BY DIANE MANUEL
"Having suffered for some time from Marge Garber Syndrome -- i.e., I can't stop myself from reading everything she writes -- I approached her new collection of essays, Symptoms of Culture, with the anticipatory gleam of the addict."
That's Terry Castle, chair of the English department, writing about the latest work of Marjorie Garber, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard University.
"Nor was I disappointed," Castle adds. "These vastly enjoyable and instructive essays -- on everything from Shakespeare to Jell-O, Jack Benny to twin beds, sneezing to the Promise Keepers -- confirm her reputation as one of the wittiest and most trenchant of our contemporary cultural commentators."
Castle and other devotees will be in the audience when Garber steps up to the podium at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 11, in room 209 at the School of Law. Garber also will discuss her work from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460.
Both the lecture and discussion are free and open to the public.
As the first speaker in the Winter Quarter series of the Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts, the provocative cultural historian is sure to draw her share of critics, as well as admirers.
"There is much to deplore," Sir Frank Kermode, an eminent Shakespearean scholar, wrote about Garber's book Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life in a 1995 review for the New York Times. "The book is an agitated mixture of highbrow theory and lowbrow gossip."
Not so, Diane Middlebrook, professor of English, suggested in a letter to the editor.
"What a baffling position Frank Kermode has taken on Marjorie Garber's learned and delectably readable Vice Versa," Middlebrook wrote. "He complains that her Harvard predecessor George Lyman Kittredge 'couldn't even have imagined' the books she has devoured in researching her subject. But Kittredge, who died around the time Ms. Garber was born, couldn't even have imagined a female Harvard professor, let alone the way Shakespeare studies have become in the past two decades a forum for the exploration of every development in the field of literary theory."
A scholar whose work is read by activists and intellectuals alike, Garber is the author of seven books. Much of her writing focuses on gender identity, like her examination of transvestitism, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, which was widely and favorably reviewed in 1992.
"Equally fluent in writing about popular music and in discussing Shakespeare, Ms. Garber demonstrates an enormous range of knowledge in this volume, and she has assembled a compelling set of case studies, drawn from the arts and real life," New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote. "Fictional characters like Malvolio, Rosalind, Salome and Myra Breckinridge are profiled, as are historical figures like the Abbe de Choisy (a cross-dresser who became a diplomat and priest), T. E. Lawrence, Josephine Baker and Robert Mapplethorpe. Ms. Garber finds a continuum of influence from Rudolph Valentino to Liberace and Elvis Presley -- all of whom, she says, 'suggest that the question of cross-dressing, whether overt or latent, is central to their success, and even to the very question of stardom.'"
Garber established her scholarly credentials by writing such rigorous intellectual works as Shakespeare's Ghost Writers and Coming of Age in Shakespeare. And she has attracted a considerable popular following as the author of Dog Love, a fact-filled paean to Hollywood's Lassie and to her own beloved Wagner, Yofi and the late Nietzschie.
The Harvard cultural critic also is a frequently published essayist, writing about such topics as Pat Buchanan ("whose first name may recall, to avid watchers of 'Saturday Night Live,' a comic figure who incarnates the threat of gender indeterminacy in its most risible and unsettling form"), child pornography ("Childhood is our major cultural fetish and not, coincidentally, our major taboo") and Monica Lewinsky's shrug ("Today's shrug may be a defense masquerading as an offense -- a telling gesture that fends off inquisitiveness").
But Garber consistently returns to her roots in the academy to sound the trumpet for the staying power of great works:
"Despite exaggerated claims about
the dusty death of literary study, enrollments in Shakespeare
courses remain strong; quotations from the plays, some accurate,
others spectacularly approximate, can be encountered regularly at
your local Cineplex, the daily newspaper and the houses of
Congress," she wrote in the New York Times in 1994. "Those
who worry too much about the premature demise of Dead White Males
in the curriculum may take heart: Shakespeare -- quoted, cited,
parodied, staged and upstaged -- is the lifeblood of popular as
well as high culture today." SR