Peter Firchow: In Memoriam

English Professor Emeritus Peter Firchow died October 18, 2008. He is survived by his wife Evelyn, a professor of German at the University of Minnesota, and daughter Pamina. Professor David Haley remembers Firchow and provides a vita.

PEF 4 web.jpg
by Professor David Haley

Peter was born a year after me, yet I've always considered him my senior. Although we both attended Harvard (this was during Eisenhower's second term) and actually took the same class in Shakespeare, we only became acquainted ten years later, here at Minnesota. Even if we had met in Cambridge, either of us would have shunned the other as an academic conformist--an insider--owing to the singular discipline that Harvard, in those days, imposed on young adults to develop their sense of autonomy. Peter and I never did agree about the value of our college experience. Having arrived at Harvard from Northern California's mountains, I was overwhelmed to discover history and the world of books, whereas Peter's cosmopolitan heritage had already seasoned him with the Horatian maxim, "nil admirari" (wonder at nothing). In Peter's literary scheme of things, my origins were pastoral (a more recent political descriptor would be "Alaskan"), and I believe it was his perception that Harvard had not impaired my naïve integrity that has made us lifelong friends. For my part, I could always bank on Peter's intellectual honesty. After our four decades of amicable debate, Peter and I can certainly agree at least with Blake's aphorism that "Opposition is true Friendship."

Some time ago, Peter remarked of himself that "My life spent in literature has made me, I think, a better person." That was his way of saying that literature ought to help us see life steadily and see it whole--a whole that has got to include ourselves. As Emerson said, only the examined life is worth living. Ten years back, reviewing a book called F. R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism, Peter flatly denied that the celebrated British critic had lived such a life, "unless personal hatred and a genius for vituperation are tantamount to 'a life in criticism.' On the contrary: though Leavis delighted to the point of manic euphoria in criticizing opponents, when it came to himself he could only feel pity and righteous indignation."

Peter had nothing but praise for scholars and writers who devoted their lives to literature. Pretentious literary critics, on the other hand, could rouse him to Juvenalian fury. Reviewing a book of poems entitled Old Men and Comets by D. J. Enright--a former Angry Young Man who had advanced well into senescence--Peter noted that Enright's title came from Jonathan Swift, who wrote: "old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason: their long beards and pretenses to foretell events." Peter asks, "Are we then to believe that this poet [who at one time used cool understatement to express rage] has now recanted and gone vatic? A comet blazing in the sky, lighting up the darkness? No, not really, for there's none of Swift's savage indignation in this mostly disgruntled augurizing. When Enright peers through a glass darkly, it tends to be filled with beer, the same old ironic brew he's always served."

Satiric wit like this was to be expected from a man who had written his bachelor's thesis on Swift, his master's essay on Goethe's satire, and his doctoral dissertation on Huxley. And yet Peter's undeniably Faustian impulse was always curbed by his generosity of spirit. Phony scholarship and criticism were easy targets. More troubling to Peter was the injustice we encounter within the academy no less than in the world at large. He particularly hated abuse of power, and he resisted it not only in his profession but even in casual social relationships, as for instance when he would step out of an elevator rather than force a single woman to share it with him. Conscious of his great physical and mental strength, Peter was constantly attentive to others while deprecating himself. For him, witty debate among equals was the antithesis of bullying, and it is no exaggeration to say that civility was Peter's chief touchstone for determining the truth.

Early in his career, Peter decided that the only club worth joining--the only insider group to which he would pay his dues--was the liberal community of men and women whose rationality makes them free. To enter this community, you must put off the habits of "irrational man" (to use the title of one of Peter's favorite books). But at the same time, paradoxically, you lose your rational status when you make a fetish of our reason or when, finding some group assembled under its aegis, you mistake that unstable collective for our normative condition. Just as authors of Utopias are obliged to include their fallible selves in their ironical visions, so one cannot participate in the liberal community without personal and intellectual self-scrutiny. In his public career, Peter guided this community now as classroom teacher, now as conference organizer and speaker, and for nearly a decade as director of the Comparative Literature program. In all these venues, his most characteristic contribution--Peter's hallmark gesture--was the self-effacing fairness and benevolence he showed towards all but the egotistically self-satisfied and the willfully illiberal.

In his private life, Peter devoted considerable effort to maintaining friendships. Because he traveled abroad so extensively, you were apt to forget his itinerary and scheduled activities. Then a postcard or an e-mail would arrive to make you realize that, while he was out of your sight, you had not been out of his mind. When he greeted you again after a separation of any length, Peter had an endearing knack of presenting some thoughtfully chosen gift. These tokens were his means for not only enjoying a friendship but expressing it.

Peter like Faust prized life too highly to waste it in passive neglect. Both saw that our great enemy is Time, which Shakespeare personifies in its tyrannical aspect as Oblivion. But when wasteful war shall statues overturn, and broils root out the work of masonry, Time that was initially hostile can reappear as our savior in the form of memory and history. The fragments we shore against our ruin are the thoughtful acts by which we affirm our friendships. A gifted scholar like Peter supplements these thoughtful acts with his active thoughts, helping to fortify the liberal community against oblivion. Some of Peter's most creatively healing thoughts appear in his new book, Strange Meetings, published just weeks before his death.

