Karl Kroeber, former Columbia University Mellon Professor of the Humanities and longtime professor in the English and comparative literature department, died on Sunday, Nov. 8 after a long battle with cancer. He was 82 years old.
Kroeber came from a family of well-known writers and academics. He was the son of the influential author Theodora Kroeber and anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, CC 1896—who earned the first Ph.D. in anthropology in the United States from Columbia University in 1901—and the brother of famed science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin.
Kroeber made a name for himself, and proved just as prolific as his famous family members, by writing extensively on American Indian literature, literary criticism, and art history. His most recent book was “Ishi in Three Centuries,” about the last member of the Yahi, a group of Native Americans indigenous to Northern California.
Some of Kroeber’s most well-known and beloved classes included his courses on Children’s Literature, Native American Studies, and Romantic Poetry.
Kroeber retired last spring after working at Columbia for nearly half a century. According to associate professor Jenny Davidson—who worked with Kroeber in Columbia’s English and Comparative Literature department for 10 years—he took his younger colleagues out for a fancy lunch for his retirement celebration, rather than the customary lavish party. This, Davidson suggested, was typical behavior for Kroeber—a “mischievous gadfly,” a “Socrates-like” figure—who was constantly challenging norms and was eager to learn from younger generations.
“He was very interested in soaking up as much as he could about new ways of thinking, new kinds of things to think about,” Davidson said. “He wanted to know what people in their teens or twenties or thirties were reading and finding exciting, and then he would go and read those things.”
James Shapiro, a colleague of Kroeber’s in the department of English and Comparative Literature for a quarter of a century, agreed with Davidson’s description of Kroeber as someone who was constantly challenging people—and making them better for it.
“He’s just somebody that was always there to provoke and to counsel, and to challenge. He was never comfortable with easy answers,” Shapiro said of Kroeber, who he described as a mentor. “I know he’s changed the way I teach, and I can’t really say anybody else ever has in the time I’ve ever been here, just insisting that I challenge the students as hard as they can be challenged.”
Kroeber’s former students have endless praise for him, citing that he pushed them to new levels of writing while remaining understanding and warm.
“He was a genius, a crank, and a curmudgeon, but also a softie, with a tenderness that could startle you,” said Anna Sproul, CC ’07. “He was the closest thing to an academic advisor I had at Columbia.”
“I remember one time, I was having a neurotic freak-out over some minor issue in another class. I loitered around after Origins to ask his opinion about what I should do, and halfway through my question my stress and embarrassment reached their nadir and I burst into tears. He was so upset to see me cry that his eyes actually filled with tears, too. I forget what specific advice he gave, but he told me that if the professor didn’t understand he could go fuck himself. His words.”
Sproul also remembers his incredible tenderness in talking about his wife, a sculptor, who has also suffered with illness. “He loved his wife so much,” Sproul said. “She was sick back then, and when he talked about her he was always worried. I remember that. He once said, apropos of I don’t know what, ‘when you really love someone, you love them not in spite of their faults, but because of their faults. Because of them.’ And then something like ‘you’ll see.’”
But Kroeber was also a tough cookie. “Professor Kroeber was always very stubborn. I think I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to perfect my imitation of his ‘at all,’ as in ‘I don’t agree with that at all,’ which he said with great frequency,” Caitlin Campbell, CC ’07 said. “Professor Kroeber was so brilliant, had such high standards, and knew his own mind so well that he made you long to meet him at his level, which is part of what made him such a wonderful professor.”
Jonathan Treitel, CC ’05, still listens to recordings he took of Kroeber’s lectures, and remembers him fondly as a professor who allowed him, as a freshman, to take a seminar class.
“He was all about taking chances on people,” Treitel said. “It would be hard to find a professor who has more interested in what students had to say. We were always going to his office hours and discussing the different pieces. He certainly always made you feel that you were incredibly valuable.”
He added, “He meant a lot. He really did, and I think in certain ways it’s a very big loss not only for his family but for the entire Columbia community. They certainly lost a wonderful man.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Karl Kroeber's age as 83 rather than 82, and his mother's profession as anthropologist like his father rather than author. Spectator regrets the errors.