Philip J. Finkelpearl


Philip J. Finkelpearl

Philip J. Finkelpearl, Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of English, emeritus, died on Nov. 30, 2014, at the age of 89. Phil was an eminent scholar, an inspiring and much-beloved teacher, and a great friend and mentor to his colleagues.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1925, Phil entered Princeton with the class of 1946, but graduated in 1948, having served two years in the Navy during World War II. While at Princeton, he won the undergraduate book-collecting prize with his collection of fin-de-siècle British literature. Phil’s lifelong, deeply held loyalty to Princeton did not preclude his attending graduate school at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1954. Phil taught at Brandeis University from 1952 to ’57, Vassar College from 1962 to ’70, Lehman College, CUNY, in 1970–’71, and University of Massachusetts, Boston, from 1971 to ’80. He arrived in Wellesley’s English Department in 1980, where he stayed until his retirement in 1996, ranging across the curriculum, but with a home in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Wherever he taught, Phil was an electrifying, transformative teacher, one of those teachers whom students remember for a lifetime. Unlike the situation with many a charismatic instructor, however, the cult of Phil was all about the literature. Phil was obviously brilliant, but what energized his classroom was the intensity of his devotion to the works he loved, his eagerness to share with students the life-changing power of great writing.

Phil claimed to be so rapt in the work and joy of teaching as not to know even whether he stood or sat as he led his class. On this question, the answer was apparent by the chalk line across the back of the tweed jackets that were his invariable uniform, clear evidence that he spent most of class time leaning against the bottom edge of the blackboard. The word that recurred constantly in students’ reports of his teaching was “enthusiasm”: Phil was wont to remark that Shakespeare occupied the place in his universe that God occupied for the religious, and he made many converts to his view that the best works of literature are the highest pitch of human achievement and deserve all the focus, attention, and critical acumen we can bring to bear on them.

It would be a radical understatement to call Phil’s copy of The Riverside Shakespeare, from which he taught year after year, “well-thumbed.” It appeared to be held together by tape and magic, and seemed likely to fall apart at any moment, so heavily read and reread was it. But if magic held it together, the book itself was also magic: Whenever one started discussing a passage from Shakespeare, Phil would open up the volume, inevitably landing, if not on the relevant page itself, within a page or two. But most of the time Phil scarcely needed a book; much of the history of English poetry was stored in his head. Once, in the pre-Google age, a colleague was trying to identify an obscure quotation; Phil recognized its source as the almost forgotten poet Thomas Moore.

Both of Phil’s major works of scholarship, John Marston of the Middle Temple (Harvard University Press, 1969) and Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher (Princeton University Press, 1990), deal with playwrights of Shakespeare’s era. Both demonstrate enormous erudition, a fine-grained understanding not just of texts and the theater but of the political, social, and material contexts of the time. The Beaumont and Fletcher book, for instance, posits not only a radical rethinking of the political valence of the dramatists’ work, but also a profound and influential revision of ideas about censorship in the Jacobean period. Yet despite the deep learning it displayed, Phil’s scholarship, like his teaching, remained vividly in touch with the emotional experience of art, with its power to clarify and to trouble our understanding and our feelings.

It was not only literature to which Phil brought his gift of passionate enthusiasm. He and his wife, Kitty, herself a talented artist, were early devotees of Abstract Impressionist painting, and would drive to New York City regularly in the 1950s to view new shows by leading painters. The frequent invocations of literary theorists like William Empson in Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, probably the most important architectural manifesto of the latter half of the 20th century, derive from Venturi’s close friendship with Phil, dating from Princeton days. Phil authored a major reconsideration of Venturi’s work in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (1979).

Phil’s trademark intensity was on display as well in his sports fandom, whether as a partisan for the Pittsburgh teams of his youth or those of his adopted New England. He was a prime mover in the yearly pilgrimage to a Patriots game that included members of the English department, the custodial staff, and other campus faculty. It was a great gratification to him to see the Red Sox and Patriots finally break through to championships after so many decades of futility.

Even as email began to overtake human interaction, Phil insisted on the irreplaceability of face-to-face communication. “If you want to talk to me, you can come to my office,” he would say. When you did, you would find him there, usually in extended conversation with one of the students who crowded his office hours as much for his wisdom about life as his literary insight. Phil always made you feel that you had his full attention, that the focused intensity he brought to literature was being brought to bear on the question or situation you were discussing with him. That generosity of time and spirit is among the many things those of us who knew him will miss.

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