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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 25, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 31
Hertz and the City

Neil Hertz in Greenmount, one of the neighborhoods often visited by students in his Thinking About Baltimore course.

JH's unofficial tour guide of Balto. to be honored by Humanities Center

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

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 causes.

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 quintessential urbanite.

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 1999.

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 and undergraduates.

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 town.

"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 process."

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 photography.

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 anywhere else.

"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. That's Neil."


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