’re at Harvard. Any comments?

DD: I was a graduate student also, so Leo escaped from jail sooner than I did! You know it’s a great treat to be here with my brother. We’ve been separated by hundreds of miles for so many years it’s very nice to be at the same place. It is different I think in that the humanities have a more dominant role at Yale than here, so here you are dealing with a broader population. You’re more likely to have social science concentrators in class...It’s a kind of shift of teaching for a broader public and not just for hardcore literature people.

THC: Professor David Damrosch, everyone wants to know: how are Harvard students compared to the students you have taught in Columbia?

DD: They are rather different. I think that the whole atmosphere is quite different. Columbia is so very urban. People who select to go there are extremely talkative, even a little bit aggressive. You’re often having to sort of get people to quiet down enough to realize they don’t actually yet know very much. Here it’s rather the opposite. You more need to draw students out. The atmosphere’s a little bit quieter. And perhaps sometimes the students feel a little more hesitant to expose themselves before a class. They’re concerned if they really do know enough. It’s a little bit more of drawing them out rather than slowing them down like at Columbia.

THC: Did you both have a rivalry growing up? Did you always want to be in literary fields? How was it to live in such a literary household? For both of you, as well as the rest of your family?

DD: Well, we are 11 years apart so there was in a way, I wouldn’t say I ever felt like a sibling rivalry, but very much so I was following Leo’s footsteps in terms of thinking from an earlier age, saying I’m going to graduate school when I was still quite young. This was a real possible thing to do. And I started reading 18th century English literature while still a teenager certainly under his influence and fell in love with that, and then found my own interest developing from that start. It was actually reading “Tristram Shandy”; I really fell in love with this fabulous novel,one of the great comic novels of the 18th century.

LD: Not as great as “Jacques Le Fataliste.”

DD: That’s interesting. I read “Jacques Le Fataliste” after that. I liked them both.

LD: We don’t have to prioritize.

DD: That’s right. “Jacques Le Fataliste” is so interesting. This is the first kind of adult novel I’d ever read. I thought “Gee.” I wanted to read more stuff like this. And Stern talks a lot about his favorite authors, and if he had said his favorite authors were... Chaucer, I probably would have become an English major.... I think restlessness is also part of why I’m a comparativist; I can’t sit still long enough with one thing.

THC: Were you both the “bookworm kid?” What else did you do growing up that brought you to the point you are at today?

LD: I had a completely different childhood than David, because his was in Maine, and mine was in the mountains in the Philippines where I was born just before the war, and I spent the war in a Japanese internment camp. So it was a strange place, where although everyone spoke English—it had been in American possession for some decades—still, I was the only American kid in our mountain village, and although I had playmates, who were fairly social, I think still books were a refuge, a contact with the world I knew I had once come from and couldn’t remember. And then when we did move to Maine, it was difficult for me to really be an American kid. I started fourth grade. It was the first time I ever went to a school. I’m sure books went on being a place where I could feel comfortable. But unlike David it wasn’t at all obvious I would have been a literature professor, or even a professor. In those days there was very little advising about or even thinking about careers. You just sort of figured something would come along, and I might not even have been an academic.

DD: I actually almost went to Divinity school. Our father’s an Episcopal priest and at the time I was thinking seriously about that. In fact at the end, I had gotten a scholarship for a year, and a trial year in Divinity school, and thought I was going to do that, but unexpectedly then got a scholarship offer from Yale graduate school and actually flipped a coin to decide which to do. And the coin came out for literature.

LD: I don’t’ believe the Almighty would approve of that.

DD: I should have rather thought in retrospect that the person who would have decided by that means should have gone to Divinity school!

THC: What do you both do when you’re not writing epic books or teaching? Any zany hobbies?

DD: Do we do anything else? I do a lot of windsurfing.

LD: When I was young, I played all possible sports, and it’s very annoying when you get old enough that you don’t know if you can trust your knees anymore! I play squash with my youngest son.

