In Memoriam Professor Herbert Grabes (1936-2015)

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. (mult.) Herbert Grabes (1936-2015) in Memoriam


 This memoriam is composed on the basis of a memorial speech that I held in German at Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Herbert Grabes’s funeral service in December of 2015. An obituary written in German by my friend and former University of Giessen colleague Professor Ingo Berensmeyer flows into this text as do some of the recorded memories of several of Herbert Grabes’s former colleagues and friends.

My first experience of Herbert Grabes was as a distant admiring listener at a huge ESSE conference. I remember Professor Ansgar Nünning’s loving introduction of his senior colleague and my sense of how lively and interesting and erudite a speaker Herbert was. I subsequently got to know him personally at the beginning of my time at the University of Giessen in late 2008. In 2009, I had the honor of taking over his chair in American and British Studies at the University of Giessen. Filling his footsteps remains a large undertaking. It also marks a change of generations and also of style in German English and American Studies, with more women professors now holding chairs and with more native speakers of English now in the front lines as well. Herbert once told a younger woman relative that his successor was “some feminist,” but he met this feminist with a wonderful mixture of good will and also openness to change. It is an honor to remember his life here. This includes his multifaceted efforts at the University of Giessen as well as to promote American and English Studies in Germany, Europe, and beyond.

Herbert Grabes was Professor of Modern English and American Literature at the University of Giessen from 1970 until his death in 2015. These dates in themselves provide an extraordinary testimonial. Additionally, he was involved in a great number of scholarly institutions and organizations. He taught at the universities of Cologne, Mannheim, Milwaukee, Madison and Vancouver as well as Giessen. Through these activities he contributed to the internationalization of (German) American and English Studies both inside and outside of Europe. He was also a central figure at the university of Giessen for forty-five years, not only as a professor but also as dean and vice president. He remains one of the internationally best-known representatives of German Amerikanistik and English Studies, and this fact is mirrored in his wide research and publication profile. This profile extends from the philosophy of Nicolai Hartmann through the tropes of the medieval and early modern periods, through the work of Vladimir Nabokov, early modern English pamphlets, and US-American drama of the twentieth century, as well as modern and postmodern theory. He was one of the founding editors of the Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature (REAL) as well as the European Journal of English Studies (EJES). His international activities led to his having been awarded a third honorary doctorate from the University of Vilnius, which his untimely death in December 2015 kept him from accepting. This followed on the honorary doctorates from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Bucharest.

The paragraphs above represent a few facts about his life and work. What is more important perhaps is to try to express Herbert Grabes’s Menschlichkeit, as we say in German, his humane esprit and charm as a scholar and as a colleague. He was blessed with an enormous amount of energy. To put it in a straightforward manner, he was a force of nature. The German lexeme “Wucht” expresses this, as I find, onomatopoetically. The first characteristic that struck one about Herbert Grabes then was his seeming agelessness. He was not just a “best ager” as is increasingly becoming the norm. He was a non-ager. Hence, it was quite difficult to believe that he had (officially) retired in 2004, since he continued to teach with great spirit up until his death, or that “seventy-nine years of age,” as he was at the time of his death, had anything remotely to do with his person. Three weeks before his death, I ran into Herbert in the hall of the English department, and he greeted me with the usual mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He had the habitus of a thirty-year-old man rather of one more than twice that age. As usual, he had a friendly greeting on his lips, a joke to impart, and an ironic commentary about some pesky bit of departmental business, all of which he delivered in his sonorous bass voice.

Herbert Grabes’s erudition and scope of knowledge were enormous. His research was intrinsically interdisciplinary long before this had gained general acceptance and then became a gold standard in the humanities. He could as easily hold a spontaneous lecture about the development of the English essay as he could about developments in contemporary American drama. He was generous with his knowledge. Up until his death he held popular seminars for students, was ready to mentor international PhDs in Giessen and to serve on PhD committees. None of this is typical of a retired professor.

He was also a passionate fighter for the projects he believed in. He was central in developing and extending the scope of The European Society for the Study of English as well as its scholarly journal, the European Journal of English Studies (EJES). Both vehicles were formed with the intention of extending a democratic Europe, in which an exchange between scholars and students working on topics related to English studies could be encouraged and dialogue enhanced.

The original editors of EJES have been kind enough to share the following recollections with me. Catherine Belsey recalls him fondly, remembering his efforts to ease tensions gracefully as well as his humor and international scope. As she writes:

I shall miss Herbert Grabes. We were joint founding editors of EJES with Jean-Jacques Lecercle and I have never been part of a happier team. I didn’t initially want to take on the editorial role but I was won over completely when I met my co-editors-designate in 1993 over lunch in Bordeaux. Our editorial meetings were a joy. Herbert was good company: highly intelligent, well-informed and witty. He was fully aware of the latest developments in our field, if properly sceptical about some of them. And he enjoyed abstract thought and theoretical debate. There was generally some discussion between us but our rare disagreements usually dissolved in laughter.

The journal, when it finally materialized in 1997, was not without its teething troubles. But Herbert was a tower of strength. As an intellectual of a genuinely independent kind, he was able to be flexible but also to face minor obstacles with equanimity. That the journal survived and went on to flourish is in part thanks to groundwork laid by Herbert Grabes. EJES and ESSE owe him a debt of gratitude.

