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Sacvan Bercovitch, Courageous Literary Scholar, Dies at 81

By Jalin P. Cunningham, Crimson Staff Writer

American literature professor emeritus Sacvan Bercovitch is best remembered not only as a revolutionary in his field, but for his warm and approachable character as well. Rafia Zafar, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, described walking along Cambridge Common and talking with Bercovitch as "one of the highlights of my intellectual life.”

Bercovitch, a leader in the field of American studies, died of cancer on Dec. 9. He was 81.

Bercovitch was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, but dedicated his research to the emerging field of American literature. During his five-decade career, Bercovitch specialized in early American works, focusing specifically in how values from New England Puritans are projected in the American identity, according to his curriculum vitae.

Bercovitch joined Harvard in 1983, taught in the English department and held a professorship of English and American Literature until 2000 and a professorship of American literature from 2000-2001, according to his CV. After his retirement, he continued to serve as editor of The Cambridge History of American Literature and was a research professor of American Literature. He also taught at the Extension School, according to the school’s website.

Colleagues remember Bercovitch as a brave and vibrant individual with an extremely memorable career.

“Professor Bercovitch left a deep impression on early American studies,” Divinity School professor David F. Holland said. “He pushed historians to pay more attention to literature and literary scholars to pay more attention to history.”

“He was generous, witty, and intellectually radiant,” said Zafar, who worked alongside Bercovitch in editing the Cambridge History of American Literature.

Those who knew Bercovitch also praised him for his academic bravery.

“He had the courage to make large claims. Certainly not every scholar agreed with those claims, but everyone has to deal with them,” Holland said.

Throughout his career, he received honors, fellowships, grant money, and other recognition from organizations including the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Yale Center for American Studies.

Although he was highly decorated for his work, Bercovitch treated others with humility, Zafar said.

“Despite being a dominating figure in American literary history, [he was] an approachable mensch—there really is no other word for it,” Zafar said.

Bercovitch is survived by his wife, Susan, and two sons, Eytan and Sascha. His funeral service was held on Dec. 11 in Brookline, and Harvard plans to hold their own memorial service for the professor on April 17.

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at jalincunningham@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.

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