DD: You know we should play squash? I was playing squash with my son this weekend. We’ll do it.

LD: And photography? Yeah, but I mean it’s a boring life.

THC: Professor David Damrosch, you wrote a famous work entitled “What is World Literature?” What is world literature to you and how has that changed in face of an increasingly global world?

DD: One of the most interesting things that’s happened in my academic lifetime is that world literature used to be just, to be comparativist meant you had to have a really good accent in two or three western European languages that were French, German, English, maybe Italian, maybe Russian—but that’s about it. Now it’s become this completely globalized thing. So for me, a lot of this eccentric stuff I just happened to have fallen in love with, they didn’t know what to do with 30 years ago. Now it turns out to be teachable, and you can write about it, so it’s really quite exciting. I guess you also have a change in terms of both of our professional orientations in that we both move towards more engagement with a more public kind of writing and not just scholarship. That’s been again an inspiration to me. I’ve been following in Leo’s footsteps with that.

LD: Yeah you get tired of writing for not only a very small audience of academics, but half of them are your rivals, and it’s part of competition. It gets vary fatiguing.

THC: Professor Leo Damrosch, your renowned work ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius’ unconventionally focuses on an up close and personal view of Rousseau’s life. Can you expand more of what was in your head when you were approaching this biography in illuminating all these aspects of his life that don’t come to the face of most writing?

LD: The first thing is that he wrote probably the world’s greatest autobiography, and in my view, invented the way we try to interpret our lives. To give you one quick example, nobody before him to my knowledge writing an account of their life had more than 2 or 3 pages on the first 20 years of their life. He gave 200 pages to the first 20 years of his life, because he thought that’s how he reformed and how certain relationships and certain experiences must be the key to understanding who he is...The only biography in English [was] a 3-volume, very pedestrian work by an English political scientist who really had no time for all the things that make Rousseau half-crazy or unique. First, I just read it because I wanted to know more, but then I thought I could do this in a different way. I thought also it would take a long time. It took 10 years because I was teaching full time. And I thought this was not something I would get tired of, Rousseau himself is so interesting and things other people have written about him would stay interesting, that it would stay fresh and it did.

THC: Professor Leo Damrosch, I noticed one of your special fields of interest is the Enlightenment period. If you could go back in time and be any Enlightenment figure, who would you be and why?

LD: Oh, I’d be his friend Denis Diderot, who as I just mentioned is the author of ‘Jacques Le Fataliste.’ Rousseau was a really difficult character; his insecurity ran pretty deep. He placed tremendous demands on friends. Diderot was his best friend for over 10 years, and they ended up never speaking to each other. Rousseau was the greater genius, incredibly original and profound. Diderot was like us: he got A grades in school, he could speak fluently on any subject, he was charming, well I don’t know if the word is necessarily charming, women were attracted to him. There wasn’t any downside that I can see to Diderot.

THC: Everyone has that guilty pleasure book they secretly enjoy. For some it’s ‘Harry Potter.’ For others it’s ‘Twilight.’ What’s yours?

DD: I rarely feel any guilt about any form of reading. I would say P.G. Wodehouse... I read for fun. I’m a big Wodehouse fan.

LD: Well, for years, I would have said “The Lord of the Rings,” but then it got mainstream, and now it’s not guilty anymore. But I’ve read it, probably three different times cover to cover before it took off as a popular hit.

DD: You know I didn’t realize you had that level of interest in it. It was taking off when I was the right age, and I read it 10 times I think, and I’ve read it with our kids since then.

THC: What would you say is one of the biggest assumptions or misconceptions that people make about literary academics, such as yourselves?

DD: That’s we’re boring?