Here Peter lays aside his Faustian role to don the mantle of the prophet. "The literary/cultural relations between England and Germany during the first half of the twentieth century," he writes, "are full of warning signals that, if heeded, might have changed the course of history--for the better, one hopes. It is a story of great and largely missed opportunities, a story that today's politicians, or men and women in positions of power generally, would benefit from knowing more intimately."

That story is encapsulated in Wilfred Owen's dream vision of a tragically "strange meeting" between a dead German soldier and a possibly dead English one. Owen's poem begins, "It seems that out of battle I escaped / Down some dull tunnel." The speaker encounters a decaying corpse that turns out to be alive when it jumps up and declares, "I am the enemy you killed, my friend." He bears the speaker no grudge. "Whatever hope is yours, / Was my life also." As Peter comments,

The two strange friends come together in what both know is a "strange meeting." One can agree that meeting one's dead double, who is both one's enemy and one's friend, is indeed strange. "Here is no cause to mourn," says the speaker, and his friend agrees: "'None,' said the other, 'save the undone years . . . the truth untold.'" What was lost on both sides in this Great War was the "undone years," was the "truth untold," because those who might have told it died before they had a chance to tell it.

Peter does not presume to supply that lost voice. What he has tried to do in his book, Peter says, is to show how for Owen's generation "it came to seem that the saving years were undone and the truth remained untold." As we hear him questioning history--which joins the living with the dead--we know that Peter is attentive to history's reply, even as our own debate with the past carries on the dialogue from his books.

A life:

Peter Edgerly Firchow (d. 18 Oct. 2008) was born in Needham, MA, on 16 Dec. 1937, the youngest of three children. His Prussian father had come to Boston as the accountant for a German shipping firm and ended up working in the German embassy. Deported as a hostile alien in 1942, he had to leave his children in the care of their mother, a Costa Rican who had become a U.S. citizen. Mrs. Firchow's decision to expatriate the family and rejoin her husband led to Peter's spending his formative years in Prussia and in Czechoslovakia and, after hostilities ceased, in Munich at an Allied camp for displaced persons. During this seven-year exile, Mrs. Firchow had kept her children fluent in their native language, so that in 1949, when Mr. Firchow moved the family back to Cambridge to open a travel agency, Peter rapidly ascended from sixth grade to high school (Cambridge Latin), whence he graduated in 1955.

While living at home in Cambridge, Peter attended Harvard and, upon graduating (A.B., 1959), went to study at the Universities in Vienna and Seville. After returning to Harvard briefly for his M.A. (1961), Peter resolved to break once and for all with the parochial elegance of Cambridge and to enroll at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He earned his Ph.D. there in 1965 and then taught for two years at the University of Michigan. In 1967, making what would turn out to be a permanent career move, Peter accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Minnesota where, owing to his extraordinary productivity--three books in four years--Peter was quickly tenured and promoted to full professor.

Although his A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees were all in English, Peter was less interested in differentiating among the great national literatures than he was in distinguishing modern literature as a whole from the classics of antiquity. Besides being authentically trilingual (he wrote and spoke German and Spanish as readily as his native English), he was ever mindful of the Latin roots of modern literature and of the translatio artium from Rome to early modern Europe via the Middle Ages. He was also familiar with the corresponding translatio imperii--the dream of a universal state (or church) that inspired rulers from Caesar to Charlemagne and from Napoleon to Hitler. Peter knew that American students of Dante or Shakespeare or Joyce, unless they make an effort, cannot understand that dream, so utterly alien to our republic and yet so indispensable for the study of European postcolonialism.

Peter brought this European perspective to the Comparative Literature program that he directed for seven years. He also served as Minnesota's ambassador for American literature to Europe, to China, and to Central America, accepting visiting professorships at universities in Munich, Graz (Austria), Tainan (Taiwan), Changchun (China) as well as Fullbright Visiting Professorships at the University of Bonn and at the National University of Costa Rica.

Next to teaching English literature to undergraduates, Peter delighted most in exploring, with his graduate students and colleagues, the philosophically ambiguous and factually indeterminate relation between literature and history. Introducing a festschrift collection of his essays in 2002, Janice Rossen, formerly Peter's graduate student (and now the author of several books herself), recalled her first impression of him. "His presence in a classroom could roughly be translated, from the student's point of view, 'Does not suffer fools gladly'. . . . Fairly soon, however, I realized it was foolish or inconsistent ideas that he didn't like. These he could spot instantly, and he pounced upon them with all the thrill of the chase. Ideas lived for him."

Writing six years later in memoriam, Professor Rossen notes that Peter "was, as everyone well knows, a man of great passion. He was utterly devoted to his wife, Evelyn, and their daughter, Pamina. His other passion was for literature: for reading it, writing about it, and teaching it. I once heard him remark that he could well have chosen some other profession than that of literary criticism--but I could never bring myself to believe it."

Besides his two translations and a collection of interviews, Peter wrote eight books: Aldous Huxley (1972), The End of Utopia (1984), Death of the German Cousin (1986), Envisioning Africa (2000), W. H Auden (2002), Reluctant Modernists (2002; a collection of Peter's essays), Modern Utopian Fictions (2007), and Strange Meetings (2008).

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on September 24, 2009 10:33 AM.

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