Frederick Crews Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Criticism and the Empirical Attitude: Conversation with Frederick Crews, Professor Emeritus of English, UC Berkeley; 8/24/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Professor Crews, welcome back to Berkeley.

Glad to be with you.

I welcome you back since you're emeritus. Where were you born?

Philadelphia, suburban Philadelphia. Neither the Main Line nor downtown.

And what were the major influences in your younger years? To what extent did your parents influence you?

Oh, I think they influenced me tremendously. They were both readers. They had both been raised in considerable poverty, and books had been extremely important to them personally, in shaping them. My mother was very literary; my father was very scientific. I feel that I got a little something of both sides.

And what sort of books did you read as a young person that you can recall today?

Well, if you go all the way back, I read about nothing but sports when I was 11 or 12 years old. I used to read the same book over and over. It was good enough for me. It was called Blocking Back. And I remember my horror when, at the age of about 35, I discovered that the initials in the name of the author of Blocking Back disguised a female author.

What about important mentors? Before you moved on to college, did you have any important mentors that really influenced you or shaped your life?

I had one, and that was my tennis coach in high school who was also my math teacher, who perceived that I had a brain. And this was when I was about a junior. I had been goofing off in high school considerably, trying to amuse my friends to keep them from beating me up. And he thought that I was wasting my time, and he told me so. And, you know, he gave me good intellectual lessons as well as tennis lessons and I'm tremendously grateful to him.

Were you an athlete in high school?

Yes, I was the co-captain of my tennis team. I played tournament tennis in high school, but I could never even make a high school team if I had to do it all over again today -- the quality of tennis is so much better.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

At Yale.

And what about your studies there? Was it in English?

It was in English, although ... this was 1955 when I graduated from Yale. I entered, for the first two years, something called the "Directed Studies program," which required us to distribute our courses among sciences, social sciences, literature, philosophy, and so on, but with a coordinated faculty. So each of them knew what the other was doing. And it was certainly the greatest experience I'd ever had up until that point, maybe the best ever. To get to college and realize that I could devote myself to ideas and be rewarded for it was to me amazing and wonderful.

Did this complement your childhood in a way? You said your mother was very literate and literary, and your father was a patent attorney.

That's right. You know, I think my parents' influence over me is something that I only gradually realized. For example, when I came to write my dissertation at Princeton (I got my degree there in 1958, Ph.D.), the topic of my dissertation was E. M. Forster. Well, he happened to be a favorite author of my mother's. I'm not sure I ever consciously put that together when I chose Forster, but obviously it was an important factor.

You mentioned that your father had more of a scientific bent and your mother more of a literary one. That seems to be a bifurcation of the two worlds that you engage throughout your career.

My father always hoped I would be a physicist or a mathematician, but he was a good sport, realizing that I didn't have the aptitude. I now regard scientific training, or rather training in scientific thinking, as an essential part of education. And oddly enough, I succeeded in ducking it, to some degree, in my Directed Studies work at Yale, because the courses that we did have to take in science weren't the bread and butter courses. They were humanistically presented. And, in a way, I never really got a full confrontation with scientific reasoning. I had to figure it out for myself much later.

In graduate school you did your degree at Princeton in literature. Any books in particular influence you during that period?

Well, I have to say that when I was an undergraduate at Yale it was in the heyday of the New Criticism, and I was trained in those principles of formalistic analysis. When I went to Princeton, I came up against something called Christian Humanism that dominated the spirit of the English faculty, and it was quite antithetical to New Criticism in various ways. But I found neither of these orientations particularly engaging to me personally. So I found that most of the influences on me that seemed to matter were being brought in from the outside. I remember in particular I was reading writers like Dostoyevski, Nietzsche. I began reading Freud. I thought that the methodology in which I'd been trained was extremely tame and wasn't getting at whatever it was that excited me about literature.

And so you were reading this stuff on the side?

Yes, I was. Of course, an author who was important to me at that time was Nathaniel Hawthorne, and before I got my Ph.D. I published a paper on one of Hawthorne's novels. Then later, when I was out here for a while and I published a couple of other books, I went back to Hawthorne. And it was Hawthorne that drew me very close to Freud, because it struck me at the time that Hawthorne and Freud had an uncanny likeness of outlook. And I still think they do. But the key inference that I drew in the early 1960s was that the resemblance between Hawthorne and Freud could only be explained by the fact that Freud was onto a correct way of looking at human psychology. That sent me off in a direction that I repented of, have been repenting of, for a long time. And much later it occurred to me that Hawthorne and Freud resembled one another because they were both part of the same broad historical movement, namely Romanticism, with its introspection, its sense of the divided self, secrets that one hides from one's self and others, and so forth.

And this notion of the closet Romantic, both in yourself and in many of your colleagues in the English department in the later struggles, is a theme that appears again and again in your work.

Yes.

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