NORTHAMPTON - Paul Joel Alpers, 80, a scholar of the English Renaissance whose work re-imagined how we read Renaissance poetry, died May 19, 2013, at his home in Northampton. The cause was cancer, said his wife Carol T. Christ.
A nationally recognized authority on the poetry of Edmund Spenser and on the genre of pastoral, Professor Alpers was on the faculty of the English department of the University of California at Berkeley from 1964 until his retirement in 2002, when he accompanied his wife to Smith College, where she served as president.
Professor Alpers' first book, "The Poetry of The Faerie Queene", reconceived the way in which we read Spenser's epic, arguing that its conventional allegorical interpretation had blinded critics to the tone and detail of individual episodes, designed to take the reader through a series of attitudes and experiences. Along with Berkeley colleagues, Stanley Fish and Stephen Booth, Professor Alpers initiated a movement in Renaissance criticism, directing attention in a structural way to readers and the reading experience. Professor Alpers' book on The Faerie Queene was praised as truly groundbreaking, a highly original approach to the poetic surface of Spenser's epic. According to critic Jeffrey Knapp, he "made it possible for us to appreciate why the Elizabethans regarded Edmund Spenser as their greatest poet, and, in so doing, he helped transform our understanding of the entire period."
Professor Alpers' work on the pastoral was even more broadly influential. He initiated this work with Singer of the Eclogues: A Study of Virgilian Pastoral. His next book, "What is Pastoral?", is by far the most important work on this major European genre, defining and interpreting its conventions, concerns and ambitions. Ranging broadly over writers from Theocritus to Sarah Orne Jewett, Professor Alpers argues that pastoral is not a vehicle for nostalgia or escape, but a mode of literature, spanning genres, that uses simplifying conventions to reflect on all that perplexes and motivates humanity. The book won both the Harry Levin and the Christian Gauss Award.
Paul Joel Alpers was born Oct. 16, 1932, in Philadelphia, the son of distinguished neurologist Dr. Bernard J. Alpers and Dr. Lillian Sher Alpers.
After receiving his bachelor's and his doctorate degrees in English literature from Harvard University, and serving briefly on its faculty as an instructor, he joined the English department of the University of California at Berkeley in 1964. He won the campus's distinguished teaching award in 1972 and he served as chair of the department in the mid 1980s, when he helped found the journal representations to provide a vehicle for the work of younger scholars, particularly those associated with the emerging school of literary theory called the New Historicism.
He served as the founding director of the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities at the university from 1987 to 1992, establishing all the main features of its programs. He was elected both to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He retired from the faculty in 2002 with the title Class of 1942 Professor of English.
Professor Alpers spent the last decade of his life at Smith College, where, as the president's spouse, he served as an unofficial ambassador for the college, treasuring his friendships with alumnae from around the world.
In addition to his wife Carol T. Christ, Professor Alpers is survived by his sons Benjamin L. and Nicholas C. Alpers; his step-children Jonathan M. and Elizabeth C. Sklute; four grandchildren; two brothers, David H. and Edward A. Alpers; and his former wife Svetlana L. Alpers.
Professor Alpers was at heart a humanist. In an interview, former student University of Arkansas Professor Dorothy Stephens wrote that he "felt deeply that the study of literature is inextricable from the study of what human beings owe each other. He was always interested in how the sharing of poetry enables us to cope with the pain of being human and to seize moments of joy."
In lieu of flowers, donations in Paul's memory may be made to the Friends of the Library at Smith College.
A memorial service will be held at a later date in Berkeley, Calif.
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Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette on May 24, 2013