July 31, 1933 – April 20, 2021
The death of Robert Hollander ’55 took from us one of the world’s greatest scholars of Dante and his poetry. I do not mean one of the greatest in our own generation but in the whole history of Dante scholarship, which got off to a pretty impressive early start with a course of public lectures offered by Boccaccio in 1373. Yet while such scholarly eminence would be more than enough to preserve his memory in perpetuity, it is but one aspect of the man in full, a colleague who lived out as richly as any I have ever known the ennobling adventures of the life of the mind and the humane vision of a great university. I call him the Dante scholar. With equal justice I could call him one of Princeton’s legendary teachers, one of America’s national leaders in the humanities, indefatigable worker, memorable conversationalist, amiable bon vivant, admirable husband and father in an impressive family, and to a lucky few intimates an inestimable friend.
Every university has certain famous undergraduate courses, and among those at Princeton has been the Dante course as established by Hollander. As notoriously demanding as it was rewarding, the course aspired, as Milton’s Paradise Lost had done, to a “fit audience though few.” For 42 years it attracted a cohort of brilliant, quirky, curious, and adventurous students from many departments. At one point a critical mass of the course’s alumni decided that the Purgatorio was preferable to blow-pong as a Reunions activity. Thus, in 1977, the “Dante Reunion” made its intellectual intrusion into a traditionally saturnalian weekend. Still later, certain alumni, perhaps having grown somewhat thicker of wallet and possibly of girth, had a real brainwave: How about a weeklong summer Dante Reunion seminar in some nice, sunny venue — for example, a trecento castle in Tuscany? This fabulous place is near Certaldo, Boccaccio’s hometown; and it was known among the elect simply as Il Castello. There Bob conducted his unforgettable alumni seminars.
Teaching really difficult materials at the undergraduate level is a special art, and it was Bob’s forte. As a teacher he was not flamboyant, yet he was nearly magical. He thought of himself as an inheritor of still-living traditions traceable back through the medieval schools to the philosophers of the Stoa. Dante called Aristotle ’l maestro di color che sanno — “the teacher of those who know” — not a bad description of this great Princeton professor himself. Yet his students were less disciples than apprentices or junior partners. Here and there among the learned footnotes of his books and commentaries are generous acknowledgements of brilliant perceptions made by undergraduate students in class or precept.
Around the millennium I was lucky enough to be included as an ancillary spear-bearer in several of the Castello summer seminars. Most people who read Dante once return to read him again, and then probably yet again. I hope perhaps to have a couple more goes myself before the eschaton, and if I do it will be with the delightful memory of Bob sitting at the head of a huge mahogany table beside a stack of well-thumbed books and surrounded by eager learners from several student generations. More than once he talked with affectionate enthusiasm about his own teachers of the early ’50s to whom he felt indebted for the affirmation and deepening of his love of poetry. His extraordinary career was their recompense.
John V. Fleming *63 is the Louis W. Fairchild ’24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, emeritus.
In 2009, Robert Hollander ’55 gave two lectures at the University of Dallas titled “The Scandal of Dante’s Catholicism for Many Comptemporary Readers”: