Emeritus Professor Charles “Chuck” R. Larson passed away on May 22. He worked as a Department of Literature faculty member for more than four decades, and as department chair for five years. The College of Arts and Sciences community is grieving this loss, and its sympathy goes out to his wife of 50 years, Emerita Professor Roberta Rubenstein, and their children Vanessa and Josh. Dr. Larson was a pioneering scholar of African and African American literature, author of acclaimed works of criticism, a fiction writer, and beloved teacher who received the University Faculty Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1991. The Washington Post published a well-deserved tribute, and his colleagues and former students have shared their own memories below. Dr. Larson is remembered not only for helping to establish the field of African literature in the United States, but for his brilliance, warmth, and wit.
“In his work and his nurturing of other scholars and his department, Chuck brought the world into literature and literature into the worlds of so many young people now grown into adults who remember him for changing their interior lives,” says Max Paul Friedman, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “I loved talking with him on campus or at raucous Lit parties, with his bright mind and focused attention and taste for satire, a beautiful man who cared deeply for others and could see right to the heart of the contradictions that make systems infuriating and humans loveable—and provided grist for the perpetually spinning mill of his conspiratorial humor. The College is bereft by his departure.”
As a literary critic, Dr. Larson’s books include The Emergence of African Fiction (1972), The Novel in the Third World (1976), American Indian Fiction (1978) and The Ordeal of the African Writer (2001); he also edited a number of prominent collections, including three specifically on African literature and one, Worlds of Fiction (1993), co-edited with his wife, Emerita Professor Roberta Rubenstein. He also wrote fiction including The Insect Colony (1978), Arthur Dimmesdale (1983), and the satirical story collection Academia Nuts (1977). Following his retirement in 2011, he continued as an arts critic at the online publication Counterpunch.
In lieu of flowers, those who wish to honor Dr. Larson with a contribution may turn to the National Peace Corps Association or Bethesda Cares. A public celebration of his life will take place at AU, with details to be announced in the near future.
Fond Memories from Colleagues
Associate Professor Keith Leonard on Dr. Larson: “There are so many ways in which to remember about Chuck’s time here at American University. It won’t be only for his sartorial splendor or his youthful physique. It will also be for long and distinguished career of scholarship and journalism, commentary and fiction. Some of you may already know that Chuck served in the very first Peace Corps class. But what you may not know is that, upon returning to the US, he taught the first course on African literature to be offered at any college in the United States and probably in the world. That was in 1965, the year before my parents got married. You may not know that Chuck also taught the first course on African American literature to be offered at any university in the US apart from historically black colleges. That was in 1968, the year before I was born. It is hard not to acknowledge such remarkable firsts. Indeed, how often can one claim to know firsthand a true pioneer of an academic field? Not just someone who made a distinctive mark, but someone who made the field possible.”
Associate Professor Lindsey Green-Simms is continuing Dr. Larson’s academic legacy as a specialist in African literature and cinema: “It's hard to put into words what I owe to Chuck Larson, who welcomed me with such open arms when he retired and I came on board. He laid the groundwork for so many of the courses I teach, courses that my students cherish and that do the hard work of imagining otherwise possibilities. Chuck was building foundations and bridges before I was even born, recognizing the beauty and power of African writers long before anyone thought to include them in syllabi, let alone devote whole courses to them. I think he'd appreciate us remembering him with this West African proverb: ‘Whenever an elder dies, a library burns down.’”
Writer and former student Aaron Bady remembers exactly the kind of teacher and person Dr. Larson embodied: “When I first came to American as a grad student, the thing I glommed onto was that sense of certainty and decisiveness he brought to pretty much everything he did. Words like ‘pioneer’ and ‘trailblazer’ feel like such stale cliches, but Chuck really did make his career doing the things no one around him was paying attention to. Did you know that his American Indian Fiction was, in 1978, the first full-length work of criticism on Native authors? Most people don’t even know he worked on that at all! And there are so many little things like that. He was just that kind of person, who would decide that he was going to do a thing and would proceed without hesitation to do it. As a nervous young student always getting in my own way, I sheltered in that certainty and tried to borrow just a fraction of his drive and determination.”
Cindy Bair van Dam, Hurst Senior Professorial Lecturer and faculty chair of AU Core, notes that the current composition of the literature department was largely developed by Dr. Larson: “Ever young at heart, Chuck saw the need to reinvigorate our department, so he set out to hire a series of vibrant and creative faculty members during his time as department chair. This pivot was central to our department’s evolution toward global literatures. The tracks of our department, particularly Cinema Studies and Transcultural Studies, can be traced back to the hiring made during Chuck’s tenure as department chair.”
Literature Professor Marianne Noble remembers how Dr. Larson helped build community at AU: “Chuck and Roberta gave frequent wonderful dinner parties for the department. They were careful to bring together interesting mixes of people, and Chuck would always give you his undivided attention, listening past the surface to deeper things you were trying to say, asking questions that would help you narrate your story. He was interested in everything, curious, and incredibly opinionated and passionate. In particular, Chuck was passionate about literature, literature from all over the world. He was a dear, dear friend, and the world is much impoverished for his absence.”
John Hyman, former director of the Writing Studies Program, recalls how Dr. Larson’s vision and generosity extended far beyond campus: “I suppose my sweetest memory is from a hot summer day. Chuck and I walked down to the AU offices on New Mexico Avenue to do an errand. As we began our return to campus, Chuck noticed a dog tied to a signpost just outside the former Sutton Place Gourmet. Before I realized his absence, I saw him inside the store, engaged in what clearly was an argument. After a couple of minutes, he reappeared with a bowl of water for the parched animal. He made no mention of it, and we continued our trek to campus. Chuck saw a need and responded. That impulse of kindness and action characterized everything he did as a friend, mentor, and intellectual.”
Poet and Professor David Keplinger remembers Dr. Larson’s generosity of spirit: “As chair of the Department of Literature for six years during his final decade at American University, Chuck will be remembered as the voice who mentored junior faculty to rise to their potential as teachers and scholars. He altogether reveled in the success and accomplishments of others as though these milestones were his own. ‘This is great, this is great,’ he would say in his impassioned way, on hearing of the publication of a book or of a deserved promotion. His sense of humor and his competence and expertise were not at odds but complimented each other. His work in all ways was impeccable and groundbreaking, and Chuck was a playful, encouraging voice of kindness to those around him.”
The memories of colleagues and former students all seem to mention a certain ever-present grin that was insouciant and rogue. Bady’s account is typical: “As I’ve been sorting through my memories of him, the thing I keep coming back to is that mischievous little smile that told you Chuck was plotting something. The pleasure he took in everything, the zest he had for his work and for people and for life, that was all on the surface, along with his offhand kindness and matter-of-fact generosity. But he could be such an outsized presence that it was only that twinkle in his eyes that told you he wasn’t saying half of what was on his mind. The real gossip he might tell you later, if you were lucky. I was so lucky to know him when I did.”