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Remembering Burton Feldman

Burton Feldman

Burton E. Feldman was a man of extraordinary breadth and depth--a historian of each individual Nobel Prize, professor emeritus, pioneering scholar of the theory of myth in The Rise of Modern Mythology, university teacher, author, advisor, editor, caricaturist, and poet.

The Early Years

Burton Feldman was born in Albany, NY on May 3, 1926.  After completing high school in Troy, NY, he served three years in the U. S. Army, including wartime service in the Philippines. He received a BA from Union College in 1949 where he won the AA Knopf Creative Writing prize. In 1954, he received his MA in English from Columbia University with a thesis on James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. He earned his PhD from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago in 1965 with a doctoral dissertation on Stendhal. His mind and Socratic teaching methods were honed by study under the philosopher, Leo Strauss, a Platonist. He also studied with Mircea Eliade, the renowned historian of religions, who became a lifelong friend. Even in such company, he acquired a reputation for exceptional learning.

From 1957-62, Feldman was a lecturer in literature and philosophy at the University of Chicago. From there, he and his wife, Peggy, spent two years in Europe and Turkey teaching for the University of Maryland Overseas Branch. In 1965, he joined the English department at the University of Denver where he settled for most of his career.

At the University of Denver

While at the University of Denver, he served as Director of Undergraduate Honors in English, (1968-74) and editor of The Denver Quarterly (1970-75), where he almost single handedly, with small budget and little supporting staff, added to the mission of the magazine a new intellectual sophistication and cosmopolitan contributors. Feldman additionally served as Director of Graduate Studies in English from 1980-84 and then continuously from 1988 to his retirement ten years later. As Director of Graduate Studies, he devoted long hours throughout the year to intensive, often personal, advising of every graduate student in the program in meetings remembered by many as life-transforming. In the classroom, Feldman was at his impish best in seminars where he could challenge afresh and follow up with dialogue. "He had an uncanny ability of drawing water from stone," one colleague marveled. He taught 30 or more different courses in both English and American literature and in the history of European ideas sweeping over four centuries.

Poetry, Travel and Scholarship

In literary study, poetry was perhaps his forte, especially the great innovators such as Milton, Blake, Whitman, Yeats, and 20th-century American poets, though he was also expert in the novel, especially the works of James Joyce. He occasionally taught poetry workshops in the Creative Writing program.

Over the years, he traveled to and taught in a number of different places. In 1970, he took a research leave to Ireland. While there he also accepted an invitation from Robert Lowell to spend a week with him at Oxford. Feldman was a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University, Jerusalem from1972-73, where he met and became friends with Gershom Scholem. Returning to the University of Chicago in 1975-6 as an ACLS Fellow, he was described by Mircea Eliade as "one of the most competent American scholars I know, a true living encyclopedia!" He was also a Visiting Professor at the University of Colorado in 1979.

In scholarship, he did groundbreaking research in the history of myth in European and American thought since the 17th century, culminating in mutually inspired teamwork in 1972 with Robert D. Richardson, Jr., in The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860. The book was reprinted in 2000 with an introduction by Wendy Doniger, and is still regarded as the best work in the field. From 1979 to1984, he collaborated again with Richardson in Myth and Romanticism, a 50-volume edition of rare texts of mythography used by Romantic poets.

Writing About the Nobels

His vast reach, his interest and knowledge about everything, made it inevitable that he would eventually write the story of the Nobel Prizes themselves. Published in 2000, The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige was a triumph of lucid style and masterful detail rich in human comedy as well as a user-friendly exposition of major controversies in 20th-century literature, physics, chemistry, medicine, politics, and economics. A book on Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, and Wolfgang Pauli was in manuscript at the time of his death.

Away From the Classroom

Well known and keenly appreciated for his wit and sense of humor, Feldman was also a gifted caricaturist and was treasured for his drawings. His poetry both awed and delighted his friends and family and was published in a number of literary magazines. He also played the piano and loved to listen to music. He loved dogs, had many, and preferred them large and playful.

Burton E. Feldman died in Denver on January 10, 2003.

Give to the Burton Feldman Fund.