Remembering Professor Arthur Geffen

The Brooklyn-born American literature scholar was a generous colleague, dedicated teacher, and storyteller par excellence
Head and shoulders of person with bald head and light skin, smiling and wearing a brown hooded jacket

Professor Emeritus Arthur Geffen died in Minneapolis on December 28 at age 91, after a brief hospitalization. An English faculty member from 1968 to his retirement in 2000, Geffen was known for his “inexhaustible” kindness, sense of humor, and enthusiasm for learning. “Art was the best of colleagues,” says Professor John Watkins. “I joined the department when he was Associate Chair. He was always there at the counter of the main office, and always smiling. He was phenomenally well read, and always ready with advice about teaching or simply living.”

“Art had one of the offices near mine in the basement of Lind during my early years at the 'U,'” recalls Regents Professor Julie Schumacher, “and his kindness and conversation made that grim little corridor a welcoming place. He loved to stop in his colleagues' open doorways and talk about what they were reading, and what he was reading. Talking to colleagues, for Art, was not a distraction from the work we were supposed to be doing; it was part of the work of being a department.”

Professor Ellen Messer-Davidow once admitted to Geffen that she was terrified to speak at an upcoming MLA conference forum featuring several literary stars. “He took me to one of the largest lecture halls at the University and rehearsed me on how to present my paper,” she remembers. “It was theater, he said, and he showed me voice techniques and gestures. Art—his knowledge of literature, his wit on all subjects, his kindnesses to colleagues, his dedication to students—glowed.”

Celebrated teacher

Honored with the College of Liberal Arts’ Distinguished Teacher Award in 1984, Professor Geffen was committed to his students’ intellectual growth. “I try to ask good questions—in class, in office conversations, on exams in my comments on papers,” he said in a 1998 interview. “What are good questions? Ones I don’t know the answers to, ones that open things up, ones that force students to think about things differently, perhaps unconventionally, ones that can’t be fully answered immediately but, with some luck, down the road.”

As a scholar of American literature, Geffen was principally interested in nineteenth and twentieth century drama, poetry, and fiction. He regularly taught seminars on Twain, Faulkner, Whitman, as well as courses on Jewish-American fiction, “American Humor,” and “American Sports Literature.” 

“We shared a passion for theater,” says Professor Josephine Lee, CLA Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities. “I especially appreciated our conversations about teaching and how best to pass along the love of the performing arts to our students. When he retired, he gifted me a treasure trove of plays that I have read, taught, and passed along to my students, colleagues, and friends. His kindness and warmth left a lasting impact on how I think about welcoming and mentoring new colleagues and graduate students into CLA today.”

In later years, Professor Geffen taught creative writing as well as literature courses, ultimately serving as part of the Creative Writing Program's core faculty. “He was a bridge between creative writing and literature at a time when a gulf existed between the two,” says Schumacher. 

Service to English

Besides serving as Associate Chair, Geffen contributed to the department as Director of Graduate Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies. He also served as Director of Graduate Studies for American Studies, where he occasionally taught. As a colleague and as an administrator, he welcomed new perspectives. Professor Emerita Toni McNaron remembers Geffen’s reaction to the newly established Feminist Studies in Literature subfield: “Art was one of the first male colleagues to say he'd like to be supportive. It turned out he was already including more women authors in his courses than many of his colleagues.”

Besides literature and theater, Geffen was fascinated by American folklore and folk music, jazz, and movies. “Art truly had a zest for new knowledge and information," says Professor Messer-Davidow.

Geffen was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York; his father had a liquor store near Carnegie Hall. At the age of 16, Geffen started at the University of Chicago. After graduating, he did a stint in the Army, and then returned to UC to earn a PhD and MA. “I remember Art as a wonderful storyteller,” says Professor Andrew Elfenbein. “He was never too busy to share stories about his childhood in Brooklyn, his days as a student in Chicago, his time as an actor in Illinois.”

“He was fun to be around and witty as hell,” says Regents Professor Emerita Madelon Sprengnether. “Yet he never used his intellect to wound or to hurt. He was unfailingly kind.”

Professor Emeritus Don Ross cherishes the memory of Geffen’s “humor and enthusiasm about literature, acting, and life.”

“He was funny and generous,” says Schumacher. “The department was very fortunate for the many years he was here.”

Professor Geffen is survived by sons Jon and Ben, daughter-in-law Margo, Ben's partner Kristen, and three grandchildren. His wife Martha died in 2016. The Department of English offers deepest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

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