LD: My wife’s a playwright and once was an academic and she confirms that every time you see the role of an academic in a play, they’re just preposterous. They pontificate; they have all the answers, as often as not the playwright acts like they do have all the answers. They’re insufferable. The level at which they are made to speak seems deeply unintelligent, so then you wonder what on earth do people think academics are if they go to these places and respond warmly to these caricatures. It’s not hostile. Even ones that are meant to be admirable, it’s like they’re always having a ‘Eureka!’ moment or suddenly perceiving some fundamental truth.

THC: If you could be a character in any of your favorite works, fiction or otherwise, who would you be and why?

DD: It may be really interesting to be Stephen Dedalus in ‘Ulysses,’ but you wouldn’t actually want to be him. But to be in that world would be quite fascinating.

LD: I think the greatest novels make you all too conscious of people’s limitations and wounds. You know, I think the greatest novel in English is George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch.’ It’s just a fantastic book, but it’s also quite a tragic book. Characters who are very intelligent and have high ideals and are good-looking and seem to have everything going right still make terrible, fatally wrong choices and end up damaged. It’s a very sad book.

THC: If you were both stranded on a desert island and could only take one book with you, which would it be and why?

DD: I would say ‘Proust’. You could spend your life reading ‘Proust’.

LD: I would say the same thing, and it counts as more than one.

DD: It’s 3000 pages, so you get to sort of go a long way with that.

LD: And it has to be read really slowly because it’s a poem.

DD: And he lives in Paris as though he were on a desert island so you could kind of feel at home with it.

LD: No it’s a good choice.

THC: What do you both most respect in each other as writers?

DD: With Leo, clarity and not having an axe to grind, but having a real point and not being about self-display. I think that’s very impressive.

LD: I would certainly say that of [him], but also his unbelievable range. He doesn’t ever feel like showing off. He can just summon things from completely unexpected areas and pull them together.

THC: What has been one of your biggest struggles in writing one of your past works or in general, and how did you deal with it?

LD: Well for me I would say, I’ve never felt very integrated with the academic, I shouldn’t say fads but what’s currently hot in the academy, and I’ve always been pretty skeptical of it. Fortunately, if you wait long enough it always goes away and is replaced by something else. Consequently, I’ve always struggled in writing academic books about how much I have to play their game and frame what I’m saying in such a way that they’ll recognize it and what ways. I just want to ignore them and do it the best way I can, and that was part of the reason of why it was so liberating to write for a general audience.

DD: When I was in graduate school for comparative literature at Yale, half of all the dissertations at the time involved Balzac or Henry James or both. It was very much like the Monty Python restaurant where you could have the frog on the peach or the peach on the frog. That was the range of options. I had all these interests and I didn’t know what to do with them. I just had a real sense I didn’t want to be one-quarter each of four different specialists, but then it wasn’t clear what to do. So, I just had to let it percolate for 20 years to figure it out.

THC: Despite your different fields of interest within literature, have you both ever considered a joint collaboration project or work?

LD: I’m not a collaborator type. You are more than me.

DD: Although in writing it’s hard.

LD: In writing it’s hard. I think it works. When we’ve talked about it, it would have to be something where each of us has a whole area the other one doesn’t know as well. But then our areas are so different it wouldn’t be clear why we’re doing it.

THC: What advice would you give budding writers or literary academics?

LD: I couldn’t speak for creative writers, but I would urge academics not to think they have to win the race too early. All the pressure now is to do things too fast and not well and most of them know that, but they feel they have no choice. You just got to believe in yourself in order to mature something and get it to where you really feel ready to show it and be judged by it. With all the pressures of getting into graduate school, and getting a job, and getting tenure, you can’t obviously blame anybody for grinding things out too fast, but it’s very disruptive.

DD: I think a similar advice for writers too is that there’s so much a media thing of “Oh, the hot new first novel!”...and then the writer gets forgotten. Most of the greatest writers take 20 years to find their voice, and they either will or will not become well-known later. Read as widely as possible. I think too many American writers don’t read enough foreign literature and just go to some writing program and just read the latest stories in the New Yorker. So I think reading more widely and taking time to mature.