Professor George L. Levine already has plans for after his retirement. “There are three things in my life, outside of family and outside of academia, that have obsessed me over the past few years,” he says. “One is birding, one is the Italian language and Italy, and one is writing.” After he retires, Professor Levine explains, “those three passions are going to keep me busy.”
Having plenty of time for his enthusiasms will be a welcome change for Professor Levine. He has been at Rutgers since 1968, when he was hired to chair, and set-up, the English Department at Livingston College, which first opened to students in 1969. When the separate departments merged in 1981, he became the first chair of Rutgers English for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In addition, he became the successor as chair of CSPAD, a committee founded by Professor Daniel Gorenstein to evaluate and assist in the improvement of all graduate programs at Rutgers. For three years, he was the Associate Provost for the Humanities in New Brunswick. In 1986, he became co-founder and Director of the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture (now renamed as CCA, the Center for Cultural Analysis), an ambitious project that focuses on making intellectual connections, especially between the humanities and the sciences.
Although Professor Levine’s primary scholarly interest has always been in Victorian literature and culture, his work has also been consistently interdisciplinary. He is a well-known scholar of literature and science, with a particular focus on the work of Charles Darwin and its impact on nineteenth-century culture. It was a surprising focus for his work, even for him. “My major interest when I went to graduate school was poetry,” he says, “yet the natural development of my work kept pushing me to think about the relations between science and humanistic study.” Although he considers himself first and foremost to be a literary critic, “I kept thinking, way back then, that literary critics were being too dismissive of science as a way of knowing the world. The biggest irony is that though I am fascinated by science and its achievements, I’m very unscientific myself.”
After getting a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, Professor Levine spent two years in the army, and at the time of his discharge had a tough time deciding what to do next. “I discovered when I came out that I hadn’t had to make a single decision for two years,” he jokes. The army, which had seemed so tough as he lived it, turned out to be easier than civilian life. But his interest in writing and reading led him back to Minnesota for his doctorate, where he and fellow graduate students soon began publishing their own journal. “What we were trying to do,” he says, “was inject the study of literature with a sense of moral passion, which we thought was lacking in the institution at the time.” He credits his fellow student John Fraser for guiding the group toward a “more socially conscious, engaged form of criticism. This became an important intellectual influence on all my future work, and on my life.”
In 1959, Professor Levine earned his Ph.D., and left Minnesota to teach at Indiana University, which had a strong program in Victorian literature. There he immediately joined the founders of Victorian Studies, the influential journal that helped create the modern movement of interdisciplinary study of nineteenth-century literature and culture. By that time, after completing his dissertation on George Eliot, he had moved away from his initial primary interest in poetry, and toward the study of the novel and of nonfiction. After extensive research in England, Professor Levine put together a collection of materials called The Emergence of Victorian Consciousness, and co-edited a collection of essays, with William Madden, called The Art of Victorian Prose.
This pursuit culminated in his influential first book, The Boundaries of Fiction, which looks at the works of great Victorian essayists Carlyle, Macaulay, and Newman. After coming to Rutgers, he concentrated on teaching at Livingston and chairing the department for more than ten years, but continued to publish important articles on Victorian literature and culture. In 1981, Professor Levine published his second full book of criticism, The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley. This study became central to discussions of Victorian fiction, and solidified his reputation as one of the pre-eminent Victorianists in the world.
Ideas that arose in the writing of his first two books then pushed Levine to a full and careful reading of Charles Darwin’s writing. His next book, Darwin and the Novelists, examined how scientific thought – particularly Darwin’s – helped shape the ways writers could imagine character and society, but also the ways scientific thought could be recognized as a deeply imaginative enterprise. That book brought together all the various strands of his earlier work, on science, fiction, and nonfiction. Since then, Professor Levine has found in Darwin’s writings an ongoing source of scholarly inspiration.
His most recent book, Dying to Know, further explores Victorian ideals of science and knowledge, and puts them in the context both of narrative and of contemporary philosophical debates about whether objectivity is actually possible. He has also written the introduction to the reissue of Darwin’s seminal work, The Origin of Species. His next book, due out in September, will be the provocative Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World. In it, Professor Levine argues that “faith” in evolution is not the same as pessimism, and that a fresh and literary reading of Darwin’s writings can lead us back to the feeling of enchantment with the natural world that many twentieth-century theorists argue has been lost because of the dominance of science.
Professor Levine’s own sense of enchantment with the world is especially evident when he writes about birds. Lifebirds, his essayistic memoir, describes how his passion for seeking out and identifying different species of birds connects with the other meaningful parts of his life. He has recently completed The Masked Duck: Reflections on Life and the Experience of Birding, another collection of autobiographical essays. “Birding is a big part of my life,” he says, “and I suspect I’ll find ways to enjoy it, and write about it, no matter what else I’m doing.”
After years of dedication to Rutgers, to the English Department, and to the CCA, Professor Levine is not worried that retirement will mean the end of his working career. “I’ve got writing commitments that will keep me busy for quite a while,” he says, and he has already planned a tour of Italian universities for next spring. “I’m going to go give lectures in various places,” he says. “I can combine learning more about the Italian language with my scholarship. And if I can bring some birding into it, well, that would be good too.”
George Levine will be greatly missed here at Rutgers. We wish him buona fortuna and buon viaggio.
The Center for Cultural Analysis
More about Darwin Loves You
An introduction to birding