Remembering a giant: Earl Wasserman

Shale D. Stiller / Winter 2014

Image: Peter Strain

In the summers of 1952 and 1953, after completing my sophomore and junior years at another college, I enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in two courses taught by Earl R. Was­serman. The first examined the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. The sec­ond dealt with five great 20th-century English novels: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Mrs. Dalloway, Point Counter Point, Sons and Lovers, and A Passage to India. From 1948 to 1973, when he died of an aortic aneurism at age 59, Wasser­man was a professor of English at Homewood and one of the giants of the Johns Hopkins fac­ulty. Even today, his mention to Johns Hopkins graduates of that era or to scholars throughout the world evokes superlatives.

He introduced me to the rewards of scholar­ship, the art of teaching, and the joy of learning. I was inspired to write this testimonial not only as a former student celebrating a great teacher on the occasion of his recent centennial—he was born in 1913—but as a fond remembrance of an era when the humanities were a major focus of the Johns Hopkins undergraduate program, though the process also evoked memories of an era when anti-Semitism was rampant in Ameri­can universities. It is also a belated atonement, as will become apparent. Above all, this is a paean to a man whose accomplishments over­rode personal tragedies.

Wasserman spent almost all of his early years in Baltimore. He graduated from Baltimore City College in 1929, where the yearbook proclaimed his ambition was "to study pedagogy." The year­book also described him as an "infant prodigy" who "will be only fifteen years old when he grad­uates." Wasserman's family was quite poor, and upon graduating from high school, he became a substitute teacher in the Baltimore public schools. He was accepted by Harvard but had no money to attend. Somehow he entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1931 under what was called the "New Plan," which meant that if he was really outstanding, he could take two years of undergraduate courses and then move on to the graduate program.

His first choice when he entered Johns Hop­kins was to study mathematics. But he was advised that Jewish students were not welcome in the Math Department, so he migrated to English. After two years, he was accepted into the graduate program and received his doctorate four years later in 1937. The referees who read his dissertation, titled "The Elizabethan Revival: Its Background and Beginning," stated that "Mr. Wasserman's dissertation is an acute piece of investigation and a substantial contribution to knowledge." He was promptly engaged by the English Department as a substitute instructor, but there were no openings for him to teach permanently at Hopkins, so the chairman of the department, Hazelton Spencer, recommended him to several other universities. Spencer's letters of recommendation contain comments such as these:

Of our last year's crop of doctors, Wasser­man turned in the best dissertation and passed the best examinations. ... We all feel that Wasserman did a really significant job, and what is perhaps even more important, that a number of interesting avenues for fur­ther work open out from what he has already done. ... He is a young man of high intelli­gence, his health is excellent, he is pleasant to work with. ... It is perhaps not impertinent to mention Wasserman's general stability among his attractive qualities. He is not the sort of Jew who is likely to run headlong into issues raised by the lunatic fringe.

And these:

Having arrived at this point in my descrip­tion of Wasserman's qualifications, I am wondering whether they will be obliterated in the mind of your department by the fact that he is a Jew. If you could see and talk with him I have little doubt that this consideration would not weigh heavily with you. He is a fine, alert, clean-cut lad, not swarthy—in fact, almost blonde and neither the brassy nor the over-obsequious kind. He is a valued member of the Tudor and Stuart Club, and I can assure you that unless Jews as such are taboo in your depart­ment, it is inconceivable to us that the racial question should prove troublesome in Was­serman's case. … I hope you will give him very serious consideration.

The chairman of the English Department at the University of Illinois responded that the department's executive committee was very interested in Wasserman: "However, there is the fact that he is a Jew, and our feeling, and the feel­ing of our Dean is that it is unwise to engage a Jew without having seen and talked with him." When Wasserman visited Urbana, Spencer's rec­ommendations proved accurate and persuasive. Wasserman began teaching at Illinois in Septem­ber 1938. During his tenure there, he produced a dozen articles. Still in his 20s, he gave a paper at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association which, according to later comments by Raymond Havens, a great Wordsworth scholar and longtime professor at Johns Hopkins, "seemed to me about the best thing I heard at that entire meeting of the Association."

During World War II, Wasserman was a radio officer on a Navy transport ship in the Pacific. After his honorable discharge in 1946, he told the Hopkins English Department that he would very much like to return. Kemp Malone, a professor in the department, was eager to bring him back, and this precipitated an extraordinary memo­randum written by President Isaiah Bowman to P. Stewart Macaulay, the university provost, on December 23, 1947:

Malone tells me that Wasserman has been on all their lists for the eighteenth century and romantic period and has been one of the leading candidates for the post in the search that he says has been made during the past two years. He says that the search was a nation-wide search and that it was thorough.

Bowman concluded with this paragraph:

All of this to prepare your mind for a com­mittee meeting that we should hold soon if we are to fill the place that Wasserman is meant to occupy. Malone says that the department has not put his name forward any earlier because Wasserman is a Jew. At the time that he graduated and got his PhD there was turmoil hereabout and a few com­munist brethren were active. Can you find out from the Registrar, or otherwise, if Was­serman was involved in any of these activi­ties? Malone swears that he is anything but a Communist. I am not satisfied with this report and would like more detail. Malone says that Wasserman proved to be one of the finest and most brilliant scholars they ever had in the department.

One cannot appreciate the depth of Bowman's anti-Semitism without a brief detour into much that has been learned about him since he stepped down from his 13-year presidency at Johns Hopkins in 1948. Bowman was a national figure, considered by many to be the most prom­inent and respected American geographer of his time. But his anti-Semitism was well-known. The esteemed Johns Hopkins professor Owen Latti­more remembered Bowman as "profoundly anti- Semitic." Neil Smith, in his book on Bowman titled American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (University of California Press, 2004), notes that in 1939 Bow­man fired one of the most promising young his­torians on the Johns Hopkins faculty, Eric Gold­man, on the grounds that "there are already too many Jews at Hopkins." Goldman went on to become a professor at Princeton and an out­standing historian of American culture. While Bowman was searching for candidates to teach in the geography department at Johns Hopkins, he expressed an interest in Henry J. Bruman, but only after satisfying himself "that Bruman is not a Jew." Bowman believed that "Jews don't come to Hopkins to make the world better or anything like that. They come for two things: to make money and to marry a non- Jewish woman." Wor­ried that Johns Hopkins was "becoming a practi­cally Jewish organization," in 1942 he instituted a quota on the admission of Jewish students. (All quotations from American Empire.)

Despite Bowman's prejudice, Wasserman joined the English Department at Johns Hopkins in 1948 and remained until his untimely death. As soon as he returned, his vertical trajectory as teacher and scholar never wavered. His first book, Elizabethan Poetry in the 18th Century, a substantial revision and enhancement of his PhD thesis at Johns Hopkins, had been pub­lished in 1947. Around the time of his arrival at Homewood, he began his seminal work on John Keats, culminating in the publication in 1953 of The Finer Tone. A demonstration of Wasserman's reputation is contained in a 1952 letter from W. J. Bate, one of the longtime Harvard luminaries, who wrote to Wasserman that he would "be happy to have the chance of reading your book on Keats. I know beforehand that it will have indisputable merit. I can assure you that it will be both a pleasure and a privilege."

Before The Finer Tone was published, there was a calamitous episode. Wasserman had placed the manuscript and his wife's fur coat on the back seat of his locked car, parked near Druid Hill Lake. When he returned, the car had been stolen. Wasserman was more aghast about the loss of his manuscript than the loss of the car. After notifying the police, he assumed the thief, after opening the trunk, saw a manuscript about a person named John Keats and must have thrown it into a garbage can. With his colleague Jack Cope, Wasserman emptied every garbage can within a mile of where the car had been parked. The manuscript was never found. Was­serman later said that when he rewrote the entire book from memory, the finished product was of a higher quality than the original.

The atmosphere at Johns Hopkins for the humanities was extraordinary in the 1950s and 1960s. It is not hyperbole to assert that the Hopkins English Department was in its most glorious years in that era. It was at the center of intellectual intensity for the humanities. The faculty mainly consisted of Wasserman, Don Cameron Allen, J. Hillis Miller, Ronald Paulson, Jack Cope, and Avrom Fleishman. Fleishman, who was Wasserman's student, colleague, and family friend, stated:

As a colleague, Earl was the department's intellectual leader, not by virtue of his ideas or knowledge but by his unassailable com­mitment to ideas and knowledge. The departmental roundtable at Faculty Club luncheons was itself a seminar, where col­leagues discussed not only the gossip and power-mongering of the day but also their progress in thinking through what they were working on and their problems in researching the evidence for their literary interpretations. This single-minded dedica­tion was misinterpreted by members of other departments as snobbishness or restrictive specialization. It was, rather, a resistance to diluting the intellectual level of departmental discourse with further gossip and power-mongering.

As a scholar, Wasserman was intensely and incredibly pene­trating on every subject. He also was generous with his time with everyone, both students and col­leagues, who often were referred to as "Wasser­maniacs." When he believed that anyone was not living up to appropriate standards or was asking a question without the substantive knowledge to make the question relevant, Wasserman could be biting. He first presented his famous essay on Bernard Malamud's The Natural as a lecture at Cornell. During the question-and-answer period after the talk, someone asked Wasserman a ques­tion, to which he responded, "Have you read the book?" The questioner said, "No," at which point Wasserman walked off the stage. He was not one to suffer fools. Shortly before he died, he read a review of his book on Shelley and responded to the reviewer:

I have never before replied to a review and have never had adequate occasion to do so. But your review of my Shelley in the current MLQ is the most stupid review I've ever read and reveals conceptions of poetry that I have difficulty in believing anyone seriously maintains, even you. The only explanation for your review that I can conjure up is that it was written with jaundice instead of a sound mind. I thought you would appreciate my telling you so.

