Thursday, February 26, 2015

Larry Benson

by J J Cohen

Last week I learned that my dissertation director, Larry Benson, died. Here is a slightly adapted version of some thoughts I offered on Facebook at the time.

Larry Benson was (among many other things) the general editor of the Riverside Chaucer, a distinguished teacher, and scholar who brought the field in important new directions, especially in mapping the entanglement of medieval literature with its material history. He was a proto-DHer, an acerbic wit, a heavy smoker and (until late in life) drinker. Like all complicated people -- that is to say, like all interesting people -- he had his demons, he had his excellent impulses, he is not easy to reduce into a story.

I'd been thinking about what makes a good thesis mentor when I learned of his death -- partly because I know that I am not always the easiest person to work with in that capacity. My seeming jocularity can make it disconcerting when I express my expectations about depth of research, originality of argument, and sustained attentiveness to a project. And I am very direct. A conversation on effective mentoring that I initiated on Twitter garnered responses that described a relationship nothing like the one I had with Larry when I was a graduate student. These responses stressed presence, engagement, challenge and support. Larry knew that I was self-motivated to the point of being self-punishing. He also knew that I disagreed with him deeply about politics, the academy, social justice as a literary concern, and the value of theory. We had little in common (and I dwelled too much on that fact), so even though I took several classes with him and two independent studies, we seldom talked about anything other than medieval literature. Every now and then someone would send him a book that touched on feminism or poststructuralism, and he'd place it in my mailbox with a note stating that giving the book to me was not a sign of approval. He wrote little on my seminar papers, and he was sufficiently satisfied with me as a teacher that he visited my class only once to ensure everything was OK. The letter of recommendation he wrote for my file (I learned later from a search committee) had a coffee mug ring on it -- but it was a kind letter that admitted not always getting what I was doing, arguing that was a good and necessary thing. Larry was in Florence the year I finished my PhD (I was hellbent on moving from BA to PhD in 5 years; I did not enjoy graduate school, and blame that sourness as much on my own immaturity as anything else). He therefore signed off on my dissertation nine months before I submitted, asking me to mail him a copy when it was done. On the one hand, that sounds terrible, and maybe it is. On the other, without that neglectful confidence -- along with which came no pressure to conform to someone else's vision of what proper scholarship amounts to, or to re-instantiate the field as it was given -- well, I likely would not have been able to research projects that have been so sustaining. 

My scholarship is not much like Larry Benson's, and for a long time I thought that from his point of view that must have seemed a failing instead of a gift. I realize in retrospect that despite ambivalence and second-guessing, despite all those things you feel when someone who was more important to you than you realized dies ... well, I was lucky to have been mentored by someone whose distance was also a mode of trust.

I was asked this morning to send along some memories of Larry Benson, with an emphasis on the positive. Here's what I said:

Some good memories: Larry Benson's conviviality, insisting that graduate students accompany faculty to lunch every Thursday at the Dolphin, a nearby restaurant (this out of class mentoring and conversation, which could be silly or serious, also modeled how to be an intellectual while socializing -- not an easy task); the seriousness with which he took his undergraduate teaching (I was his TF for many years and watched him agonize over getting his lectures right, even though he could have given them from memory and long practice); his desire to build a community of medievalists at Harvard (leading him to agree to play Herod when some of us decided to mount a mystery play as part of a holiday celebration, and to invite graduate students and faculty to his house for a picnic and croquet game -- and not complaining when we took such joy in beating him and Derek Pearsall at that game). 

Larry Benson left me to my work. What could seem like a lack of attention was, I think, also a confidence that I would make something of myself, something unique, mine and not his. He gave me a space that many mentors would not have granted, and that's why I chose to work with him.

RIP, Larry Benson.

1 comment:

Peter Neumeyer said...

When I arrived for my first teaching job at Harvard (1963), my old (Berkeley) buddy, Larry, pulled a disk out of his pocket, tapped it, and said "English literature to 1642." Given the time, that was extraordinary. By that time, too, Larry had built his own Leggo-related computer. He was a dear, good man. PFN