Thomas G. Rosenmeyer: Distinguished colleague passes away

February 8, 2007

Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, died at his home in Oakland on Tuesday, February 6, 2007. He was 86.

Tom Rosenmeyer was born in Hamburg, Germany, on April 3, 1920, and educated at the Johanneum in Hamburg from 1930 to 1938. He fled to England in the late 1930s, where he was interned as a German citizen and then transferred to an internment camp in Canada. During and after the war, he completed an undergraduate degree at McMaster University near Toronto in 1944, took an MA in Classics from the University of Toronto in 1945, and went on to do his doctoral studies at Harvard, receiving his degree in 1949 with a dissertation on Plato entitled "The Isle of Critias." After highly successful years teaching Classics at the State University of Iowa (1947-52), Smith College (1952-55), and the University of Washington (1955-66), he arrived at Berkeley in 1966 to a joint position in Classics and Comparative Literature; and he immediately became one of the main shaping forces of that new, and soon preeminent, program.

At Berkeley, Tom Rosenmeyer was admired and loved as a deeply learned, wide-ranging and loyal colleague, a warm friend and mentor, and a stalwart servant of his two departments and of the humanities. He served terms as chair of each department and as Acting Dean of Humanities, helped to organize what is now the Townsend Center for the Humanities, and was selected by the Academic Senate to be Faculty Research Lecturer in 1990. Upon his retirement in 1990 he received the Berkeley Citation, the highest award available to faculty for a distinguished career of teaching, service, and scholarship. To mark his 70th birthday in that same spring, he was presented with a Festschrift with contributions from his friends, colleagues and former students entitled Cabinet of the Muses.

As a scholar, Tom Rosenmeyer became one of the leading expositors in his generation of classical Greek literature, with his distinctive combination of traditional philology and flexible, finely-nuanced literary analysis. He was able to draw skillfully both on philosophically-based aesthetic theory (German as well as Anglo-American) as well as an impressive range of literary-critical models—the fruit of his formidably wide and deep reading. In his early career he published numerous articles on Plato. His first book, The Masks of Tragedy (1963), collected several provocative essays on Greek plays. The Green Cabinet: Theocritus and the European Pastoral Tradition (1969) is an excellent example of his comparative approach, as it brings a wide-ranging chronological and cultural perspective to the study of Greek and Latin poetry, points up interconnections between literature and philosophy, and shows the continuing relevance of the classics for the understanding of later literature. The Art of Aeschylus (1982) is likewise a remarkable tour de force, erudite, sophisticated, and pithily written; and, in a late turn to Latin literature, Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology (1989) argues for an original thesis concerning the interconnection of Stoicism with Seneca’s tragedies.

In these books and in numerous shorter contributions, such as his brilliant chapter on drama in M. I. Finley’s The Legacy of Greece (1981), as well as in his work as an editor, the important characteristics of Tom Rosenmeyer’s scholarship were these:  sensitive and provocative attention to the ancient texts in the light of an immense range of ancient and modern literature; facility in pinpointing those aspects and techniques of modern texts which significantly borrow from, continue, or consciously modify ancient models; interest in the connections between literature and the contemporary currents of philosophical thought; scrutiny of the interplay and tension between literary theory and literary practice; openness to the ambiguities and imprecisions of both literary expression itself and the interpretative strategies of scholars.

Beyond Berkeley, the distinction of Tom Rosenmeyer was acknowledged by the award of two Guggenheim Fellowships, his election to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and his service as President of the American Philological Association in 1989. He lectured both in this country and abroad. Before and after his retirement in 1990 he held a number of visiting appointments, including a semester as Visiting Professor at Harvard. Although hampered in his last years by deafness, which made it difficult for him to attend social gatherings and lectures, he maintained his one-on-one connections with his friends and colleagues, communicated far and wide by email, and pursued an active life of reading, research, and writing. He was physically and mentally active right up to the end.

His wife of 56 years, Lilo, died last year. He is survived by two daughters, Patricia Rosenmeyer, of Madison, Wisconsin, and Katharine Fabunan, of Fresno, California, and by three grandchildren.

For a bibliography of Tom Rosenmeyer’s work through 1989, consult the front matter of the digital edition of Cabinet of the Muses at the Classics Department’s eScholarship Repository site. A fuller biography and complete bibliography has also been posted at the same site.

A memorial event took place on Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 1 pm in the Heyns Room of the Faculty Club on the Berkeley campus.

Tom's daughters have established the Thomas G. Rosenmeyer Memorial Fellowship Fund in Comparative Literature through University Relations, and donations to this Fund are welcome from all. You may download a gift form.

Compiled from contributions by Robert Alter, Mark Griffith, Tony Long, and Donald Mastronarde.