Steven Marcus  

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"The peculiar similarities between the activities of Holmes and Freud have been discussed by Steven Marcus in A. Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A facsimile of the stories as they were first published in the Strand Magazine (1976:x-xi)" --Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method (1980) by Carlo Ginzburg

"The general form of what Freud has written bears certain suggestive resemblances to a modern experimental novel. Its narrative and expository course, for example, is neither linear nor rectilinear; instead its organization is plastic, involuted, and heterogeneous and follows spontaneously an inner logic that seems frequently to be at odds with itself…" --"Freud and Dora"

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Steven P. Marcus (December 13, 1928 – April 25, 2018) was an American academic and literary critic. He published influential psychoanalytic analyses of the novels of Charles Dickens but is probably best-known for The Other Victorians (1964), a study of Victorian pornography in which he coined the term pornotopia.



Early life

Steven Marcus was born in New York City, the son of Nathan and Adeline Muriel (née Gordon) Marcus. His grandparents were emigrants from the countryside near Vilnius. Adeline and Nathan, both nominally observant Jews, were raised, met, and married in the Bronx, and Nathan attended business school for two years to become an accountant. Only ten months after Steven was born in 1928, the stock market crashed, leaving his father unemployed for six years and causing the family to slide into poverty. Steven’s sister, Debora, was born in 1936, and the family moved to a lower-class neighborhood in the Bronx called Highbridge, near Yankee Stadium, which was populated by Irish, Italian, and Jewish families.

Marcus attended William Howard Taft and De Witt Clinton High School and graduated at the age of fifteen in 1944, against the backdrop of World War II. He was admitted with full scholarships to both Columbia University and Harvard, but because his family could not afford to pay for room and board at Harvard, he attended Columbia, where he studied under Lionel Trilling. Because of his family’s economic precariousness, Marcus continued to live at home and carry his lunch to school in a paper bag. Upon graduation, Marcus immediately enrolled in graduate school at Columbia, writing his master’s thesis on Henry James under the guidance of F. W. Dupee. After taking his master's degree in 1949, he took an instructorship at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he lived on a pig farm. Marcus was then appointed to a two-year lectureship at Baruch College, and became married to his first wife. Marcus also had brief stints at the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California.

In 1952, he earned a fellowship to Cambridge University, where he was pulled into the orbit of F. R. Leavis, even as he rejected Leavis’s belittling of Dickens. While still at Cambridge, Marcus’s first pieces appeared in the Partisan Review and Commentary in December 1952 and March 1953. He would later recall that the Partisan Review "provided a singular experience of intellectual awakening and intensity. I did not read each issue so much as I gulped it down." When he returned to America in 1954, he was drafted into the army, reported for basic training at Fort Dix, and was deployed to northern Greenland, far from any combat zones. Discharged in 1956, Marcus returned to Columbia, where he defended his dissertation in 1961. Because the committee was stacked with Trilling’s academic antagonists, it was a contentious defense, but Marcus passed, in part because of his already significant publication record.


Immediately after earning his doctorate, Marcus was appointed to an assistant professorship at Columbia as a faculty colleague of Lionel Trilling. The two collaborated to co-edit an abridgment of Ernest Jones's The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud in 1961, and upon Trilling's death Marcus penned a long-form essay on Trilling's legacy as a cultural critic and public intellectual. Carolyn Heilbrun, the first woman to earn tenure in the Columbia English Department, later described Marcus as among Trilling's male acolytes who sought to protect the department's entrenched male dominance.

Marcus finalized his divorce from his first wife, Algene Ballif Marcus, in 1965. He had been introduced to German sociologist Gertrud Lenzer in 1962, who had recently emigrated from Munich after taking her PhD from Ludwig-Maximilians Universität. They married On January 20, 1966. The couple had one child, John Nathaniel Marcus, who would go on to study at Juilliard and develop a career as a violinist.

Marcus was one of six faculty signatories at Columbia in 1967 that pledged to make churches and synagogues refuges for conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. In the wake of the Columbia University protests of 1968, Marcus was a member and organizer of the Columbia Faculty Peace Action Committee, which endorsed academic strikes as a tactic to bring an end to the war in Indochina and to pressure the university into withdrawing its support for war research.

In 1969, for reprinting the anonymous memoir My Secret Life, Arthur Dobson became the first publisher to be charged under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which would also be used to prosecute Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Marcus was flown in from New York to offer testimony as an expert defense witness. Pressed by the prosecutor to answer whether Walter’s account of sex with a ten-year-old girl at Vauxhall Gardens was not the most evil passage he had ever read, Marcus replied that accounts of Nazi concentration camps in the twentieth century, or of thirteen-year-old Victorian chimney sweeps dying of cancer of the scrotum in the nineteenth century, were more evil, but no one advocated suppressing this knowledge. The prosecution also accused Marcus of harboring prurient motives for analyzing pornography in The Other Victorians. In the wake of the guilty verdict, the academic journal Victorian Studies printed a defense of the literary merit of My Secret Life from four prominent scholars.

Marcus was a founding organizer of the National Humanities Center and was appointed the chairman of the executive committee board directors from 1976 to 1980. He later served as a fellow between 1980 and 1982 and remains active in the center as a current trustee.

After three years of intensive study, Marcus released the so-called "Marcus Report" as head of the Presidential Commission on Academic Priorities in the Arts and Sciences. The 264-page report was unusually blunt in analyzing the decline in the quality of education offered by Columbia. Its core recommendation was new hiring in the hard sciences and elimination of twelve humanities faculty positions through attrition. A professor of anthropology described the report as "absolutely a mess."

In 1988, paranoid schizophrenic Daniel L. Price heard Marcus give a lecture on one of Wordsworth's “Lucy” poems that addressed the perils of solitude and isolation, and became convinced that Marcus and Joyce Carol Oates were trying to find him a girlfriend. Price inundated Marcus with messages on his answering machine and mailed Marcus a suicide note. In response, Marcus, along with Edward Said, helped to persuade Price to take psychiatric medication by assuring him he was not under surveillance. Price later sent death threats to Marcus and Said, accusing them of “soul murder,” and by 1994, Marcus reported that Price had on two occasions used a baseball bat to shatter windows at the English Department before being arrested.

In 1993, the President of Columbia University, George Erik Rupp, in an effort to consolidate sprawling arts and sciences departments, abruptly fired several deans, including Jack Greenberg and Roger Bagnall, without consultation with faculty, and appointed Marcus to serve as both dean of the college and vice president for arts and sciences. Two years later, President Rupp resolved the controversy by splitting the positions and returning Marcus to a teaching and research faculty position. As dean, Marcus had come under fire for being unavailable to meet with students, for being unable to use email, and for reticence to commit resources to develop Asian American and Latin American studies programs. An editorial in the university newspaper compared Marcus to a "giant severed penis." At his departure, he announced that his resignation was due to health reasons.

Major publications

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