Jean-Jacques Lecercle writes that: “I shall never forget the twinkle in his eye and his mischievous chuckle. Working with him – and we did quite a lot of work, Kate Belsey, Herbert and I, to put EJES on the rails – was an unmitigated pleasure. He was immensely knowledgeable, he was rigorous, he was reliable, and he was kindness itself. So that our business meetings, here, there and everywhere, were not only useful working sessions, but also parties de plaisir. I shall miss him.”

Adolph Haberer writes that:

Et quand en 2001 j’ai hérité de Helmut Bonheim d’une crise extraordinairement compliquée à résoudre à propos d’EJES, qui m’a pris des mois de manœuvres diplomatiques, Grabes m’a soutenu avec beaucoup d’habileté et de gentillesse. J’écrivais le matin de Noël 2000 un projet de lettre avec cette phrase qui dit tout de l’origine du conflit: “The Executive is aware of the past difficulties and misunderstandings between the Board of ESSE and the Editors of EJES. These, they think, were mostly due to the fact that the Editors had been given no notification of the contract signed by SWETS and ESSE on 29 March 1995, while the Board had never been given the contents of the contract signed by SWETS and the Editors on 10 May 1995.” Grabes est venu sur mon invitation à la réunion du Board à Vienne pour expliquer les choses et calmer les ardeurs de certains membres influents du Board.

In Vienna, before that crucial meeting of the Board, we had lunch together, and I found him to be extraordinarily friendly, full of common sense and humour, and ready to cooperate and help me.

The last time I met with him was in Vilnius, in 2006, a few months before my second term as Chair of ESSE. We were both the guests of Regina Rudaityte and of the Lithuanian Association for a conference on “Beyond Postmodernism,” where we both held lectures. Mine was entitled “Intertextuality in Theory and Practice,” and Herbert was kind enough to say that [he] had found it very interesting. This to show you the sort of gentleman he was!

I had the pleasure of witnessing the three original editors of EJES share a bottle of wine together at a conference in Giessen in 2008 and to experience their good cheer and camaraderie.

Moving back to my own recollections, Herbert Grabes told me about his arduous drives through the former German Democratic Republic to visit friends and colleagues in the Eastern Bloc. He described how his presents for them had been confiscated more than once and how aware he was of the many material privileges one had in being a scholar in the West. He believed deeply in the project of creating a strong and democratic Europe. At this post-Brexit moment of this writing, and with an eye on the rise of right-wing populist sentiment throughout Europe, I honor Herbert’s democratic and pro-European political energy extremely highly.

Herbert Grabes was not only full of spit and vinegar for the disciplines of American and English Studies but also for the Department of English at the University of Giessen as well as for the department’s students. Thanks to his initiatives a cafeteria was built in the building where the English Department is housed and a bookstore was opened there. Further, he contributed to the spirit of the department by inviting department members to celebrate Karneval (carnival) in the institute in parties in which the cleaning people, professors and other faculty as well as student researchers all came in costume and danced through the halls. It needs to be said that Herbert Grabes grew up in the Rhineland, which is known for cultivating the happiest and celebration friendliest people in Germany. Before my time, these carnival celebrations were also augmented by Christmas parties with walks through the snow and canoe boat rides on the Lahn river in the summer. A former PhD mentee, Philipp Wolf, reports that Herbert was also great at imitating figures such as the colorful and notoriously polemic literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

Another former mentee, Stefanie Rück, recalls the following bit of fun and playfulness in Herbert Grabes’s role as an academic facilitator:

During a conference he hosted in Giessen, Prof. Grabes took a group of participants and members of his team on a hike up our local hill, the Schiffenberg. Upon entering the beer garden at the top, he suddenly leapt onto a big wooden table and, to a baffled audience, loudly declaimed a poem by Ezra Pound. This, he explained afterwards, was in memory of the latter’s visit to Giessen in 1911 and the frequent excursions Pound made with his host, Ford Madox Hueffer (alias Ford), to that same beer garden.

I now wish to let some of his colleagues and friends speak again about his general generosity and positivity. Hans Ulrich Seeber, professor emeritus at the University of Stuttgart, relates having taken a walk with Herbert Grabes at a conference at Giessen’s Castle Rauischholzhausen during a time in which he was questioning his own work: “He encouraged me to continue with the project on Fascination,” which turned into the major volume Literarische Faszination in England um 1900 (“Literary Fascination in England around 1900,” 2012) and describes him as one of the most motivating persons in English Studies in Germany as well as a lighthouse figure in the field.

Herbert Grabes’s contemporary, K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, a former professor at the Ruhr University of Bochum, the University of Siegen, and Jacobs University Bremen, reported that Herbert was something of a subversive in his efforts to render the official Organization of English Professors (the Anglistenverband) more progressive during the 1980s. It was known for its conservatism at the time, allowing only persons with faculty dissertations (Habilitationen) to attend. With Manfred Pfister und Dietrich Schwanitz, as well as Pfeiffer, Herbert playfully formed what was called the secret C.I.A group (the Club of Intelligent Anglisten), which aimed to reform the organization.

Herbert Grabes’s relationship to his university and his profession was one of chivalry. He served as fierce and passionate knight to the university and to our disciplines. He performed all of his vocations and duties with a youthful and charming conviction up until the end. Perhaps, as he would see it, we his successors do not always fight passionately enough for our common causes. Herbert Grabes models for us a passion for our activities and an enthusiasm for our lives. We shall continue to miss him.

Dr. Greta Olson
Professor of American and English Literary and Cultural Studies
University of Giessen, Germany