Norman Fruman and Academe's Greatest Generation

Steve Balch

Today, academe makes much of “engagement”. Civic education as now reconceived is as much a matter of community activism as classroom instruction.  Norman Fruman, who died yesterday at age 88, plumbed the word “engagement’s” full depth. His first was the Battle of the Bulge.

Norman was of academe’s greatest generation, tireless bootstrappers whose professional ascent was, inch-by-inch, hard earned. A working class kid whose precocity won honors, a young lieutenant holding off the Waffen SS till his ammo ran out, a POW escaping through Bavarian forests, a veteran making ends meet writing story lines for comics, a young American in Paris studying literature at the Sorbonne, Norman wasn’t for a moment unengaged.

GI scholars knew civilization’s worth, having shed blood, before ink, on its behalf. They knew that reality preexists words and can silence them forever. And they knew that the life of the mind was serious business, not a clever game – as much a part of sustaining civilization as was a fire fight with Nazis. Amid the university’s headiness, some may have eventually let these remembrances slip. Never Norman.

Norman carried the weight of his indelible experiences with seeming lightness. His was good humored charm and affable modesty. But he didn’t take lightly assaults on scholarship’s trust, on its call to do justice to truth, or on its civilizing mission. His major work, that first made his name, Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel, mined unpublished papers to reveal Coleridge as a chronic liar and plagiarist. The revelations were unexpected and shocking, but Norman faithfully followed the documentary trail, producing a book that, after much controversy, established a new understanding about a great but flawed artist. Upsetting the applecarts of literary criticism may not be quite as hazardous to a neophyte scholar as taking on panzers is for a green lieutenant, but Norman did both with characteristic fidelity to mission.

In the wake of his scholarly masterwork, the University of Minnesota, then home to a matchless humanities program, recruited Norman as one of its rising stars. Born of a zeal for civilization that flourished in American academe during its early post-war decades, the program ultimately became a tempting target for younger scholars intent on talking civilization away. Norman rose to its defense, and the defense of all that it stood for.

One of the NAS’s earliest Midwest members, Norman, in 1989, cofounded the Minnesota Association of Scholars, the NAS’s premier state affiliate. Under his presidency the MAS was a hive of activity, at the center of many struggles for academic freedom and academic standards, especially at the main UM campus where issues emerged in heated succession – most memorably, a scandalous attempt to frame the entire Scandinavian Studies Department with contrived charges of sexual harassment. What probably most exercised Norman was the replacement of merit hiring with ideological profiling, a decade-and-a-half, as he remembered it sometime in the early nineties, when not a single straight white male was offered a tenure track appointment in English. The MAS was such a success that when the NAS held its first national conference outside New York, the Twin Cities played host. In 2002 Norman, and MAS co-founder Jerry Reedy, received the NAS’s Barry Gross Memorial Award for organizational leadership.

Norman was also one of the founding fathers of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, established in 1994. The ALS&C (now the ALSC&W, having latterly brought “writers” under its umbrella), was established to halt the degeneration of literary studies into ersatz sociology, epistemology, and mock-revolutionary polemic. At its first conference, also held in the Twin Cities, Norman presided over an especially poignant round table on the death of UM’s great humanities department, whose bell tolled for much else besides.

Even retired in beautiful Laguna Beach, surrounded by children and grandchildren, and Doris, his loving wife of fifty-four years, Norman never quitted making civilization’s case, be it in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement or those of our own quarterly Academic Questions. Until the year before his death, he continued to serve as a member of our board of directors, one of its most senior, jetting across country to our east coast meetings far into his eighties.

Norman, and most of the other members of his great generation, came to academe rooted in life’s realities. Theirs was never the luxury of floating airily above them. Their minds were elevated but their feet were pavement bound. Even for those whose politics were radical, as with many an old-time Marxist, there was a certain grit that could steady their intellectual sights. In the soot of immigrant slums, the sod of scattered farmsteads, the dust of rural Main Streets, they were baptized into the church of realism and common sense. It enabled the lucky among them to survive the hellfire of World War II. And as survivors they brought an indispensible maturity into academe.

Norman was one of the best and most courageous among them. His passing is an irreplaceable loss. 

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