When Harry Berger Jr. first stepped onto the Yale campus as a 16-year old student, he knew he wanted to write. Young at heart, he got his start writing passages in the Yale Record, the college’s humor magazine, but his passion for the written word would carry him through his long career as a lecturer and critical writer.
Founding faculty member and professor emeritus of literature and art history Harry Berger passed away at age 96 on Mar. 12. He taught for nearly 30 years at UC Santa Cruz and spent another 27 years following his retirement writing roughly ten books on topics ranging from Dutch paintings to Plato’s Republic to Shakespeare.
In his lifetime of learning and educating, Berger was accepted as a fellow to universities including NYU and Princeton. He also accepted honors such as the International Spenser Society Lifetime Award and the E.H. Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Berger received his doctorate in English from Yale after taking a break from his education to serve in the Marines from 1943 to 1946 and continued teaching there throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s. During his years of teaching, Berger met undergraduate Marshall Leicester, whom he would later hire to teach alongside him at UCSC.
“Harry would listen to anybody who he thought was thinking productively,” Leicester said. “He didn’t have much of a sense of hierarchy because he was more interested in thinking about things and getting them right, than he was about who was doing [the thinking].”
Leicester and Berger met just before Berger moved to California to start teaching at UCSC in 1965. UCSC was still a new and experimental college campus introducing concepts like narrative grading, where he would be instrumental in creating Cowell College and the English department.
During his time at UCSC, Berger was a professor in the humanities and arts departments and taught the Cowell Core course, which at the time required six quarters of classes. Current Cowell Provost Alan Christy said that working with the same faculty member for nearly two years left a profound impact on Berger’s students.
“He was an incredibly dedicated teacher,” Christy said. “So it was in the give and take in the classroom of students that he found his inspiration, both for his profession, but also for the articles he was writing at the time and the books that he would eventually write.”
One of the many students Berger taught over his years of teaching was Lawrence Weschler, who graduated from Cowell in 1974. He went on to become a writer for The New Yorker and teach at institutions like NYU and Princeton University.
Weschler wrote on his website “Harry Berger, Jr., Some Thoughts on his Passing” to remember, honor, and pay tribute to a professor who left a lasting impact on his life and time at UCSC.
“One of the things that Harry taught at the very first class, and that whole first semester, was we didn’t know how to read and the fact that you could decipher letters that make them into sounds and so forth, was not reading,” Weschler said. “And that was thrilling. I mean, that was really thrilling to have that.”
Throughout his piece, Weschler points out Berger’s ageless wit and brings about the conclusion that it is never too late to get to know Berger because he left behind his spirit and his best qualities in his work and in the lives of those he knew and educated.
“Aye, how we are going to miss him,” Weschler wrote. “But then again not, since he remains so vitally present — that voice, the ever-penetrating insights, those gleams, that laugh — in the volumes he left us.”
To view the online memorial for Harry Berger, click here.