Herbert Lindenberger, founder of Stanford’s comparative literature program, dies at 89

Herbert S. Lindenberger, a professor emeritus who founded Stanford’s Department of Comparative Literature and inspired generations of students and scholars, died on Oct. 1.

Herbert S. “Herbie” Lindenberger, a Stanford professor emeritus who founded the Department of Comparative Literature, died at a retirement community in Portola Valley on Oct. 1 from multiple myeloma cancer. He was 89.

Herbert Lindenberger

Professor Emeritus Herbert Lindenberger, a leading scholar in literary and cultural history, is remembered by family and friends for his intellectual curiosity, integrity and boundless energy. (Image credit: © Kevin Ng Photography)

Lindenberger, professor emeritus of English and of comparative literature, was a leading scholar in literary and cultural history. He was known for his curiosity, integrity and what seemed like never-ending energy, according to his family and colleagues.

“He was the most curious person I’ve ever met,” his son, Michael Lindenberger, said. “His passion for knowledge and life were contagious. He didn’t ask questions for the sake of asking questions. He genuinely wanted to learn.”

Inquisitive scholar, energetic administrator

Originally from Seattle, Lindenberger joined Stanford in 1969 to establish a graduate program in comparative literature, which he directed for 13 years. The program became its own department in 1987.

In launching the program, Lindenberger set several requirements that remain today, including a requirement that students must be able to read in three languages outside their native ones.

Those initial requirements made the program stand out from other institutions and helped graduating students find good jobs more easily, according to John Bender, a longtime Stanford professor of comparative literature and of English.

“Herbie’s influence was tremendous, and the basic structure of the program he created is still with us today,” said Bender, who has known and worked alongside Lindenberger throughout his career at Stanford.

Lindenberger also played a key role in creating the Stanford Humanities Center, where he was an interim director from 1991 to 1992. For many years, he taught a required first-year humanities course, and he advised about 30 dissertations in the fields of comparative literature and English, Bender said.

“He was immensely energetic,” Bender said. “He could hardly stay still and that translated to his active scholarship as well as his deep involvement in departmental and university life.”

Lindenberger, who was a specialist in English, German and French literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, was also known for his interdisciplinary take on research and his writing on a wide range of subjects.

His 11 books covered topics of historical drama, opera, critical theory, aesthetics and the Holocaust, as well as studies of individual writers, such as William Wordsworth, Georg Büchner and Georg Trakl. His most known works are On Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” Opera: The Extravagant Art and The History in Literature: On Value, Genre, Institutions, among others.

“He was a maverick figure in his field because he wrote unconventional books that didn’t resemble each other,” said Professor Roland Greene, who is the current director of the Department of Comparative Literature. “I’ve always admired his scholarship. When I was a graduate student, I aspired to be like him.”

Lindenberger was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and president of the Modern Language Association in 1997. He was also the recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities and Stanford Humanities Center fellowships.

Before coming to Stanford, Lindenberger taught at the University of California, Riverside, and at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his PhD in comparative literature from the University of Washington in 1955, and he graduated with a degree in literature from Antioch College in 1951.

‘A force of nature’ until the end

Aside from his teaching, research and administrative duties, Lindenberger was active in the Stanford community. He was involved in a range of issues, including reworking the university’s policy on faculty housing and helping change requirements to the undergraduate curriculum.

“Herbie was a force of nature,” Greene said. “He threw himself into things, and he was fearless about it. He really knew how to make decisions that could affect a lot of people for the better in the long run.”

In the 1980s, some faculty and students challenged the list of prescribed books in a long-running required course on Western culture. Lindenberger was one of the main active proponents of diversifying the books to include more authors from multicultural backgrounds. The issue became widely publicized in the media.

“He wasn’t afraid of change. He embraced it,” his daughter, Elizabeth Lindenberger, said. “His sense of principle and integrity was uniquely ahead of his times. He would always fight for what is right.”

Lindenberger’s work ethic and approachable personality left an impact on many of his former students, colleagues and others around him.

Nancy Ruttenburg, a professor of American literature and a Stanford alumna, took Lindenberger’s graduate course on major modern critics in 1980. She said she still remembers with fondness his dynamic teaching style and the various gatherings he hosted for his students at his home.

“Herbie epitomized the remarkable dedication to teaching and mentorship that Stanford is known for,” Ruttenburg said. “His vitality in the classroom and throughout our graduate careers affected us all. He showed us that ideas were living things, not words on a page.”

After retiring from Stanford in 2001, Lindenberger continued to write and advise students, professors and other members of the Stanford community. He wrote two more books, One Family’s Shoah: Victimization, Resistance, Survival in Nazi Europe and Aesthetics of Discomfort: Conversations on Disquieting Art. He frequented the San Francisco Opera and went on rigorous 10-mile hikes regularly until he was diagnosed with cancer at 86.

Paul Robinson, a professor emeritus of history and a close friend, underscored Lindenberger’s sense of humor, which did not seem to wane even when his health got worse. After falling and breaking his hip in August, Lindenberger joked about it with Robinson.

“Herbie made fun of the things that stopped working in his San Francisco condo and said: ‘The refrigerator broke, then the dishwasher broke, and then I broke too,’” Robinson said. “He was a hilarious person and a very generous, wonderful human being.”

The cancer diagnosis also did not seem to deter him from his favorite activities. Until this past August, Lindenberger continued to attend opera performances and walk to the farmers market every weekend at Fort Mason, his family said.

Using a shopping cart as his walker, Lindenberger would buy fresh fruit in bulk and make jam.

“Nothing stopped this man,” his daughter said. “He had this amazing joie de vivre. He had more energy and enthusiasm than many people half his age.”

Lindenberger is survived by his wife, Claire Lindenberger; his children, Michael and Elizabeth, and their spouses, Clara Gutierrez and Ted Huey, as well as two grandchildren, Claire Huey and Celia Huey.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419, ashashkevich@stanford.edu