Presidential Lecture Series
spacer spacer MARJORIE GARBER


Marjorie Garber
used with permission.

Marjorie Garber

Whether treating obviously large topics, like Shakespeare or bisexuality, or those odd and unexpectedly fascinating bits of cultural history, such as the Jell-O box used as manufactured evidence in the Rosenberg conspiracy trial of the 1940s, Marjorie Garber delights in drawing our attention to the uncanny (one of her favorite words) connections that weave us into the web of our culture. Her methods and means of scholarship -- not always easy to distinguish from one another -- likewise range from philology to Freud, from puns to pundits, from the inexplicable alogic of the dream to the clear-thinking, quick-witted deductive/detective work of the traditional literary scholar.

Garber is, of course, not universally appreciated: included in the present collection of reviews of her work are a fair number of detractors, most of whom take issue not so much with her radical reconsiderations of ideas important in our culture (again: Shakespeare, sexual orientation, et al.), but rather with her... wordplay! These commentators, while not universally humorless, nonetheless somehow cannot get past her point that, in many moments of cultural criticism, the play's the thing. When discussing Shakespeare authorship scholars John Thomas Looney or George M. Battey, for instance, the most adventurous commentators (which the most humor-challenged simply ignore) have found their surnames "unfortunate." But Garber (with a persistent twinkle in her "I"?) finds these names very fortunate indeed, for they are not only funny, they also provide at least a hook onto which to hang her hypothesis, and more often a deeply significant (deep as the Freudian subconscious) moment of recognition in the interpretation of the dream that is culture. This is perhaps the entire point of her remarkable collection Symptoms of Culture: in cultural criticism, everything is fair game, to be both hunted down and played with. Many of Garber's anti-pundits could probably have been ignored in collecting these few samples of commentary, but the trend toward this complaint is so widespread (and for me so short-sighted!) that it seemed to deserve some representation. Garber's work stands on it own against these petty darts.

For the sake of history, let us mention the stuff that can be read on the paperback cover or book jacket of any of Garber's works: She is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English, and Director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard University. (Even here, though, let us note, in this strikingly high-brow setting of Garber's titles and affiliations, she presents herself as somehow apart. The Harvard English Department has a webpage of faculty photographs: amid this set of mug shots of professors, many famous [and predictably, mostly male and mostly white -- but that's far from the point here!] Garber's portrait stands out: she is shown from head to toe, seated, with two canine companions! No genre seems too remote, insignificant, or bureaucratic to tweak for extra meaning...)

Garber's first books, mostly from the 1980s, though markedly fresh in their anthropological and cultural-historical perspective, were on that most canonical of subjects, Shakespeare. She soon ventured into the less-trodden border territories of cultural history of cross-dressing, and then ventured boldly into the different (though related) land of queer theory with a major study on bisexuality.

But the mundane, the trivial, and the bureaucratic soon moved more to center of Garber's stage, in her Symptoms of Culture. Still, though she takes here as her texts such unpredictable phenomena as Bedtime for Bonzo, the Promise Makers, and Roman numerals, these studies reveal the continuing importance of the "great" texts (after reading her essay on Greatness the "quotes" are essential!) in contemporary cultural life, in the history of the present.

One reviewer of Garber's 1995 book Vice Versa, attempting to imagine the most far-fetched of Garber's Next Steps, off-handedly claims to see the future Garber "at her kitchen table... itching to get at the root" of some impending breakdown of the long-canonical human-animal boundary. Little did she know (or did she know perfectly well?) that Garber would, in fact, soon write Dog Love, an encyclopedic, witty, scholarly, no-holds-barred (yes, even a chapter on "Sex and the Single Dog"!) exploration of canine-human relations. Far from unexpected, yet somehow still surprising (uncanny, even?), with this work Garber reveals both her high seriousness and unceasing desire to play with (and across) boundaries, to embrace all of human culture, even its extra-human (but again, this claim is short-sighted) aspects.

What next? One can only hope for much more of the same from Marjorie Garber. Or vice versa.

By Glen Worthey gworthey@Stanford.EDU

(c)2000, Stanford University


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