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Meet the WritersImage of Leo Damrosch
Leo Damrosch
Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He has written widely on 18th-century writers.

Author biography courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.

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Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Damrosch:

"I love sports, and my high point as an athlete was at the University of Virginia, when I was 40, and our English Department intramural softball team beat the basketball team for the championship. I was the pitcher, and got their seven-foot-tall star to pop up four times. Nowadays, I'm confined to watching sports on TV, an interest that my family finds inexplicable. I still play pool, and juggle."

"I've developed a big lecture course at Harvard called "Wit and Humor" that combines films with literature and tries to combine serious inquiry into why we laugh with a good deal of actual laughing."

"I live with a cockatiel who regards himself as the head of the family but condescends to groom my beard."

"Ever since college I've had a passion for geology; I pay attention to rocks wherever I go, and I especially admire the big glacial erratics that litter New England and furnished the material for thousands of miles of stone walls."

"I've loved photography ever since my teens; I recently went digital, and some of my pictures of places Rousseau lived are in the biography."

"I love to travel. My family and I have had memorable stays in a little village in Provence, and also on the islands of St. John and Guadeloupe. Basking in a tropical ocean is my idea of perfection."

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In the fall of 2005, Leo Damrosch took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I would say it was The Achievement of Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate, which I read as an undergraduate. It made me a deep admirer of Johnson, as a human being as well as a writer, and gave the first impetus to my choice of 18th-century literature as a profession. Thirty years later, as it happened, I became Bate's successor at Harvard at the time of his retirement. I would add that Jean Starobinski's Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, still after 50 years the greatest book on Rousseau, opened my mind to what an imaginative biography might try to do.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I think the greatest novels I've ever read -- and reread -- are Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and George Eliot's Middlemarch, for their compelling eloquence, vision, and tragic wisdom. They're long books that I wish were even longer.

Other favorites are:

  • Stendhal's The Red and the Black and Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with their deep and un-illusioned insight into human motivation.

  • Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (which I find I can read only in short stretches at a time), with its incredibly subtle evocation of sounds and sights and feelings.

  • Montaigne's Essays, with their unpredictable eddies of thought and wonderfully personal voice.

  • Fielding's Tom Jones, a superbly plotted and engaging comic novel (I love Tony Richardson's film version of it, too).

  • The poems of William Blake, a prodigious genius who never fails to challenge and inspire.

    For nonfiction classics:

  • Rousseau's Confessions, an astoundingly original feat of self-exploration and also a treasure trove of memorable stories.

  • Thucydides' Peloponnesian War, a chilling account of power politics and the virtual suicide of a great Greek civilization. I first read it during the Vietnam War and it's just as true, and as disturbing, today as it ever was.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
    My taste in films runs to comedy, ranging from stylized classics like His Girl Friday, with its wonderfully rapid-fire repartee between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, to darker ones, especially Dr. Strangelove, which Stanley Kubrick originally planned as a serious film and turned into a "nightmare comedy" because the idea of risking world destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed literally insane. Peter Sellers is brilliant in his three roles, especially as the self-pitying president Merkin Muffley, and George C. Scott is unforgettable in his over-the-top performance as General Buck Turgidson.

    Another movie I greatly admire is Annie Hall, with its virtuoso use of all kinds of devices -- voiceover, split screen, cartoon, adult characters suddenly seen their childhood settings -- to find cinematic equivalents for subjective experience in a way that movies seldom do.

    More recently, I loved Before Sunset for its honesty and understated tenderness. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke not only speak intelligent dialogue, but they make you believe they're actually thinking and feeling it.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I have conventional classical tastes: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. I don't like to listen to music when I write, because I find it distracting, but I do around the house or in the car. Two favorites are Andean huayno music, due to a memorable stay in Peru many years ago, and the early rock music that I was imprinted with in the 1950s (a weakness that arouses pity in my family, and especially in my jazz musician son).

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
    An occasional new or classic novel, but mainly works of nonfiction that have a capacious range and interest. Among biographies, I've especially admired David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback, which shows how Theodore Roosevelt, who could easily have passed his life as a well-to-do minor figure in New York society, transformed himself into a charismatic leader, and Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life, which gives a balanced account of another president, John F. Kennedy, who accomplished far more than anyone expected of him, but whose legacy remains surprisingly ambiguous.

    I enjoy books that make science exciting and accessible, such as Edward O. Wilson's Journey to the Ants and Bill Bryson's tour de force, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which shows how often the great breakthroughs in science were scoffed at by the experts of the day. And I have a special affection for Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, with its powerful account of how geographical circumstances and the availability of certain plants and animals had everything to do with where and why civilization developed.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I like surprises -- books I might never have heard of as gifts to receive, and as gifts to give, books the recipient is unlikely to know. Two good examples are by the painter Tom Phillips: The Humument, his adaptation of pages from a forgotten Victorian novel by means of overpainting them and highlighting certain words to bring out new meanings, and The Postcard Century, a huge collection of postcards (and their original messages) from each year of the 20th century, with Phillips's witty and perceptive commentary on what the images suggest.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    No rituals. I don't work at a desk except for the final writing stage. I usually read and take notes lying on a couch or bed.

    What are you working on now?
    Having just finished a ten-year commitment to Rousseau, I'm "in between." I have some thoughts of developing a book that would grow from my family's experiences in the Philippines, where my father was a missionary and where my earliest years were spent in a Japanese internment camp from which we were lucky to emerge alive. But that idea is still in a very preliminary stage.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    So far as this particular book is concerned, it really was a sort of overnight success. All my previous books were academic ones, published by the usual process of review by other scholars followed by eventual acceptance. When my Rousseau biography was ready, I sought a literary agent for the first time, and was lucky enough to find a wonderful one, Tina Bennett of Janklow & Nesbit. We placed the book immediately with an equally wonderful editor, Deanne Urmy of Houghton Mifflin.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    If the question implies a writer who is already known but not as well known as he or she deserves to be, I would say, without irony, Leo Tolstoy. He is a truly transcendent master, but I have the impression that all too few people actually read his books. Everyone means to get around to War and Peace someday, but mostly they don't, and I have the impression that Anna Karenina, my favorite, is even less read.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Given the rather anomalous story I described above, I'm really not a good source of advice.

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  • About the Writer
    *Leo Damrosch Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense, 1972
    *The Uses of Johnson's Criticism, 1976
    *Symbol and Truth in Blake's Myth, 1980
    *God's Plot and Man's Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding, 1985
    *Imaginative World of Alexander Pope, 1987
    *Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson, 1989
    *The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus, 1996
    *Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, 2005
    Photo by David Carmak