After graduating from the University of Washington in Seattle, Jeffrey Spear received his Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Minnesota in 1975. He moved further east to teach at Princeton and NYU, and he retired as an associate English professor at NYU in 2015. Despite all the changes in society and literary theory in his 40-year career, Spear had a persistent passion for literature which outlasted all those changes. He was an inspiration to his students up until his last class on Victorian Decadence in the Fall of 2015.
Professor Spear was born in Seattle at the end of World War II, the youngest of three children. His parents were generous and loving but also practical people who understood the economic difficulties inherent in marriage and raising children. His father, Abe, was a star football player at the University of Washington when he fell in love with his mother, Sonia (now 102), who at the time dreamed of Mozart and Schubert sonatas as she aspired to be a concert pianist at the Cornish School in Seattle. But once Abe started his own business, and Sonia had to take care of her children, she gave up her hopes of becoming a pianist and settled for marriage, teaching piano lessons, reading literature, and attending dramatic performances and concerts.
While he learned a lot from his father about surviving in what Abe Spear always saw as “a hostile economic world,” Professor Spear preferred “the realm of literature, art and music,” and he was an escapist reader growing up. So he embarked on the path of English literary studies as an undergraduate. During this time, he excelled in literary analysis—making convincing links between texts and arguments about literature—and he would spend hours poking around in the library. Bliss to him was “that dawn to be alive when the only notes to The Waste Land were those Eliot provided.” And during this dawn he married his wife, Laura, the summer after he graduated.
He went on to work towards his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, studying the famed Victorian-era critic John Ruskin. Simultaneous with his graduate work, the Vietnam War raged; and Professor Spear was active in the anti-war movement. However, it was here that he got a first-hand glimpse of this hostile economic world. He and Laura had two children at the time and, then as now, there were many more Ph.D. students than jobs. As good luck would have it, he applied to Princeton (which had just admitted women, thereby expanding the student body and the professorate), and the department chair at the time was a Victorian scholar who knew a lot about John Ruskin, the subject of Professor Spear’s dissertation. Consequently, he got the job and began his prolific career as a professor of English.
Since then, in addition to teaching and writing, Spear has been active in politics, published articles, delivered conference papers, and served three terms on the board of the Princeton School. And in his 40 years of teaching he has seen much change in the field of English. Although he has adapted to these changes, they have not failed to affect how he sees the discipline. One significant change has been the rise of new literary theories. In his view, the New Critical close-reading techniques he learned have been eclipsed by approaches that can be harder for undergraduates to master and make use of in their work. Nevertheless, Professor Spear has helped undergraduates understand theory, while also emphasizing that theory can be a springboard for work outside accepted theoretical ideas. In addition, he sees the major cultural shift to STEM fields and “practical” majors that implicitly equate higher education with vocational training as a challenge to the humanities. In an academic climate where most English students are told they will never teach and will most likely have to change careers more than once in their lives, Professor Spear thinks it would be wise to think about ways in which we can change course descriptions to match up with these contemporary issues. However, that is not to say we should dismantle the field of English for the sake of presentism. Even if students may never teach, he thinks they will still need to learn about “bridging differences” and thinking about “other times, other places, other peoples, other ways of life” in order to see that “many social and moral questions we face today that might otherwise be taken as unique are in fact reformulations of things past.” He believes that “the perpetual goal of liberal education is not to foster a better specialist but a better citizen.”
I was lucky enough to be part of Professor Spear’s last Victorian Decadence class at NYU, and I must say—it was wonderful. While the graduate students were energetically talking and complaining about assignments, he would walk in and sit quietly down at the head of the table and wait a moment to let us continue. Pretty soon we, too, would quiet down, and he would pull out his typed lecture and begin class. But he would get through hardly a paragraph of it before one of us would ask a question, which would evoke a diminutive smile in Professor Spear; and thus began some of the best dialogue I have had about literature in all my schooling. Professor Spear was not a teacher who used class as an occasion to air his own opinions; he was truly interested in what we as students had to say and would shift the class to accommodate our thoughts and speculations on any topic. At the beginning of the semester we were skeptical about soft-spoken Professor Spear, but by the end of it, there was not a single student who did not look forward to attending this Thursday night class. I can honestly say that I have made most of my closest friends in Professor Spear’s class. On our final class together last December, our class brought in more than enough wine to go around. We were all nervous to see what Professor Spear would think of this, when he pulled out—along with his lecture notes and his battered copy of The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford—a bottle of spectacular champagne that he proceeded to place in a bag of ice he had brought as well. Although my peers and I complain and sulk about papers and difficulties, the moments that stay crystalline in our memories are the good times we share throughout all our struggles and stresses—the times when Professor Spear would not only help us become “specialists” in literature but better and kinder citizens to each other.
Even in the face of the “harsh economic world” Professor Spear’s father knew so well, he kept intact that joy and sense of wonder at “the realm of literature, art and music,” and he inspired thousands of students, including myself, with his persistent passion of art and ideas. Critic Frank Kermode defines the task of the literary critic in this way: “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.” But Spear helped us both to make sense of our lives and to make sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives. In his retirement he looks forward to spending time with his wife, Laura, his three children and five grandchildren, sharing with them all his own pleasures (from William Morris and George Eliot to Leonard Cohen, Monet and Ingmar Bergman) while helping them enjoy theirs. My time with Jeffrey Spear was been a refuge from the harsh reality of the world outside, but it has also helped me engage with social and moral questions of the present moment.