Interview with Lawrence Feinberg

This is a transcription of an interview between Lawrence Feinberg and Benjamin Musachio, the latest installment in a new AATSEEL/SEEB project to create an archive of the history of our field. If you are interested in interviewing an emeritus faculty member, please contact us at!

Benjamin Musachio (BM): Thank you very much for agreeing to chat with me today.

Lawrence Feinberg (LF): My pleasure.

BM: Maybe we can start with how you got interested in Russian, Slavic linguistics, and poetics.

LF: Well, I was always very good at languages, much better at languages than anything else, so I knew I was going to be some kind of language major when I went to college. And it was a choice basically between French and Russian, but Russian was a hot area. Back then there was Sputnik, national defense, and all the rest. I majored in Russian at Middlebury College and I went on to do graduate work in Slavic linguistics at Harvard.

My interest in poetics was perhaps sparked by having to memorize poetry in my Russian language courses at the Middlebury summer school in 1961, but it didn’t really develop until I was in grad school.

BM: Did you grow up in a multilingual family?

LF: No, English was the only language in our home. I was definitely attracted to foreign languages, though they didn’t take right away. I remember studying French in junior high school and I didn’t do very well in seventh grade, but in eighth and ninth grade my interest really took off. I got excited by it and did very well, and I knew right then that language was my thing.

BM: You excelled in language study even without having the resources of an immersion environment.

LF: Yes. The way we were taught languages back then was night and day different –– there is no comparison to the way that languages are taught today. It was essentially learning to read, to compose grammatical sentences, and to translate. That was it.

BM: After Middlebury, you pursued PhD studies at Harvard. Help me understand how the study of Slavics was structured at Harvard in the 1960s.

LF: I studied in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and I specialized in linguistics. There was no such thing as a cultural major back then. Nowadays I would imagine that most people who are interested in Slavic linguistics would be in the Linguistics department proper. I was one of the last students who actually did what we would call Slavic philology.

Even when I was studying for generals as a philologist/linguist, most of the other people in my track were very much into the Generative Transformational stuff that was going on down at M.I.T. They were in the Slavic department and specialized in linguistics, but their linguistics was much more at the cutting edge. There were also people in the older cohort of students when I was there – Henning Anderson, Michael Shapiro – with a structuralist orientation that was more to my liking, and who influenced my later work.  Another student in that cohort, Catherine Chvany, was not committed to any one theoretical approach, and would later work toward a rapprochement between Jakobsonian structuralism and Generative Grammar.

As for my professors, I worked under Horace Lunt, Roman Jakobson and Kiril Taranovsky. 

BM: Could you speak at greater length on important intellectual influences in these formative years?

LF: When I was in grad school the New Critics were in vogue, and the writings of people like René Wellek, William Wimsatt and I.A. Richards certainly influenced my approach to poetry.  The New Critics and Russian Formalists weren’t really that far apart, and their affinity has become even clearer in light of the more reader-focused and socially or culturally conscious academic trends that have come along since. Toward the end of my graduate studies I also acquainted myself with Yuri Lotman’s semiotically grounded poetics. Later on, when I was working on Blok’s poetry, I drew on research by other members of the Tartu School.

Over the years I’ve tried to grapple with criticisms of Jakobson’s poetic theory and method of analysis by scholars like Jonathan Culler and Nicolas Ruwet. Ruwet, basically sympathetic to Jakobson, was at pains to understand why his call for cooperation between linguists and literary scholars fell mostly on deaf ears. Jakobson’s overheated style was one obstacle, but even more consequential for Ruwet was his privileging of paradigmatic relations over syntagmatic—the cavalier attitude to syntax and indifference to discourse pragmatics – which could cause him to miss what was really interesting about a poem.

Ruwet also spoke of Jakobson’s attraction to the primitive, irrational and subliminal, which he found odd in an otherwise very rational man. I suspect some Russians simply pose a challenge for the Cartesian mind. Jakobson grew up among the artists of the Russian avant-garde. He remained one of them for all his eureka moments in the MIT electronics lab and fascination with things like information theory and brain science.

My work in Slavic linguistics proper owes a lot to people in the first generation of Jakobson’s American students –– Horace Lunt above all, but also Dean Worth and Edward Stankiewicz (who also worked in poetics). Then, as I’ve mentioned, there were older students in my cohort at Harvard whose influence I felt long after I left grad school. For instance, I’d accepted Jakobson’s theories of binarism and invariance pretty much as gospel until Catherine Chvany unpacked them in a series of incisive articles. This pointed my research in a new direction.  I’m still partial to Jakobson’s elegant 3-D model of Russian cases, but it’s a sentimental attachment. You could say I’ve moved on.

Of foreign scholars, I’m most indebted to the late Andrei Anatol’evich Zaliznjak, whose work gave me a new understanding of Russian prosody and completely altered my picture of early East Slavic dialects. I’m sorry I never got to meet him.

