Interview: Prof. Karl Kroeber
Written by Bwog Staff
Professor Karl Kroeber is restless of mind, the sort of academic who likes pioneering new fields and then abandoning them. The loquacious and sagacious fellow, brother to Ursula Kroeber Le Guin [see right], currently teaches the ever-popular children’s lit course. He talked to us about growing up, “the business of imagining,” why he hates Disney, coming to terms with cancer, the Navy, and just about everything else.
BW: You keep your robes on your coat-rack?
Kroeber: You never know when I might have to rush out and prove I’m an academic.
Can you tell us how you ended up here?
My father… was an academic in the 19th century. And I came to Columbia- I grew up in California- at the end of the second war. I was in the Navy.
I was [also] a radio announcer; I came to New York, went to a little school and got a job out in Iowa. I got pretty good at it, and I came back to New York because this is where you had to go (this is about ’49-’50). I got into an interesting situation, a very lucky situation. Being a radio announcer is not hard work; it’s very easy if you’re glib like I am and have a California accent and most of the people [in the business] are drunks and I could go ahead… But, I said, “there’s nothing in this life for me.”
Congratulations on the semi-centennial of your PhD. [This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kroeber’s doctorate.]
(Laughs) I’ve been around a long time. I had a job out in Wisconsin, at Madison, for 15 years. Lovely place, swell place to bring up kids and all that. We had a beautiful house in Madison. Next to [University of California at] Berkeley, it was the place that had the most trouble in the 60s. This was a school that admitted four thousand freshmen a year and they eliminated freshman composition. You couldn’t teach there. I had to come back here, and I had three kids. We didn’t want to live in the suburbs. My wife’s a sculptor- you can’t sculpt in an apartment. We bought a brownstone in Brooklyn for a few thousand dollars. Best investment I think I ever made.
When I got here, the English graduate department had a thousand students- that was the GI Bill racket. They let ’em in by the droves. It took you two or three years to get within sort of speaking or shouting distance of the professors [because there were] hundreds of students per class. At the time, there were under three thousand undergraduates. I taught my [undergraduate] section and Lionel Trilling was in a classroom on one side of me, and Moses Hadas in the other. And that makes it very competitive.
You ever see the movie that Robert Redford made, Quiz Show? Paul Scofield plays [famed Columbia professor and poet] Mark van Doren. My wife knew him very well, and I knew him. It was weird—Scofield played him, and he had him down absolutely cold.
Do you think the competition was a good thing?
It was in that case. We were treated with absolute respect by [the faculty heads]. The whole attitude was one of: Ok, you’re one of us. At that time, of course, there were only boys. Everyone wore a tie except a few freakish radicals and we called everyone “mister.”
The best prepared kids tended to be some of the kids from the Jewish schools, but more than that there were about 30 Catholic schools in the area, damn good schools, and these kids had a good education. Kids would come in looking fresh and bright, aged 17, and at the end of the semester they would look haggard.
One of the things I can never convince students of is: I think a good class is one in which I learn something. Socrates is right: the wisdom is out in [the students]… That’s why I’ve gone on way over in age on this. Also, when you get old, most people my age have very little contact with young people; I mean, I’m just enormously lucky.
How did you get into American Indian literature?
I picked up a book of American Indian Poems. It was published by a group called ASAIL (Association for the Study of American Indian Literature). This was created in the time of Wounded Knee, so it was very violent in meaning. “Assail.” There were people trying to build up a Native American Literature. There was nothing at all, and as I found out it was impossible to get a Native American published. They had a journal, and they wanted me to edit it, partly because I was at Columbia and that seemed good. Actually, it wasn’t. They never gave me an inch of support- quite the contrary actually- but the name was good.
Partly, I’m restless. I do something, I open up a field and then let other people go in there. One of my fields was especially Romantic poetry. I was the first person to use the word “ecological” about those poets, to push the idea of ecological poetry. I had a book published about ten years ago [Ecological Literary Criticism] but once I said it I moved onto other stuff.
I published a book last year on film in literature, because what I’m interested in there is the business of imagining. I think if you go back to my books, what I’m really interested in is imagining. Nobody is interested in imagining in criticism. People have a lot of misconceptions about imagining. Children are not imaginative; this is a myth. They have no imaginations at all, and I can prove it. No child has produced any imaginative work of any merit at all. I’ve got some very good psychologists on my side on this one. You don’t need imagination; the real world is exciting; imagination is something that doesn’t really develop until you’re an adult.
If you’re a real adult, you realize there’s something to be learned from children, not imposed on them… This is what Wordsworth and Blake were talking about. If you have the understanding and the courage to regress, then there’s something in your immature life that’s valuable to you. Michelangelo, Titian… well, Wordsworth didn’t last, but you can be as powerful at the end of your life as at the beginning.
