Wolfgang Spitzer: Literature Faculty 1953-1991

William Shullenberger (Literature)

Wolf Spitzer

At the January memorial service for Wolf Spitzer, his brother-in-law  John Alexander ended his eulogy with these remarks: “Wolf was a truly remarkable member of ‘The Greatest Generation,’ who served his adopted country heroically and honorably during its greatest time of need.”

John briefly explained this foundational period in Wolf’s life in terms that few of us at Sarah Lawrence knew much, if anything, about: “Before he was a teacher, a college professor, a father, Wolf was a soldier.” He served in the military during World War II, participating in the Normandy Invasion and spending many months as an intelligence operative in Occupied France. As John said, “His fluency in European languages—French and German in particular—his quick and decisive intelligence, and his meticulous attention to detail served him well during the lonely, dangerous time he was behind the lines. They also served him and his country well after the war, when he acted as an interpreter and interrogator during the trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany, and in the monumental reconstruction efforts after the war.”

People who knew Wolf at Sarah Lawrence knew little of this story, in part because of a modesty that we don’t usually associate with him, in part because some of it may have been classified and confidential, and in part because, like other veterans, he may have reacted to the trauma of war and its aftermath by trying to put it behind him or keep it to himself. It’s good to be mindful of this honorable patriotic service that made him the man—and the teacher—whom some of us were privileged to know. We knew Wolf as a member of another “Great Generation,” the gathering of eminent faculty—a number of them, like Wolf, immigrants from Europe’s time of trial—in a formative period of Sarah Lawrence history, from the 1940s into the 1980s.

Teaching at Sarah Lawrence is a form of passion. We live for and in the texts we love to teach, and they live in us, taking flesh in the performative and friendship-forming work of teaching and donning. Wolf was a passionate teacher of French and of medieval literature. In blood, bone, heart, mind, and soul, he was a medievalist. How so? As a Rabelaisian vitalist, with great and uninhibited delight in human appetites and pleasures and in the chance life circumstances that bring us joy.
As a “Rogue Reynard,” the mischievous fox-trickster of beast fables, delighting in play and in the exposure of phoniness, false pieties, and self-importance. As a troubadour, in love and wonder at the experience of love itself, in the pure and tragic forms that poetry alone can give to it—“the joy that is in the very grief of love,” as Shelley beautifully put it. And, gathering all his passions together, Wolf was a Dantist, teaching how Dante’s journey to the celestial Beatrice and beyond is the ultimate love story.

Like his mentor Dante, Wolf could be moved sometimes by ferocious anger at human folly and selfishness, sometimes by personal outrage and resentment; and yet more importantly, he intuited that the divine can reveal itself quite simply and purely in the transporting smile of someone you love. Wolf had a smile like that, and although he was not my Beatrice, he was my Virgil, my guide, my mentor, and my friend. He taught us about medieval literature, life, and culture—which is to say, about being fully human; and he taught us this by living it out with the same boldness, conviction, and resourcefulness that had carried him earlier through his service to the nation.

Literature faculty emeritus Wolfgang Spitzer passed away on January 14, 2013. He was 90.