BM: Did you apply to Harvard with the idea of working with Lunt and Jakobson? How did your interest in poetics and in poetry relate to your training in linguistics?

LF: I certainly heard of Roman Jakobson before I went there and I hoped to encounter him at some point. I also read Lunt’s formidable Russian grammar the summer before I went there, which gave me a very different impression of Lunt as compared to the impression that he made when I finally got there.

It was Roman Jakobson who turned me on to poetics, to the application of linguistics to the study of poetry. His grammatical analysis of Russian poetry was really a mind blower. From then on, I knew that this was my field.

I was probably the last to do a dissertation under Jakobson’s direction, but there were quite a few linguistics Ph.D.’s after me, including some notable scholars such as Alan Timberlake and Olga Yokoyama. My area of concentration was called linguistics, as opposed to literature, but it was more like philology, with a stronger emphasis on the history and structure of languages than on linguistic theory. My interest in poetics wouldn’t have fit into a conventional linguistics program.

I took only one course in the Linguistics department and that was Calvert Watkins’s Introduction to Indo-European. Horace Lunt had begun his career as a structuralist, but by the late 1960s he had been won over by Generative Grammar, and the students who finished under his direction spent a good deal of time at M.I.T. conferring with Chomsky and Halle and their disciples. They weren’t typically interested in poetics. 

BM: How would you describe Lunt and Jakobson as people, as mentors?

LF: This is interesting because Lunt came across as a crusty old curmudgeon from his book Fundamentals of Russian. I was rather surprised, pleasantly surprised, to find him so very affable when I met him for the first time. Actually, Lunt was a mixed bag. When he was seated behind his chairman’s desk or lecturing in front of a class, he was relaxed and charming, with a delightful sense of humor. But otherwise he could be very remote and cold. He gave his students a model of rigorous scholarship that has served us generally well, though it has also had an inhibiting effect. As chairman he was staunchly supportive of the linguistics half of the department, but he was aloof from his students and very stinting with praise and encouragement. His scholarly reviews could sometimes be brutal, so you were always afraid of coming up short in his estimation. I might add that having him as a role model didn’t necessarily endear me to my own students.

Jakobson was in many ways the opposite of Lunt. He was a warm human being as well as a passionate scholar and teacher. I mean, when Lunt was lecturing you could see that he was excited by whatever question was occupying him at the moment, but it wasn’t a contagious enthusiasm. Jakobson, though, really involved you in what he was doing. And if you conferred with him about your own work, he made you feel like your interests were more important than anything else. He truly had that effect. He possessed that ability to make you feel so important, your interests so vital.

­In some ways, it was Jakobson the indulgent grandparent versus Lunt, the fault-finding parent.

[NB: For those interested in more details about Horace Lunt, see here Professor Feinberg’s memoir of Lunt, published in the October 2019 issue of SEEJ.]

BM: How would you compare Kiril Taranovsky with the other two figures?

LF: He was wonderful once you got to know him. He was a lot more reserved than Jakobson, and I didn’t really work with him until the very end, just when I had finished writing my dissertation and came back to Cambridge for my defense. I was in contact with him a couple of times. He really opened me up to the Russian poetic tradition, enlarging my perspective beyond the microcosm of the individual text. For that I’m still very grateful to him.

BM: For the graduate requirements at Harvard at that time, I assume you had to prove competence in multiple languages?

LF: Yes, you had to have two other Slavic languages, so I did Bulgarian and Czech. Of course, everybody was required to study Old Church Slavonic – that was your introduction to Slavic linguistics and to Horace Lunt. Lunt of course wrote the most widely used grammar for OCS (Old Church Slavonic Grammar, now in its seventh revised edition).

BM: I know that Harvard wasn’t necessarily a hotbed of campus radicalism, but what was it like to be in that particular environment at that point in history?

LF: When I was there, there might have been some social consciousness. There might have been students who were supportive, for example, of college employees, custodial people and so on. But I don’t remember really anything like the movements that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

One thing that might be relevant here: The March on Washington in 1963. I participated along with a couple of other graduate students who drove down to Washington D.C. for that.

BM: Did you ever did you spend any time in the Soviet Union during grad school?

LF: I didn’t actually get to the Soviet Union until 1980/81, when I was on an IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board) teachers exchange. And then I went back there in 1989 with a group of UNC students as one of two faculty leaders. It was relatively unusual before then to spend time in Russia; some graduate students did, but not very many.

BM: Since we are on the subject, what were your impressions of Soviet Russia?

LF: I found Moscow a chilly place even in the unusually hot summer of 1981. One of the first things I noticed on arrival was the sheer gigantism of the place – one city block maybe was equal to three of New York’s. It was a 20-minute hike from Moscow State University (MGU) to the nearest metro station.