Wasserman was tough but fair. He was intim­idating to many people. Legendary Johns Hop­kins humanities professor Richard Macksey could not say enough about Wasserman's "pas­sion and fervor" while teaching. "If you really wanted your battery charged, you would go in and listen to Earl for a while." Jerry Schnydman, former director of admissions and secretary of the board of trustees at Hopkins, took Wasser­man's course on Keats and Shelley in the mid- 1960s because Wasserman was "the most revered teacher at Hopkins." Schnydman did not receive a great mark for the course, but because Wasser­man happened to be his adviser, he was con­strained to meet with him to approve his sched­ule for the next term. Schnydman approached the meeting with great trepidation because of his low mark. Wasserman immediately put him at ease by commenting that Schnydman was an A student in lacrosse (being an All-American) and that when one averaged the marks in lacrosse and Keats-Shelley, he would do well in life. He has never forgotten Wasserman's generosity.

Two years after Wasserman joined the Johns Hopkins faculty, he and his wife, Eleanor, whom he had married in 1937, suffered a terrible personal loss—the death of their only child. Linda Wasserman was born in Illinois in 1942. In August 1950, Linda was diagnosed with a ret­rovesical neurogenic sarcoma, a rare malig­nancy. During surgery, it was discovered that the tumor was inoperable. She then received mas­sive radiation. Sections from the tumor were analyzed at several hospitals, but by early Octo­ber all of the consults were discouraging. Linda died six weeks later.

Earl Wasserman died on March 3, 1973, fol­lowing a lecture he had given at the University of Pennsylvania. At his funeral a few days later, Rabbi Israel Goldman eulogized:

In many years in the rabbinate, I have never been so deeply moved as I was last night when a group of Professor Wasserman's stu­dents arranged to come to see me well towards midnight. They wanted so much to talk to me about their great teacher. ... These young gentlemen were not only his students, they were his disciples.

I was mesmerized to be in the presence of a man whose love of teaching, whose love of schol­arship, and whose passion and fervor were evi­dent after the first 15 minutes in his presence. My writing of this article is a belated atonement to a stupid omission of mine when I was 17 years old. Shortly after the conclusion of my first summer course with him, I received this letter:

12 August 1952
Dear Mr. Stiller,
I write to inform you that you have received an A in my course this summer, and to tell you that it was a pleasure to read your exam­ination papers. Since I find that you are not a regular student at Hopkins and since I never had an opportunity to chat with you, I would find it pleasant to have a few words with you before you leave town. Please don't suspect anything important in this sugges­tion, and please don't go out of your way to make a visit to the campus. I have nothing specific in mind, except to know you some­what better than I am able to through your two examination papers. If you are in the vicinity of Hopkins at any time, do drop in; I am usually here most of the day, Monday through Saturday.
Sincerely yours,
Earl R. Wasserman

To say that I was not flattered would, of course, be a monumental lie. But, even though I had already completed two years of college, I was too shy, too introverted, and too intimidated by Wasserman's invitation. He was so smart and, in a sense, overwhelming in his brilliance, that I never raised my hand in class. I could not imag­ine what I could have said to him if I were to "drop in," and I ignored his invitation. I was not too intimidated, however, to enroll in his class for next summer. Then, a few months later, I wrote to him (too scared to telephone) and asked if he would write a letter of recommendation for me to the Yale Law School. This was his response:

13 November 1953
Dear Stiller,
Please forgive me for not having written ear­lier; I have been swamped with work. The letter has gone off to the Registrar of the Yale Law School, and you can rest assured that I wrote as warm a letter of rec­ommendation as you could have hoped for. If it is the law that you want, I hope sincerely that you are admitted. I have something of a conviction that you'll succeed at what­ever you try in earnest. I'm not one bit daunted that you've not decided on English; if there's anything we don't need in English it is the enthusiast who has nothing more than enthusiasm. And so I'm very much inclined to discourage people from entering graduate work in English; they should be admitted only if they persist despite every discouragement and despite every deflation of their ardor.
Perhaps you'll be especially significant as the first truly literary legalist of distinction. After all, [Oliver Wendell] Holmes only dab­bled at literature. Best wishes,
Earl Wasserman

I have retained these letters. They (as well as my notebooks for the two courses, the only col­lege or law school notebooks I have retained) are my precious jewels. Dick Macksey's memorial note about Wasserman attested:

The institution he served with such fierce dedication, the students he taught with the same dynamism, and the colleagues to whom he gave so freely have long since made a place for Earl Wasserman in their personal histo­ries; each can still learn much from his les­son. In his large recompense he is the Genius of our shore and an inspiration to all who venture on the perils of scholarly matters.

Earl Wasserman taught me with dynamism and fierce dedication. There is a very large place for him in my personal history. His close reading of texts has followed me for the last 60 years. In Dick Macksey's words, I still learn much from his lesson. He has been the Genius of my shore and the inspiration each time I venture into the per­ils of scholarly matters.

Shale D. Stiller, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper, is a trustee emeritus of Johns Hopkins University. Any reader who wishes to receive a more detailed version of this essay can send an email to

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