In Memoriam: Paul Cantor, high-profile literary and pop culture critic



Paul Cantor, a University of Virginia professor and literary scholar whose academic interests ranged from Shakespeare to “The Simpsons,” died Feb. 26. He was 76 years old. One of UVA’s longest-serving faculty members, he joined the faculty in 1977 and most recently served as the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English.

He was remembered by his colleagues as “one of the great thinkers and teachers in the history of UVA” and “equally loved and admired”.

Born in Brooklyn, Cantor earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He was an assistant professor of English there after obtaining his doctorate. in 1971, until he joined UVA.

Although Cantor focused on literary studies, he was also interested in political philosophy and economics, following the Austrian school, as it is known. During his academic career, he also began to apply his scholarly thinking to popular culture narratives, searching for similarities in the seemingly disparate media of literature and television.

Adam Keiper, editor of The Bulwark, tweeted: “The great Paul Cantor has died. Critic, English teacher and scholar of Shakespeare, he was a pioneer in treating pop culture as worthy of serious philosophical attention.

Former student Peter Hufnagel wrote about Cantor’s website, which Hufnagel built for his former teacher and mentor, “The spirited responses that Cantor’s pop culture lectures elicited from students changed Cantor’s view of what he was doing.” Cantor has taught and advised Hufnagel at the undergraduate and graduate levels. They published two essays together.

Cantor valued his students’ ideas and championed his students’ strengths, Hufnagel said, and “the result was that he uplifted his students and gave them confidence in their studies and in their lives.” He taught me that academics and life should always be guided by curiosity and openness to new ideas, new experiences and new approaches.

John O’Brien, who chairs the UVA’s English department, said Cantor has taught courses on Shakespeare, tragedy, romanticism, empire literature and science literature in recent years. He estimated that Cantor probably taught 10,000 or more students during his 45-year career at UVA, many of whom took a large English literature reading course that enrolled hundreds of students.

One of his first students at Harvard, Michael Moses, considered Cantor not only a legendary mentor and teacher, but also a great friend and colleague, he wrote in an email. He was so impressed with Cantor, then a new assistant professor, that Moses followed Cantor to UVA during his graduate studies.

Moses became a professor of literature at Duke University, retired in 2019, and is now on the faculty at Chapman University. He described Cantor as one of his closest friends, even “a second father”.

“Paul was celebrated by his students for his exceedingly broad and deep scholarship, his intellectual genius, his extraordinary passion for knowledge, his deep concern for his students, and his rich sense of humor,” said Moses.

Cantor shared his developing ideas with his students along the way, and several of his resulting books caught the public’s eye. He could introduce sophisticated concepts to students in terms they could easily understand, Hufnagel said. The professor’s knowledge extended far beyond literature, and he used his expertise in popular culture, music, and sports as gateways for his students to grasp complex theories and knowledge.

“Cantor began to search for continuities between what had been systematically and rigidly separated into high culture and low culture,” Hufnagel wrote in the scholarly biography he features on Cantor’s website. “In effect, [Cantor] soon realized that what is considered high culture today (Shakespeare’s plays, Dickens’s novels, Verdi’s operas) was the popular culture of his time.

“His studies show that in many cases, authors, artists and composers draw their energy and inspiration from their contact with their audiences in commercial markets, while much of the elite culture has suffered a loss of vitality in being isolated from any real audiences and only catering to academic experts,” Hufnagel said.

Cantor collected these pop culture insights into a stack of essays and books, including “Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization,” named by the Los Angeles Times one of the best nonfiction books of 2001. ; “The Invisible Hand in Pop Culture”, published in 2012; and “Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies,” published in 2019.

In “Gilligan Unbound”, Cantor “analyzes and interprets a wide variety of classic television programs with the same earnestness, care and creativity as he would Hamlet or Macbeth to reveal just how much the image that the America has itself evolved from the 1960s to the present day.” according to the description in the book.

In ‘The Invisible Hand in Pop Culture’ he focused on the original ‘Star Trek’, ‘The X Files’ and ‘The Simpsons’ – shows he understood as exploring the tension between freedom and other values, such as order and politics. stability.

One of his “Simpsons” essays has been translated into more languages ​​and reprinted in English more than any other essay he wrote, Hufnagel said.

In “Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream,” Cantor analyzed more recent shows, such as “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.”

University professor Mark Edmundson, a close colleague in the UVA’s English department for nearly 40 years, said certain critical themes run through all of Cantor’s work.

“He saw how true art forms began as merely popular and sometimes shoddy forms of entertainment, but then rose to real magnificence. Shakespeare always remained a popular playwright, devoted to entertainment, but grew to write the most magnificent pieces ever composed.

“Television may have started out as a big wasteland, but it attracted talented people and over time gave us ‘The Simpsons’, for which Paul makes a compelling case, and ‘Breaking Bad’, for which Paul thinks they’ll be seen in a thousand years.. His discussion of this series is so pointed and revealing that one comes away thinking he might be right.

Cantor’s studies of the bard included “Shakespeare’s Rome: Republic and Empire”, “Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy”, and treatises on “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”.

In Literature and the Economics of Liberty, published in 2009, Cantor used a free market lens to counter Marxist literary interpretations and emphasized freedom of creativity.

As Edmundson said, “Paul always trusts the market to produce exceptional work, and he trusts ordinary people to recognize it. The teachers, he says, always arrive last. That may be true for the rest of us, but not for Paul.

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