People were routinely unpleasant. Though I once dropped into some Uzbek eatery and was blown away by their courtesy and friendliness. That was also one of the few square meals I had in six weeks.

I rarely slept well: the dormitory beds were awful. But the teaching staff from the Russian for Foreigners division of the MGU Filologicheskii fakul’tet was generally first-rate, and there was a worthwhile program of lectures, including by scholars such as Aleksandr Chudakov. The best of the instructors, Galina Volodina, also took some of the seminar members on walking tours of the city that would begin in mid-afternoon and end in the early evening. She supposedly had a weak heart, yet most of us had trouble keeping up with her.

Overall, my first visit to Russia was a valuable experience, but I wasn’t that unhappy to leave or eager to get back. That might have been different if I’d been less intent on playing it safe and done more of what we now call networking. In addition to the social benefits, it would have improved my Russian and I might also have eaten better.

But I can tell you that after six weeks there, I wasn’t terribly disappointed to be getting out.

BM: Okay, so from Harvard University. What’s the next step, you go onto the job market…?

LF: Yes, my first job was at the University of Colorado Boulder. I taught Slavic linguistics there and some Russian language courses for three years. I was there from 1967 to 1970, and then I moved on to UNC Chapel Hill and taught there for over 40 years. I retired in 2009/10.

BM: At Chapel Hill, were graduate students studying in the Slavic department or was your teaching mostly directed toward undergraduates?

LF: I would say it was half-and-half. I taught Russian language courses, basically the third-year grammar course (Advanced Russian). I taught using Charles Townsend’s textbook Continuing with Russian for most of that period. Townsend, by the way, was one of my teachers at Harvard. He was a faculty member and I studied the history of the Russian language with him during my first year.  

The graduate courses I taught were Old Church Slavonic, the structure of Russian, and the history of Russian. At one point, I taught an introductory Czech course. I also offered reading courses in Ukrainian. Oh, I almost forgot — Russian versification and structural analysis of poetry.

BM: Were teaching and research for you two separate domains or did they inform

one another?

LF: Interesting question. There always seemed to me to be a tension between teaching and research. I basically considered myself a teacher above all. It is a truly special thing to pass on your excitement to students. There are moments when I could tell I’d lit a fire and other times when I left the classroom feeling I hadn’t really connected. But there was also some kind of tension between teaching and scholarship, which for me was a much more solitary pursuit and more arduous even though it was maybe more rewarding.

Back in the 1980s at Chapel Hill, I remember there was a big push by the administration to kind of square the circle, to say that research was central to the university’s mission, while at the same time trying to reassure the state’s tax payers that we were totally focused on teaching their children. At faculty meetings, you had the Dean of Arts and Sciences introduce a lineup of faculty speakers and proclaim how research informs their teaching and vice versa. But that wasn’t my experience.

It was only rarely that I would bring some half-baked idea in the class, and I would attempt to clarify it for the students. That might pay dividends for my scholarship, but for the most part the classroom and scholarship were really separate domains.

BM: Could you list some of your colleagues in Slavics at Chapel Hill? Paul Debreczeny was one if I’m not mistaken.

LF: Yes, he was a colleague and a good friend as well. And Walter Vickery, who brought me to Chapel Hill. Actually, Vickery first brought me to Colorado, and when he left for Chapel Hill, he invited me to join him there the following year. He and I translated Taranovsky’s classic book, Russian Binary Meters. Some other colleagues over the years: Madeline Levine, Victor Friedman, Laura Janda, Beth Holmgren, Ivana Vuletić, Radislav Lapushin.

BM: Are you particularly proud of one piece of scholarship?

LF: I like to think of my first and my most recent papers as kind of bookends. I’m rather proud of all three of them. The first was extracted from my dissertation; it is a grammatical analysis of Boris Pasternak’s poem “Gamlet” from Doctor Zhivago. Most recently, I worked on Zinaida Gippius and did an analysis on the poem “Chto est’ grekh?” And somewhat earlier, I did a linguistics paper on the fall of the reduced vowels and how that is reflected in the northwestern area of the East Slavic domain (more esoteric than the Gippius paper!).

BM: Now, in regard to the poetry, would you say that you gravitate toward Modernist verse?

LF: Definitely modernist yes, the Silver Age especially.

BM: Do you have a favorite prose author or prose work to teach?

LF: Well, I did a reading course for one student in which we read through Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. But that was an introduction for me as well as for the student. My acquaintance with Russian prose is basically limited to the nineteenth-century classics, and even there I have some catching-up to do.

BM: Could you speak to, from 1960s to the present, how you see the field has changed, either for better or for worse?

