University of California Seal

Charles Muscatine


Charles A. Muscatine

Professor of English, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

1920 - 2010


Charles Muscatine died on March 12, 2010, at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland after a brief illness, several months short of his ninetieth birthday. In the words of The Berkeley Citation, with which he was honored in 1991, he

…distinguished himself as one of the century’s great critical scholars of medieval literature, as an acclaimed and beloved teacher who has committed much of his academic life and intellectual energy to the enhancement of undergraduate education, as an influential national and international spokesman for a humane revision of college curricula, and as an impassioned and courageous witness to principles of academic freedom when they were gravely threatened.

Born on November 28, 1920, to Russian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and was admitted to Yale University at age 16, where he earned his B.A. in 1941, M.A. in 1942, and Ph.D. in 1948. His graduate studies were interrupted by service in the U.S. Naval Reserve (1942-1945), where as lieutenant he participated heroically in the D-Day invasion at Normandy, winning the Navy Commendation Ribbon.

He joined the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley, in January 1948. Shortly after his arrival, with a pregnant wife and a house under construction, he was confronted with the requirement, established by The Regents, that he sign an oath forswearing allegiance to any organization deemed to oppose the U.S. government. He was one of 32 faculty members, and one of the few without either tenure or an established (if not famous) career, to refuse to sign, on grounds of freedom of speech and academic freedom. As he later explained in an interview with the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “as a young assistant professor I have been insisting to the kids that you stick to your guns and you tell it the way you see it and you think for yourself and you express things for yourself. I felt that I couldn’t really justify teaching students if I weren’t behaving the same way.” He was fired by The Regents, and for the years 1951-1953 he found a job as visiting assistant professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. When a California appeals court declared the oath illegal, he was rehired at Berkeley in 1953 and spent the remainder of his career there, turning down numerous offers, including the chair of the English Department at the State University of New York (SUNY), Stony Brook, the deanship of First College at the University of California, San Diego, and the presidencies of Reed and Sarah Lawrence Colleges.

Muscatine was universally acknowledged as one of the most original and important medievalists of the twentieth century. Although he had already published several seminal articles in major journals, it was the publication of Chaucer and the French Tradition in 1957 that established him as an innovative and influential medievalist. With this work he framed a new and capacious vision of how to account for the relations between the formal properties of literary style and its complex expressive force in and for the society for which art is made. It is now seen to have provided a model of how to do critical scholarship on medieval vernacular literature for an entire generation. In the ensuing years he published many important articles and reviews; he wrote the commentary on “The Parliament of Fowls” in the third edition of the definitive Riverside Chaucer (1987); he published Poetry and Crisis in the Age of Chaucer in 1972; and in 1986 he published The Old French Fabliaux, a book as innovative and important as his first. His main argument is that previous interpretations of the fabliaux, embarrassed by their hedonism, coarseness, and outrageousness, have explained them by something other—by the traits of the bourgeoisie (rising, as always), or by the courtly ethos they oppose or negate—instead of acknowledging them for what they are and accepting and enjoying them as such. Muscatine is very acute and interesting about the way this kind of writing arises at a certain moment in the French Middle Ages, but his fundamental view is that the materialistic hedonism of the fabliaux is a sense of life that is felt—not exclusively, but as a partial truth, dividing and complicating men’s views—in many societies and cultures throughout history.

As evidence of his active involvement in the scholarly world, Muscatine served for 20 years on the selection committee of the J. S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, five of them as its chairman. He was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by SUNY, and the Doctor of Humane Letters by the New School for Social Research; he was elected a member of the Academy of Literary Study. In 1988, he was elected to the fellows of the Medieval Academy of America, an international honor roll of medievalists that has only 100 living members at a time. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974, and he served on the nominating committee of the Modern Language Association as well as on the Commission on Humanities of the Rockefeller Foundation. He served as president of the New Chaucer Society (1980-82), as a member of the Visiting Committee to Evaluate Programs of the American Council of Learned Societies, and as a referee for PMLA, Speculum, Chaucer Review, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he was a member of the board of consultants. He gave dozens of invited lectures and lecture series at numerous colleges and universities throughout the country.

But Muscatine’s extraordinary career as a medievalist was only one facet of his academic life. As a teacher consistently praised with enthusiasm by students from freshmen to Ph.D. candidates, he was deeply concerned with the nature and quality of college and university teaching. In the last year of his life he published a book, Fixing College Education: A New Curriculum for the Twenty-First Century, in which he argues that too much higher education in the United States has lost sight of what he considers its proper goal, the preparation of young men and women for enlightened citizenship. He contends that rigid departmentalization and specialization in undergraduate teaching are producing graduates who are not ready or able to cope with the problems of the world in which they live, and he prescribes changes—from the training of graduate students to teach, to the total reorganization of curricula and of classroom strategies. Fixing College Education is the culmination of an academic lifetime devoted to such problems. From the beginning to the end of his career he insisted on teaching freshman English, a task increasingly shunned by most of his colleagues. In 1966 he coedited, with Marlene Griffith, The Borzoi College Reader, which has been revised and republished many times, and in 1973, again collaborating with Ms. Griffith, he published a writing textbook called First Person Singular. From 1964 to 1966, he chaired the Select Committee on Higher Education, set up by the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. The fruit of its labors, Education at Berkeley, generally known as the Muscatine Report, proposed many reforms, including the pass/not pass grade, that once adopted have come to be taken for granted and made Berkeley a national trendsetter. From 1974 to 1981, he united faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates in the experimental Collegiate Seminar Program known as Strawberry Creek College. The long duration of this program, compared to other experimental programs of the time, testifies to its validity. In the words of one faculty member who participated in the program, it “. . . combined intellectual rigor, traditional humanist values, innovative new approaches, and a humane concern for the well-being of all . . . The stylistic distinctiveness of the Collegiate Seminar Program reflected that of Charles Muscatine’s books: deep love of humane tradition combined with a skeptical willingness to test old commonplaces, and above all a deep conviction that learning well was indistinguishable from writing well.”

His continuing interest in humane education is reflected in numerous articles and talks, in his memberships on visiting committees at some 25 colleges and universities, and in his service on the board of directors of the Association of American Colleges, the Select Committee on the Baccalaureate Degree, the National Humanities Faculty, the National Endowment for the Humanities, California Council for the Humanities, and on the board of directors of the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

Outside the University Muscatine had other interests as well. He served two terms on the board of directors of the Northern California branch of the ACLU. With his wife Doris, who died four years before him, he grew grapes and made wine in the Napa Valley. He was an avid pilot, frequently flying to academic meetings, and was a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. For all his accomplishments he was a witty, modest, even self-deprecating man, warmly supportive of his junior colleagues, and widely beloved by a large circle of friends.

Charles Muscatine is survived by two children, Lissa of Washington, D.C., and Jeffrey of Mountain View, by six nephews, one niece, and six grandchildren.


              Norman Rabkin                                                                                        2010