Jan. 4, 2016

Emeritus professor and alum Edgar Rosenberg dies at 90

Edgar Rosenberg
Rosenberg

Edgar Rosenberg ’49, M.A. ’50, professor emeritus of English and comparative literature, died Dec. 19 in Cayuga Heights, New York, at the age of 90.

“Edgar Rosenberg was the wittiest, most erudite and gracious colleague I’ve known at Cornell,” said Roger Gilbert, professor and chair of English. “He was enormously beloved by students and faculty and by friends and colleagues all over the world. He could always be counted on to lighten the mood at a meeting with a well-chosen quip or pun.”

A gifted scholar and creative writer, Rosenberg’s “From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English”(1960) is regarded as a seminal work in the fields of English literature and Jewish studies. His Norton edition of Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations”(1999) stands not only as the authoritative edition of that novel but also as a landmark of erudition and a joyful sharing of a life of learning, said Daniel Schwarz, the Fredric J. Whiton Professor of English Literature.  

“What Professor Rosenberg’s scholarship, creative work, teaching and collegiality have in common are a wonderful generosity of spirit, a warm respect for others, a keen historical awareness and a strong, good-natured sense of being alive,” said Schwarz.

Rosenberg was also the author of some 50 pieces of short fiction, translations and articles in magazines including Esquire, Commentary and The Dickensian. He specialized in 19th- and 20th-century fiction, Anglo-Judaic studies, the Elizabethans, Germany in the 1930s, and writers such as Dickens, Mann and Shaw.

"Edgar Rosenberg was a great scholar of the British and European novel – his work on Dickens is especially memorable – and while immensely learned was also witty and ironic,” said Jonathan Culler, the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature. “He gave a cosmopolitan character to our department and was especially generous to junior faculty. He will be greatly missed.”

Rosenberg was born in Fuerth, Germany, in 1925. After his father fled to Switzerland, Rosenberg's mother negotiated with the Nazi bureaucracy for the departure of herself, Edgar, his younger brother Hans (Harry), and his paternal grandmother. They made it out of Europe aboard the Claus Horn in June 1939, landing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The family remained on the island until 1940, when they embarked for New York City. Rosenberg arrived in America knowing no English.

After high school, Rosenberg joined the U.S. Army and served in Europe, receiving a Combat Infantry medal in 1944. He attended Cornell on the GI Bill and was an exemplary student, elected to Phi Beta Kappa; he also won prizes for his fiction, including a $100 award in 1950 from Doubleday.

His first published work, “The Assassin,” about interrogating prisoners of war at the front, appeared in 1958 in the second issue of Epoch, Cornell’s prestigious literary journal. “Next of Kin,” published soon after in Commentary, was a fictionalized account of a voyage to Haiti.

After receiving his doctorate from Stanford University in 1958, Rosenberg served as Briggs-Copeland Assistant Professor at Harvard University, until 1965. According to the Harvard Crimson, Rosenberg’s course in the history of the novel was extremely popular and between 1,500 and 2,000 Harvard and Radcliffe students took his courses.

He joined the Cornell faculty as associate professor of English in 1965 and became full professor in 1969. From 1970-2002 he held a joint appointment as professor of English and comparative literature.

Gerald Howard '72 wrote in a letter to Cornell Alumni Magazinethat Rosenberg as a teacher was fascinating and terrifying. “With his faintly European accent and arch, almost Nabokovian manner, he was a classroom presence of a sort I'd never met before. We lived to answer one of his imperiously posed questions in a way that would elicit a grunt of satisfaction … Here was my first encounter with an avatar of high culture.”

A recipient of fellowships from Guggenheim, Fulbright and Bread Loaf, Rosenberg is listed in “Who’s Who in America” and “Who’s Who in World Jewry.”

He is survived by his wife, Barbara Anne Hollington; two stepchildren; his son-in-law and two grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for March 20.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.