Emeritus English professor Paul Alpers dies at age 80

Paul Alpers, a UC Berkeley professor of English for 38 years, died May 19 at his home in Northampton, Mass. He was the husband of Smith College President Carol Christ, who served as Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost from 1994 to 2000.

Paul Alpers

Paul Alpers

Alpers, who had been battling cancer, was the founding director of UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities, a former chair of the English Department, a 1972 winner of the Distinguished Teaching Award, and the Class of 1942 Professor of English Emeritus. He retired from the faculty in 2002, the year his wife began her new post at Smith.

At Smith, Alpers was a professor in residence in the Department of English Language and Literature. He also served as “an unofficial ambassador for Smith, cherishing the friendships he made with many college alumnae from around the world,” according to Marilyn Schuster, provost and dean of the faculty, writing in an email to the Smith campus community earlier this week.

Tony Cascardi, dean of arts and humanities in UC Berkeley’s College of Letters & Science, called Alpers “one of his generation’s most influential scholars in the field of Renaissance studies. I remember him as a colleague and mentor,” he said, “whose insights into the literature of this period in English and other languages were coupled with a humane and generous approach to scholarship and teaching. He will be sorely missed.”

“I was deeply saddened to learn of Paul Alpers’ passing,” added George Breslauer, UC Berkeley executive vice chancellor and provost. “He was a great scholar, teacher and colleague for almost four decades. He was the kind of professor who maintained UC Berkeley’s excellence in all that we do.”

Alpers’ first book, The Poetry of the Faerie Queene, introduced a new way of reading English poet Edmund Spenser. In his second book, on Virgil’s Eclogues, he initiated his work on the pastoral genre of literature, art and music. His next book, What is Pastoral? was a foundational work that won both the Christian Gauss Award and the Harry Levin Award.

He also was a founding editor of the journal Representations, which was first published by UC Press in 1983. Its purpose, according to its self-description, is to “encourage innovative research among scholars who explore the way artifacts, institutions, and modes of thought both reflect and give a heightened account of the social, cultural, and historical circumstances in which they arise.”

Alpers was born on Oct.16, 1932, and received his B.A. and Ph.D. in English from Harvard University. During his career, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the American Philosophical Society.

He is survived by his wife, Carol Christ; his sons, Benjamin and Nicholas Alpers; his stepchildren Jonathan and Elizabeth Sklute; four grandchildren; two brothers, David and Edward Alpers; and his former wife, Svetlana Alpers.

A news report in the Daily Hampshire Gazette said that Alpers died the same day that Smith College held its 135th graduation ceremony and just a few weeks before Christ was to retire, after 11 years as Smith’s 10th president. The story quoted Christ, in remarks given during last Saturday’s Ivy Day Convocation, recounting how she and Alpers drove across country from Berkeley to begin a new life at the Northampton campus. A Smith College memorial service is being planned.

The family requests that donations in Alpers memory be made to the UC Berkeley English Department or to the Bancroft Library.