November 1, 2017
Ross Chambers, 84, Marvin Felheim Distinguished University Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, died Oct. 18 in Ann Arbor following a brief illness. A renowned and prolific scholar of modern literature, and a much-loved teacher and mentor, Chambers was a member of the University of Michigan faculty from 1975 until his retirement in 2002.
Chambers was born in Kempsey, Australia, in 1932 and earned Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees, both with first-class honors, from the University of Sydney. He completed his doctorate in France at the Université de Grenoble in 1967, earning highest honors for a dissertation on Gérard de Nerval directed by a distinguished specialist in romanticism and mysticism, Léon Cellier. From 1964-71, he taught French at the University of New South Wales. He returned to his alma mater, the University of Sydney, in 1971 as McCaughy Professor of French and head of the Department of French.
Having come to U-M four years later as professor of French, in 1985 he shifted half of his appointment to Comparative Literature and at the same time was appointed to his Distinguished University Professorship, naming it to honor Felheim, a legendary teacher of English and American culture at Michigan from the ’50s to the ’70s. Chambers’ budgeted joint appointment was the first of its kind in what was then the Program in Comparative Literature, and served as a model for the subsequent appointments that enabled Comparative Literature to build a faculty of its own and paved the way for its transformation into a department.
After earning his doctorate, Chambers rapidly achieved scholarly distinction in the field of French literature. Between 1969 and 1987, he authored five books published in Paris, three of them with the prestigious publisher José Corti: “Gérard de Nerval et la poétique du voyage” (1969), “La Comédie au château: Contribution à la poétique du théâtre” (1971), and “Mélancolie et opposition: Les débuts du modernisme en France” (1987).
Chambers was not, however, content to remain within the intellectual ambit for which his encyclopedic knowledge of French literature and his remarkable mastery of the French language had qualified him as a leading figure. With his first books in English, “Meaning and Meaningfulness” (1979) and especially “Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction” (1984) Chambers turned his focus to comparative and theoretical studies in literature, particularly the nature of narrative and its role in both confirming and subverting relations of power, authority and domination.
His distinctive synthesis of sophisticated narratology and cultural critique received its most systematic expression in his influential “Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative” (1991). Eight years later, his explorations of the subversive implications of literary forms and practices took a decidedly unsystematic turn with the publication of “Loiterature” (1999), an extended series of essays on the disorderly, digressive, unpredictable and anti-productive tendencies within literary discourse.
Two of his major works of criticism emerged, as his colleague Professor of French David Caron put it, “from Ross’s response to the devastation of the AIDS crisis.” In “Facing It” (1998) and “Untimely Interventions” (2004), both published by the University of Michigan Press, he asked, in Caron’s words, “how we can read testimonial writings in the aftermath of historical violence and collective trauma; what ethical obligations witnesses place on us, readers, to let ourselves be haunted and become, in turn, responsible for the memories our culture would rather keep at bay.”
An active scholar until very near the end of his life, Chambers combined his original approach to culture studies with his 19th-century specialization in “Atmospherics of the City: Baudelaire and the Poetics of Noise” (2015). He also completed a book-length autobiographical manuscript, “My Life as a Parrot,” destined for publication in his native Australia.
At U-M, Chambers was known as a creative and much-loved teacher of both undergraduates and graduates. Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature Stuart McDougal, who directed the program in Comparative Literature in the 1980s and ’90s, noted that “his thoughtful comments and suggestions on dissertations — whether he was the chair or a reader — were legendary and helped launch many a first publication for our graduate students.” He was renowned in the scholarly circles to which he belonged as a generous and insightful supporter and mentor of younger scholars. In addition to his crucial role in developing the study of comparative literature at Michigan, he was also instrumental in transforming the university’s French curriculum, opening it to greater cultural and geographic diversity and a wider variety of cultural production.
Chambers’ achievements as a scholar and teacher were recognized by many visiting appointments at leading universities, a Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award at Michigan (1992), and an honorary doctorate from the Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland (2001). He was a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an Officier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques (France).
He is survived by a brother, Graeme Chambers of Rozelle, Australia, and several nieces and nephews.
—Submitted by William Paulson, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures