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Obituary
Leonard Nathan

11 July 2007

Leonard E. Nathan, a professor emeritus of rhetoric and a prolific American poet, critic, and master of the short lyric, died peacefully on June 3. He was 82.


Leonard Nathan
 

The author of 17 volumes of poetry, Nathan was for 50 years a fixture in literary circles both on and off the Berkeley campus. Friends and colleagues said Nathan never won the full national recognition he was due, though that never dampened his exuberance for life and artistic expression.

"I regard him as one of the most under-recognized and undervalued poets of our time. I'm just sorry he died before his quality as a poet was fully recognized," said Thomas Sloane, a fellow professor emeritus of rhetoric at Berkeley and a longtime friend.

Nathan's first book of poems, Western Reaches (1958), brims with images of the California landscape. After a year in India, he published a book about his experiences there titled The Likeness: Poems out of India (1975). That same year, Princeton University Press published Nathan's Returning Your Call, which was nominated for a National Book Award.

His prose included Diary of a Left-Handed Bird Watcher (1996) and The Poet's Work, an Introduction to Czeslaw Milosz (1991). He also collaborated on a number of translations, most notably with Milosz on the poems of Anna Swir and Alexander Wat.

As chair of Berkeley's Department of Speech from 1968 to 1972, Nathan shepherded the department's transformation to the Department of Rhetoric. He took very seriously his responsibility as one of the department's founding fathers, colleagues said.

"He was concerned about the welfare of the department," said Michael Mascuch, present chair of the Department of Rhetoric, which he joined just before Nathan retired. "He sought out new colleagues in the department, and was concerned to have them know the special nature of the department. He was looking after a legacy."

That academic legacy, according to Mascuch, is the rhetoric department's enduring "emphasis on the voice ... the way the spoken word resonates in writing, and how we need an ear for that voice. That is something [Nathan] always emphasized in pedagogy."

Born in El Monte, Los Angeles County, in 1924, Nathan graduated from El Monte Union High School in 1943 and joined the Army's combat engineers in Europe. After completing his military service he attended UCLA on the GI Bill. While taking the bus to college he met George Hochfield, a fellow World War II veteran and UCLA student, and they became inseparable friends. Both of them transferred to Berkeley in 1947.

Together, Nathan and Hochfield created a journal they called The Formalist, the title representing their objection to "the abandonment of traditional forms by modern poets," according to Hochfield. Nathan's father, Jack, printed the magazine. They sold a few copies on campus before the venture fizzled out.

It was at the friends' College Avenue apartment that Nathan met his wife, Carol, who was a neighbor. They married in 1949 and had one son, Andrew, and two daughters, Julia and Miriam. The family later moved to Kensington.

At Berkeley, Nathan earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1950, a master's degree in English in 1952, and a Ph.D. in 1961. Hired as a lecturer in the Department of Speech, he was promoted to associate professor in 1965 and to professor in 1968.

Among other honors, he received the National Institute of Arts and Letters prize for poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Phelan Award for Narrative Poetry, and three silver medals from the Commonwealth Club of California, including one for The Potato Eaters (1999). His poems were also published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, New England Review and The Georgia Review, among other publications.

Nathan retired from Berkeley in 1991. Before his death he was working with Hochfield on a translation of the poetry of the late Italian poet Umberto Saba. Yale University Press is expected to publish the book some time next year.

Nathan is survived by his wife of 58 years, Carol Nathan of San Rafael; a son, Andrew Nathan of San Anselmo; two daughters, Julia Nathan of Harlingen, Texas, and Miriam Mason of Vancouver, Wash.; a brother, Marvin Nathan of Berkeley; and four grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada. For more information on how to donate, visit: www.alznorcal.org.

- Yasmin Anwar