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Obituary
Ralph Rader

06 December 2007

Ralph W. Rader, a professor emeritus of English and a major theorist on the novel as a genre, died of heart failure on Nov.23 at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. He was 77.

He is recognized for his essays on James Boswell's Life of Johnson and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses, as well as for a series of essays in which he developed an original and influential interpretation of the emergence and development of the English novel as a form. In addition, Rader's study of Alfred Lord Tennyson developed fresh information about the poet's early love relationships and how they are reflected in such poems as "Maud" and "Locksley Hall."


Ralph Rader
 

Rader was born in Muskegon, Mich., in 1930. He grew up in rural Steuben County near Angola, Ind., as the son of a minister-farmer; he was the valedictorian for his high-school graduating class of nine students. He earned a B.S. in 1952 from Purdue University and a Ph.D. in English from Indiana University in 1958.

Rader joined the Berkeley faculty in 1956 and served as chair of the English department from 1976 to 1980, and again from 1994 to 1996.

Rader was known for applying the Socratic discussion method in his classrooms, even for large lecture courses. He was awarded a campus Distinguished Teaching Award in 1976 and, upon his retirement in 1993, he received the Berkeley Citation, the university's highest honor.

In his book 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way, William Chace, a former president of Emory and Wesleyan universities and a former professor of English at Stanford, called Rader the finest teacher he has ever known.

"He made it clear that the work of understanding literature was a profoundly serious matter, one deserving the utmost attention of everyone involved. He also took a stern, even censorious look at the newest fads of literary theory, thinking them diversions from the intellectual and moral task of reading the books that mattered," Chace said. "He believed that teaching meant engaging the minds of his students and he would use every method, save the routine lecture, to that end."

David Richter, an associate professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York and an authority on the Gothic novel, said formalists such as Rader "generally can't handle history - their theories generally look at literary texts as concrete examples of abstract formal principles. But Rader's essay 'From Richardson to Austen' ... outlined a formalist mode of literary history, in which a successful and influential text (in this case Richardson's novel Pamela) inspires a series of later texts by Fielding, Goldsmith, Burney, and Austen that develop into a genre (morally serious comedy) which ultimately is 'perfected' - after which point history takes a new direction, as classicism did after Mozart."

Rader's own international stature suffered partly "from the fact that there was no one to play Ralph for him," Richter said in reference to Rader's eagerness to promote the scholarship of others.

"Ideas that in anyone else's hands would have been the cornerstone of a lengthy book Ralph casually tossed into essays that lie scattered among a dozen or more journals," Richter said. "He needed someone to pack his magnificent essays on the theory of literature, on the history of the English novel, and on James Joyce into three boxes and ship them off to a press."

Rader's profession moved away from his brand of formalism "pretty decisively during the late 1970s, and it might have been tempting for Ralph to become something fashionable, but he never needed to," said Richter.

Dorothy Hale, a Berkeley English professor, took Rader's yearlong graduate seminar in the 1980s on the theory of the novel, and he became her dissertation director. Rader's written work was "a model of intellectual brilliance and argumentative rigor," said Hale, author of Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present.

Frederick Crews, a Berkeley professor emeritus of English, said that Rader "thought it was an incredible privilege just to be here in Berkeley, imparting knowledge to bright students, guiding young careers, and pointing out elements of greatness in literary works whose features, he strongly believed, ought not to be distorted by any interpreter's private interests or grievances."

Rader belonged to the editorial committee of the University of California Press from 1963 to 1971, serving the last four years as co-chair. He was on the board of the Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell, and served on the boards of various scholarly journals. Rader was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973.

He is survived by his wife, June Rader, of Berkeley. The two met when they were both in the second grade. Other survivors include three daughters, Lois Wilson of Paris, France, Nancy Rader and Emily Rader, both of Berkeley; two sons, Eric Rader of Manteca and Michael Rader of Los Osos; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned by the family in conjunction with the English department. The family suggests that memorial contributions be made to the American Diabetes Association.

- Kathleen Maclay