Faculty News

In memoriam: Tom Van Laan (1931 - 2017)

Thomas F. Van Laan Picture

Dear Colleagues,

On November 5, 2017, our former colleague and chair Thomas F. Van Laan died in San Diego, CA. He was 86. Tom taught in the Department of English at Rutgers for thirty-five years, arriving soon after earning his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1961. He was Chair from 1983 to 1989.

Tom's career details were supplied by his familty to the New York Times. Here is a redacted version:

Tom’s many publications and activities reflect his accomplishments in his fields of specialization: Ibsen, Shakespeare, Tragedy, Modern Drama, and World Drama. The Idiom of Drama (1970) and Role-Playing in Shakespeare (1978) were solid and important studies. Tom’s greatest passion was for the works of Henrik Ibsen, and he dedicated himself to this pursuit from the 1980s until the end of his life. He taught himself Norwegian so he could study and translate Ibsen's plays in their original language and he traveled often to Norway, a country he loved. He published and lectured widely on Ibsen and was active in the Ibsen Society of America, where he served as an officer. In 1992, he was invited to study at Norway's Center for Advanced Study in Oslo. In 1997, he was inducted as a member of the prestigious Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

In 1992, Tom published Catiline and The Burial Mound by Henrik Ibsen. "At long last Ibsen is getting the treatment he deserves!” wrote one reviewer. “Van Laan ... has given us the most comprehensive study of Catiline and The Burial Mound to be found in any language." His final book in 2014 and the one he was most proud of was Henrik Ibsen's The Stuff of Kings: A new translation of The Pretenders. This is the only English-language translation of a little-known Ibsen masterpiece, along with full commentary and suggestions for staging the play.

The full obituary is online, where you can also sign the guest book:


Here are a few words from Cheryl Wall:

"When I think of Tom I remember his leadership in the fight for a reduced teaching load and his efforts to replenish the faculty in advance of the wave of retirements that occurred during the 1990s. In 1989 he appointed me Director of Undergraduate Studies, which put me on the path to become Department Chair. He saw in me qualities that I had not seen in myself. He was an accomplished scholar, an effective leader, and a wise and witty man."

And from Elin Diamond:

"Tom was smart and dour, wry and fair-minded and for these reasons (and no doubt others we never knew about) he was an excellent and respected chair. He hired Billy, Abe, Sandy, Harriet, Bruce Robbins and me, and saw us all through tenure. Our hires were part of a long transition in the department and Tom protected us, I think, from some of the problems such transitions generate. Tom and I shared and debated issues in our field. I appreciated The Idiom of Drama and he liked my first book on Pinter. He didn’t approve of my take on Ibsen but said so tactfully. About feminism he kept his own counsel. Roz McInerney, the chair’s AA at the time, adored him and on the occasion of his retirement, at his last department meeting, I distributed little glasses of his favorite Scotch and recited a silly speech in phonetic Norwegian while Roz held up big signs providing the English translation. Then we all toasted him...Scotch at 11 in the morning: lots of laughter. Tom was beet-red through it all and later corrected my pronunciation. He was a wonderful colleague, friend, and (though he never insisted) mentor. Barry Qualls tells me that he enjoyed his life in San Diego. I’m glad his retirement years were sweet and so richly productive."