Neil Hertz likes to break things down. The humanities and
English professor doesn't see literary works, or
places, as a whole but rather as an assembly of tiny parts.
Hertz's philosophy can be seen in nearly all his
professional work, whether it be a meticulous parsing of
George Eliot's Middlemarch or a block-by-block
examination of a Baltimore neighborhood.
For the past 22 years, Hertz has analyzed the likes of
Eliot, Sigmund Freud and his beloved American cities for
generations of Johns Hopkins students, and now the
university's unofficial tour guide to Baltimore is ready to
enter the next phase of his life.
The Humanities Center will honor Hertz on the eve of
his retirement with a colloquium, "Readers and Friends," to
be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday and Saturday,
April 29 and 30, in 111 Gilman Hall, Homewood campus. The
event will feature former Hertz colleagues at Cornell and
Johns Hopkins who will give lectures on a range of literary
topics, including Aristophanes, Euripides, Beckett,
Melville, Rousseau and voodoo. The speakers include former
Johns Hopkins colleagues Werner Hamacher and Frances
Ferguson. In addition, an exhibit of Hertz's photos,
predominantly black-and-white cityscapes and portraits,
will be on display at the Mattin Center.
Hent de Vries, a professor in the Humanities Center
who has known Hertz on and off since 1989, describes his
colleague as a charismatic but soft-spoken person who has
left an indelible mark at the university, both through his
teaching and his involvement with social and student
Hertz has drawn accolades in particular for his
popular Literature of the City course, in which students
examine works of urban writers, people who write about
cities and a city itself.
Elizabeth Rottenberg, a former gradate student of
Hertz and now an assistant professor of philosophy at
DePaul University, says that for her, Hertz is the
In his Thinking About Baltimore course, Rottenberg
recalls Hertz sending students out on foot to examine a
specific area of Baltimore where they would take
photographs, conduct surveys with shopkeepers and gather as
many general observations as they could.
"Students were always a little surprised at first,"
says Rottenberg, who was a TA in two of Hertz's
undergraduate sections. "It's nothing like they ever did
before, but in the end they really got into it. They would
take lots of walks through the area, observe what stores
were there, whether there was trash or not. He wanted them
to have a sort of in-depth knowledge about a part of the
city. This was their city now, he felt, so he wanted to
make them feel more at home and realize campus was not an
island unto itself."
Rottenberg says that what comes to mind instantly when
she thinks of Hertz is his self-deprecating sense of humor,
a device he would often use in class to associate with the
works being studied.
"He was wonderful at telling a joke and illuminating a
text in some funny and unexpected way. He taught us that
laughing could be part of learning, too," she says.
Hertz was born and raised in New York City. He earned
his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Amherst College,
where he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a
year at the University of Bordeaux. In 1954, Hertz joined
the U.S. Army, where he would spend the next two years, one
of them in France. In 1960, he received his master's in
English from Harvard.
From 1961 to 1982, Hertz taught English at Cornell,
where he built his reputation as a top-notch scholar and
teacher. He came to Johns Hopkins in 1983 with joint
appointments as professor of humanities and English. He
would later direct the Humanities Center from 1993 to
Michael Fried, current director of the Humanities
Center, says that Hertz is "a literary critic of marvelous
subtlety and theoretical sophistication."
Hertz is perhaps best known for his books The End of
the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime
(Columbia University Press, 1985) and George Eliot's Pulse
(Stanford University Press, 2003), both regarded as
classics in their fields.
Colleagues say that Hertz is a man full of marvelous
insights who is enormously appreciated by both graduates
Hertz says that he thoroughly enjoys his students and
has always made it a point to spend extra time with them.
He describes himself as a "teacherly" sort who gets his
ideas while planning his classes.
"When I have a project of some sort, it doesn't start
out with my thinking I want to write an article about X, or
a book about X; it starts out with my thinking I'd like to
teach a course about this, or I have a class and I want to
figure how to fit this project into it," Hertz says. "If it
turns into something I want to write down, only then will I
set out to do that."
Hertz began teaching about cities during his days at
Cornell. He says he came to Johns Hopkins in part because
he missed city life.
In his first urban course at Johns Hopkins, Thinking
About Cities, Hertz would introduce bits and pieces about
Baltimore as he came to know more about his adopted
"One of the senses I had when I came here was that
undergraduates are very timid about the city," he says.
"Part of the aim of the cities course is to get kids off
the [Homewood] campus and into the town, and to do it in a
way to make them less frightened in the city — and
not," he says laughing, "lose any undergraduates in the
On his work as a literary scholar, De Vries says that
Hertz has a knack for bringing out minutia in texts, and
that his critical responses to writing have earned him a
deserved amount of prestige in the field.
Hertz says that when he examines a book, he looks not
only for plot and characterization but for language, tone
and choice of terms.
"It tells you something about when I was trained. I
was trained by New Critics who were close readers. And what
you did when working with a novel was to pretend it was a
lyric poem, as it had the same coherence and internal
resonance that a lyric poem would have," he says.
Hertz says that his current plans for retirement are
to teach a course or two part-time and focus on his
As for the prospect of retiring to a home in the
countryside, Hertz says that continuing his life in the
city suits him just fine.
Rottenberg says that she couldn't imagine Hertz living
"Neil is just the best of what cities can offer.
People love him," she says. "He can talk to any person on
the street and strike up a conversation. He's an urban guy.