Tribute by Neil Hertz

Posted on October 2, 2019

Neil Hertz shared the following reflections on Robert Mankin.

When I met Robert 40 years ago, he was about to complete a doctoral degree in comparative literature at Yale. Or thought he was. He had written an elegant, probing, superbly original 150-page essay on the philosopher David Hume, and had submitted it to his committee, in, as they say, “partial fulfillment of the requirements for a degree,” (“Partial Fulfillment” being the eternal lot of the Graduate Student!) But Yale ruled that the essay was too short to qualify as a proper dissertation and Robert (who was mild-mannered but knew his own worth) told them to go to hell, and took off for Paris. So France, more precisely Danielle and Robert’s future colleagues and students and friends, have Yale’s obtuse fussiness, and Robert’s own strong will, courage, and sense of adventure, to thank for his presence in Paris all these many years. (Not, alas, as many as he—and we—would have liked.)

I would hear from him during that first period in France: he was teaching English to businessmen; he was writing poetry; he had met Danielle; they had had a child, Emile; they were keeping bees near Marseille, where Danielle was teaching; they were fixing up an old farmhouse in Italy. To my envious ears they had together invented what sounded like a complicated, exhausting but wonderfully gratifying life. To hell with Yale, indeed!

And then Robert decided he wanted to do more serious teaching and research and would need a doctorate after all. Before transferring to Yale, he had spent a year at the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center, which is where I had begun to teach in the early ‘80s. He wrote and asked if Hopkins would be willing to take him on as a doctoral candidate. My colleagues in the Humanities Center were

delighted to have him back, and Robert and Danielle and Emile came to Baltimore for a few years, while he wrote another dissertation, this time on Edward Gibbon. We saw more of each other then, talked more—about the city, about politics, about academic life—and I remember his quiet voice, the wrinkles of amusement around those pale blue eyes, and his energy. I have a photo somewhere of a children’s party in the little park behind his row house and mine, somebody’s birthday, I think. Robert had put on a funny hat, a sort of droopy bonnet de la Liberté and he is leading Emile and a bunch of neighbor kids in a race around and around a fountain, veering and twirling. Robert en tant que père.

But what was he going to do with his PhD? Teach in France? In the States? He had dossiers sent to universities in both countries. He got a call once, from a department secretary in Poitiers, proposing an interview. Robert looked at the clock: it was 3 a.m in Baltimore. “Do you know what time it is here?” he asked. “Oui, je sais bien,” she replied, unfazed. Robert took pleasure in reporting stories like that of his life on both sides of the Atlantic.

As you know, he wound up teaching in France, first at Arles, to be close to Danielle’s school in Marseilles, then in Paris, which involved semi-weekly commutes on the Paris-Lyon-Marseilles TGV until Danielle secured a position in Paris. I recall a funny short text of Robert’s about quiet-car behavior on the trains, another about encounters, when driving south, with the newly installed traffic circles. He remained a shrewd observer of his adopted society. Watching him, on my occasional visits, briskly making his way around Paris, introducing his friends to Marseilles, or to the hills along the Mediterranean coast, was a delight.

François and others can say much more than I about Robert’s work at the University and at the Fondation. I can, however, supply a final image of him from his tenure, on the rue Charles V, as chair of his section. Here he is, an American in Paris, recognized for his talents, literary and administrative, coolly and competently at work. And very much at home. Sort of. (Which is the way he wanted it, the admirable life that, with Danielle’s help, he had created from scratch).

-Neil Hertz

(Robert Mankin at Institut Charles V during his tenure as director of the UFR Études anglophones).