Charles Isenberg, 1944-97
His students will remember him fondly. Robert H. Martin '91, a Russian major, wrote on hearing of his death that "He had a gentle presence and was an anchor in the Russian department and in the lives of many of his students. Chuck's kindness was not one of random acts. It was deliberate, quiet, and entirely organic to him." One of Martin's fellow graduates in Russian told him that, in reflection, Chuck's even temper gave her the space--but also the support--she needed during the difficult parts of writing a thesis and enduring the myriad dramas of a senior year.
Isenberg's survivors include his wife, Rhea Paul, and their children, Willy, Marty, and Aviva. Isenberg and Paul set up the Charles Isenberg Memorial Fund at Reed, which will be used to establish a library of Russian and international films.
Lena Lencek, Isenberg's colleague in the Russian department, read the following resolution at the December 15 faculty meeting.
In 1987, two years after joining the faculty at Reed College, Professor Charles ("Chuck") Isenberg published a groundbreaking study of the artistic prose of Russian Acmeist poet Osip Mandelstam under the title Substantial Proofs of Being: Osip Mandelstam's Literary Prose (Slavica Publishers, 1987). During his 12 years at Reed, Chuck, in his own right, gave us ample and substantial proofs of his own exemplary being: as scholar, teacher, colleague, and friend.
Trained at Columbia University and at Harvard University, Chuck received a M.A. in Soviet studies and a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature. His research, supported by such scholarly institutions as the International Research and Exchanges Board, the Alex Manoogian Cultural Fund Grant, and the NEH Fellowship for College Teachers and Independent Scholars, was distinguished by an inexhaustible knowledge of Slavic philology. His understanding of Russian literature grew on a broad foundation of European humanities, was rooted in a thorough grasp of Russian and Soviet social and cultural history, and was informed by a judicious deployment of theoretical strategies that was never doctrinaire or formulaic.
Chuck's scholarship yielded two books--Substantial Proofs of Being: Osip Mandelstam's Literary Prose and Telling Silence: Russian Frame Narratives of Renunciation (Northwestern University Press, 1994), as well as numerous reviews, and articles and papers across a span of disciplines and on topics ranging from Theocritus' Third Idyll to Dante in Russian literature. From 1994 until his death, he was editor of the Tolstoy Studies Journal, producing--with the support of the Reed College dean's fund--two remarkably curated collections of essays.
At the time of his death, Chuck was at work on two major projects, both an outgrowth of his teaching at Reed: the first, a study of Soviet camp literature, specifically, the memoirs of survivors of Stalin's labor camps; and the second, an investigation of the genre of the novel-chronicle, which he described as "meditations on history, cast as epistemological dramas, in which a traditional community attempts to accommodate the unprecedented to its inherited worldview."
Throughout his academic career--as a teaching assistant at Harvard, assistant professor at Wesleyan, and professor of Russian and humanities at Reed--the symbiosis between Chuck's scholarship and teaching--not to mention his deepest, most personal interests--was exemplary. He was drawn to Osip Mandelstam because he shared with the Russian modernist a profound conviction that language, freedom, and the humanistic tradition are vitally interrelated. His second book arose from an abiding interest in narrative, in exploring the answers to the questions why, how, and to whom we tell stories.
At Reed, Chuck taught a broad spectrum of courses in the Russian department--from introductory language and surveys of Russian prose, to specialized seminars on Tolstoy and Repin, on Stalinism, and on representations of the city in the Russian tradition. He pioneered a course on postcommunist Russia--which has since come to serve as a model at other undergraduate institutions--and the seminar on the novel chronicle and introduced courses on Russian film and the Russian short story. During the years of his participation in modern humanities, the course was especially enriched by his humanist background and his extraordinary skill in establishing connections and in providing an active demonstration of intellectual curiosity at work. He directed dozens of senior theses to successful completion and helped students with generous advice, guidance, and personal contacts in their research, writing, and formulating career objectives. In 1988, the college recognized his excellence in teaching and research by awarding him the Burlington Northern Foundation faculty achievement award.
Chuck's commitment to the academic life extended to institutional and professional service. At Reed, he served on numerous committees, giving unstintingly of his time and attention to matters departmental, divisional, and college-wide. Enjoying the respect and trust of his colleagues, he was elected to serve on both the Committee on Policy and Planning and on the Committee on Advancement and Tenure. Affiliated with numerous professional organizations at home and abroad, Chuck not only held various official posts, but also took initiative in organizing aid for and personally assisting indigent Russian scholars in the aftermath of the collapse of communism.
On December 4, Chuck Isenberg succumbed to the cancer with which he was diagnosed just 14 months ago. We grieve the loss of an intellectual cut in the mode of the Russian intelligentsia he so much admired and that so inspired him. Passionate, morally serious, critical, idealistic, and above all, kind, he believed in scholarship and teaching as the highest calling, and in his work at Reed College as central to this belief. Please join me in celebrating the memory and achievement of this remarkable scholar, unforgettable teacher, beloved colleague, and rare human being. We thank you for your substantial proofs of being, and miss you.