LF: The field has become less stodgy and more inclusive, and that, I think, is definitely a good thing. In the 1960s, as you may know, our profession was dominated by white males. It was all very hierarchical. Though there were many women in my graduate cohort at Harvard, female faculty members were basically relegated to teaching language courses.

The only persons of color that I remember during my time at Harvard were one African-American from Richmond, Virginia, a Russian Studies major, and a pair of Asian exchange students from Korea and Japan. They were in my classes during my first year. Obviously, things have changed a lot since then.

I think many of the changes have been for the better, but I would also say that something has been lost. I would say that we have lost the idea of the university as a kind of a place with a special mission, a privileged space devoted to the life of the mind. That idea even back then was a kind of fiction. But enough people believed in the fiction and it helped keep us a little bit separate from business and government, although we were naturally even then entwined with both.

Then came the 1960s, a time of great political turmoil and rapid social changes, much like the present. That’s when you got demands for relevance for the first time. Around about 1970, student evaluations of professors become routine.

Right now, if you asked me, I would say things are topsy-turvy. The people who were marginalized when I was a student back in the ’60s are now in the saddle, though not as firmly in the saddle as some people would like. You have well-meaning administrators who are caught between Title IX bureaucrats, on the one hand, and idealistic but sometimes short-sighted students and junior faculty, on the other.

BM: Did you make a conscious choice to pursue a position in a state university?

LF: No, not really. It was a good fit and they were hiring when those two positions came along. I was very fortunate to do my undergraduate and graduate training at a time when there was ample support for Russian studies. I came onto the job market when it was a sellers’ market.

BM: Did you have multiple offers then, right out of your PhD?

LF: Yes, I had two offers: one from Brown, which didn’t quite work out. But the second, the one from University of Colorado, Boulder did work out. And then three years later, I got my job at UNC, but I think just about the time when I moved to Chapel Hill, that’s when the job situation started to change. It was no longer a sellers’ market.

BM: After 1991, did your intellectual life change dramatically? Were your scholarly contacts with now “post-Soviet” linguists more robust, more open?  

LF: That’s one of the regrets that I have looking back: that my work was so self-contained. There were probably Soviet scholars I could have exchanged ideas with in a productive way. But even among American scholars, there were very few people that I was sharing my ideas with; there were some but not very many.

Every now and then I would correspond with a scholar, usually someone that I already knew from graduate school, but basically, I worked on my own. And I suspect that I could have been more productive than I was if I had been more in contact with others. When I started out, there were several, so to speak, gangs that you could join. There was a generative syntax gang, a semiotics gang, a Bakhtin gang, and so on and so forth. But my work was pretty solitary.

BM: Presumably something about the various groups that you just described turned you off.

LF: I think it did, then. I would like to think that if I was starting out now, that wouldn’t be the case, but it was just something about my personality, I guess.

BM: And for linguistics and its role in the field of Slavics, would you say that it has been increasingly marginalized from the mainstream of Slavic language and literature departments?

LF: No question.

BM: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

LF: Well, from my perspective, it’s definitely not so great. But there’s been a movement in general away from fields of study that are considered esoteric, hermetic fields, toward more people-friendly disciplines. Even in the way that Slavic linguistics has been done you can see something of that tendency. If you compare the different kinds of linguistics Slavists have been doing since the late 1970s with the structuralism I was raised on, you see a much greater focus on contextual variation and gradation, as well as an overall movement away from abstraction. Words like binarism and invariance nowadays have a kind of patriarchal, some would say authoritarian ring to them.

BM: Do you think that the future looks increasingly grim for people who want to do specifically Slavic linguistics, or even linguistics in a Slavic department, to the extent that it’s still possible even?

LF: I wouldn’t say that for certain. Again, it’s been over 10 years since I’ve been in retirement, and some things may have changed for the worse, especially over the past dreadful year. But I think that people who are fascinated by particular languages and their structure and development can still find their niche. That may not be in a Slavic department, but there’s no reason a motivated student can’t combine an interest in, say, Polish or Slovene with the study of formal linguistics in a department of linguistics.

BM: Do you anticipate publishing more in the years to come?

LF: I would hope so. Recently I’ve been editing for publication the translation of Taranovsky’s book that Vickery and I did 50 years ago – it’s really taken that long for the manuscript to get off the dustheap. (The introductory chapters are due to appear in the journal Studia Metrica et Poetica.) I’m not currently involved in any original research, but I certainly wouldn’t foreclose that possibility. I’m definitely open to it. Meanwhile, I’ve done a few useful things like looking over a colleague’s manuscript and vetting a submission to a journal. In any case, the real world can’t be kept permanently at bay, and retirement has given me ample time and opportunity to sound off in the political blogosphere. That’s been the extent of my recent publishing activity.

BM: Thank you for the informative conversation.

Lawrence Feinberg is Emeritus Associate Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Benjamin Musachio is a graduate student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University.

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