Why do you hate Disney?
Fundamentally, children can go on and do things, but they’re always being controlled by adults, and with it goes this awful sentimentality which is a falsification. In some of the early [Disney] stuff, there was some skilful art.
Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article about Mickey Mouse. Trace the original Mickey Mouse from the 1920s when he was this tricky, rascally figure, right down to this bland, consumer-advocate. These people, they’re not sympathetic to the children learning.
They’re evil. If you want animated things, I’d take Miyazaki over Disney any time. Like Totoro.
What do you think makes for good children’s literature?
Good children’s literature is something that a child can enjoy, but an adult can too. All the good literature is of that kind.
How does this inform your teaching?
The other side of it, what goes with [my opinion of] Disney, is [my reaction to] this grade-level business, this idea that you must not write a book for a 7-year-old that includes words a 7-year-old might not understand. This is how you encourage dumbing down.
The one kind of person I never have a chance to meet is an innocent person. You people come at 17, 18, corrupted beyond belief and I spend most of my time breaking down these things keeping you from being a good person.
Are you aware you have a fan-club on the Facebook?
I didn’t know that…Well, it’s all a matter of taste, I suppose. I know about that other thing, the student website- CULPA. I’ve never wanted to go there because I think I can judge my teaching better than anyone.
Can we talk about your illness?
My thing is ok for the moment, but my wife is very sick.
You get cancer, and one of the things I discovered is people don’t like to talk about it. It’s as if you were infectious or something. I don’t want to keep it secret [because] in the first place you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m on chemotherapy, and it’s chemotherapy that worries me the most.
The difference between this and the other diseases I’ve ever had is, these other things attack you from the outside, and this is the thing that’s been protecting you turning against you. What I don’t like, this business about “fighting cancer.” You can hope, but there’s not a whole lot you can do.
I guess what’s interesting about all this, I had never really confronted death. Death sucks. Life is really what counts, so you just do what you can. It’s made me feel that teaching is a real good thing to do and I hope I can keep it up…Just the simple business of being alive. It’s such an interesting world. Not everything is pleasant. We’ve got a terrible president and an awful mess, but it’s a fascinating world.
I suppose there’s a sort of element of desperation in it. I’m 80 now, and I’ve had a long life, and it’s probably easier in me than in a younger person. You start deteriorating. I can’t concentrate as long, things go out of my mind, you’re aware of decay of the body. I think in a younger person it would be more shocking and horrible, but you’re aware that you’re not going to be around forever. I don’t think much about it , I try to think- it’s not trying… I do think about the things I’d like to do.
I’m more concerned about my wife, it’s one of those undiagnosed things, and for all these years she’s the one that’s been making my life possible. She spent twenty years as a housewife, and a sculptor, quite a good one. When she’s not able to function, that’s bad. I don’t cook well. I eat well.
Do you have any ‘guilty’ or ‘sinful’ pleasures–candy, sports, trashy literature?
(Brightening up at the mention of trash literature) I want to write something about trash literature, which isn’t trash. People you probably don’t know…C.S. Forester… There are a whole bunch of these lower-class people that are really very good–and by that I mean I like them. I don’t particularly like detective stories. And science fiction, I’ve read a lot of that; a lot of that is crap, not in the family of course [sister= Ursula K. Le Guin].
Sinful? My father’s generation, from the Depression, [were] hard-drinking people and I started early. I once mentioned this in class and the kids were nice enough to bring [booze] in. Much better than an apple.
I do like to eat. Things like good cheeses.
I’ve always been a sports fan, and what’s happened to the New York Giants makes me feel like I took up the wrong avocation.
I was always a Yankee fan. they grew up in the Bay area, too–Joe Dimaggio, Lefty Gomez, so I always rooted for them. I’ve a rather dull life.
What about your time in the Navy?
Nothing important. I volunteered. The Navy took me and sent me to officer training school, and before I got out of that the war was over. I never did anything interesting, never got out of the state. But it was an exceedingly interesting experience for me and I think, guys like you, it would be good for you.
But it was really good for me, and I think a lot of young guys, this kind of thing can be a very valuable experience. It can be a bad experience too. But it wasn’t that experience, it was being in the second world war. You people have no idea what it’s like being in a country where everyone is thinking the same thing, doing the same thing.
Super-patriotism can be an awful kind of thing, but real patriotism can be a good thing, and it makes this crap that you have with Bush and these people a fake…but maybe that’s a story for another time.
-Adam Katz and Josh Schwartz