Karl Kroeber was born in Oakland, California on 24 November 1926, and died on 8 November 2009 in the house in Brooklyn, New York that he shared for nearly four decades with his wife of fifty-six years, Jean Taylor Kroeber.
He was the son of the noted anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber and author Theodora Kracaw Kroeber. Alfred graduated from Columbia College in 1896, continued his studies there with Franz Boas, and in 1901 earned one of the first Ph.Ds awarded in anthropology in the United States. He helped establish the Anthropology department at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught until 1946. Theodora, who grew up in Telluride, Colorado (when it was a mining town rather than a resort), studied psychology at Berkeley and in 1961, after Alfred’s death, published Ishi in Two Worlds.
Kroeber grew up in Berkeley, spending summers at Kishamish, the Napa Valley farmhouse his father bought in 1930. At Kishamish he formed close relationships with two of his father’s Native American friends, Juan Dolores and Robert Spott, who were frequent visitors. From them he developed a love of the outdoors and physical activity which remained an important part of his character for the rest of his life. In a 2001 reminiscence of these bucolic summers he wrote:
I was a sickly child…I was more sick than well until about age 13….What a place such as Kish could mean to a physically limited but high-metabolism child – the possibility of an active, outdoor life, a sense of healthiness there – the sense confirmed as I became healthy.
Later on he realized this possibility of an active outdoor life in Washington County, New York, where he and Jean bought a wooded property at which they spent most summers from 1975 onward. In addition to keeping up with his professional writing and correspondence, Kroeber spent much of his time there tending his extensive vegetable and flower gardens, erecting small buildings, and chopping down trees which obstructed his view of the Green Mountains.
After serving in the Navy in World War II, Kroeber received a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1947. In 1948 he worked in Keokuk, Iowa as a radio announcer, before moving to New York to study at Columbia. In 1953 he married Jean Taylor, and in 1956 he received his Ph.D. in English from Columbia. From 1956 to 1970 he taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His and Jean’s three children, Paul, Arthur and Katharine, were born in Madison. In 1970 he returned to Columbia, where he remained an active teacher and scholar in the Department of English and Comparative Literature until his retirement in June of 2009. In 1987 he was appointed Mellon Professor in the Humanities.
In common with other members of his family, Kroeber had vigorous and varied intellectual interests, which he pursued with enthusiasm. Over the course of a long and productive career he wrote extensively on Romantic poetry, art history, the novel, film, Native American literatures, the role of computers in literary analysis, science fiction, children’s literature and the connections between literature and ecology. In many of these
fields he was a pioneer: for instance, he wrote some of the earliest literary critical analyses of Native American myth and fiction, and served as the first editor of the journal Studies in American Indian Literatures, from 1977 to 1987.
Although he wrote incessantly and published many books and articles, Kroeber viewed his scholarly work as exploratory, and cheerfully owned to its evanescence. In May 2009, in a speech to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Columbia just before his retirement, he advised students not to read his books – “they are all out of date” – and remarked:
Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed going into new fields, and as soon as I get the lay of the land, I start looking for other unmapped territories. A less heroic way to put this might be to say I’m like a cuckoo bird – I lay my eggs in other birds’ nests and let them do the hard work of hatching and rearing.
His vocation was teaching, and generations of students flocked to his classes because of the intensity of the intellectual challenges he offered them. He began his teaching career in 1952 as an instructor of Columbia’s undergraduate humanities core curriculum course – a course he continued to teach with pleasure for many years after his return to Columbia. He constantly revised his syllabi and devised new courses, and often claimed with pride that he had never taught the same course twice. In his final year of teaching, at the age of eighty-two, he taught two entirely new courses – on religious influences in literature and on the poetry and art of William Blake – which reflected both the accumulated thinking of a lifetime and his newest intellectual passions. The engagement with these courses stimulated him to spend most of his last summer urgently writing a lengthy reconsideration of his understanding of Blake.
Direct engagement with individual students was central to Kroeber’s vision of teaching: “One does not teach classes,” he said in his Phi Beta Kappa speech, “one teaches individuals in classes.” He was dismissive of lectures, and insisted that education was a conversation in which the teacher had an ethical responsibility to arouse the student’s imagination through provocation, unsettling questions, and perpetual challenges to comfortable habits of thought. Kroeber’s greatest gifts as a teacher were that he never presumed to have the final answer, and was never afraid to ask a question, however silly it might at first seem. And he was clear that in good teaching, the teacher learns as much as the students: “Any class in which I have not learned something, I regret as unsuccessful.”