Tribute

Literature Faculty, 1964–1971; 1974–2015

By Robert Anasi '89, Photo by Chris Taggart

Danny KaiserAfter Danny Kaiser’s first class on Madame Bovary, I walked home holding the novel like it was a box of rattlesnakes. When I got back to my Mead Way room, I dropped onto the bed and started rereading. Madame Bovary wasn’t a novel anymore—it was the Warren Report, the Gospel According to St. John, Sauron’s ring. As I sifted through the pages trying to figure out how I’d missed everything, I realized that Danny hadn’t imposed anything on Flaubert. Rather, he’d given me a lens that let me see what was already there. And I was no bewildered first-year awed by the bottomless bowl of Captain Crunch at Bates. I was a senior, and a cocky one at that. Still, I had no problem genuflecting before Danny’s perspicacity. Though I’d spent most of my short life in books, Danny gave me a better way to read.

My experience was far from unique.

As Jesse Nyiri '16 puts it, “Being told by Danny Kaiser that I was ‘just wrong’ has 
been the best thing to happen to my education. ... He can lead you through the written material into the hidden life of the language.”

“That lecture energized me. I began reading furiously and felt I had finally come home to my quasi-commie Bronx roots.”

William Park, literature faculty emeritus, remembers discussions with Danny that left him “humbled and edified at the same time.” Joan Silber '67 (writing) notes of her seminar experience with Danny, “I’d never heard that … kind of literary candor before.” Former student, teaching colleague, and author Allan Gurganus '72 admits, “I belong to the card-carrying cult of Danny Kaiser.”

Daniel Kaiser was born just before WWII in the Bronx, when the borough population was 49 percent Jewish. An exceptional student, he skipped several grades and ended up at The Bronx High School of Science, “a much profounder educational experience,” Danny says, “than either Columbia or Yale.” Although he intended to become a psychiatrist, exposure to other pre-meds at Columbia discouraged him. “… So I drifted into literature.” In eccentric professor Andrew Chiappe, Danny found inspiration. “He looked exactly like the Penguin in Batman,” Danny says. “And he wouldn’t meet your eyes. But the brilliance of his rhetoric and the intensity of his delivery showed me what real teaching was.”

In the heyday of New Criticism, Danny went to graduate school at Yale, where he was dismayed by the reactionary politics of T.S. Eliot’s acolytes. “They were mostly good ol’ southern boys who had converted to Anglicanism in the footsteps of the Master [Eliot].” In the rising wave of the civil rights movement, their antediluvian attitudes were unacceptable to a principled young intellectual who still faced prejudice from 
the academic world he hoped to join.

While struggling to give meaning to life as a scholar, Danny accidentally stumbled into a lecture on Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, delivered by Frankfurt School celebrity Herbert Marcuse. “That lecture energized me,” Danny says. “I began reading furiously and felt I had finally come home to my quasi-commie Bronx roots.” Soon afterward, Danny arrived at Sarah Lawrence, which was entering one of its most dynamic eras. Along with like-minded colleagues including Jim Zito, E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, and Bob Zimmerman, Danny participated in the activism of the '68 generation—demonstrations, mass arrests, and boycotts. For a time, the ivory tower became an open classroom, with the street and the academy talking in a way that benefited them both.

Long after the high-water marks of the 1960s, Danny maintained his commitment to activism. During the first Obama campaign, he canvassed neighborhoods in battleground states, though he was in no way deluded about the shortcomings of the Democratic Party. The passion for truth that led him to ring doorbells far from New York City is the same passion that animates his teaching.

Danny has never shown himself afraid to speak truth, no matter how powerful those he discomfited, and he remains as self-critical as he is critical. Studying with Danny revolutionized the way I thought and conducted myself in the world, and I know I’m not the only one. As Jamieson Webster '00 writes, “There is nothing like hearing Danny read you a passage from a work that he loves. ... [I]n a flash everything falls into place.”

Upon his retirement, Danny Kaiser established The William Park and James Zito Scholarship Fund in Literature. Named in honor of his colleagues, emeritus faculty member William J. Park III (1962-2000) 
and former faculty member James Zito (1964-1981), the scholarship will support students with financial need who excel in the study of literature.