In Memoriam: David Lenson
David Lenson, retired professor of comparative literature, died at home this past week, in Amherst, Mass. A poet, essayist, musician, and legendary professor, he was 75. The following is an obituary compiled by family and friends:
This past week, David Lenson died at home, in his Mill Hollow apartment in Amherst. A poet, essayist, musician, and legendary professor, he was seventy-five years old.
Brother Barry remembers David as a Victory Baby, born in 1945; the boys grew up together in Nutley, New Jersey. Their mother June was an aspiring poet; their father Michael was director of the murals project for the Works Progress Administration in New Jerseyand painted murals in Newark City Hall and Weequahic High School. The Jewish comedian Sam Levenson was their uncle. From his youngest days Dave wrote poems and played the saxophone in combos that practiced “Tequila” and other songs in the Lenson living room.
After graduating from Nutley High School in 1963, David headed off to college at Princeton, where he stayed until he earned his doctorate in 1971. He began teaching that same year in the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.He would retire forty-two years later, in 2013, after suffering a stroke. Former President of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the faculty union at UMass, he was also former editor of the Massachusetts Review. Lenson published two books on tragedy—on Achilles’s Choice and on Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, A Commentary—as well as two books of poetry, The Gambler and Ride the Shadow. He was best known for his monograph On Drugs, published by the University of Minnesota Press. A one-of-a-kind examination of drugs, drug users, the uses of drugs, and the pervasiveness of drugs in contemporary culture, the study was blurbed by Timothy Leary and reviewed by the Village Voice, the Boston Phoenix, and the Utne Reader; it was also a key source for Michael Pollan’s bestselling The Botany of Desire, and David appeared as a talking head on the PBS documentary based on the book.
Tom Dumm, William H. Hastie Professor of Political Science at Amherst College and nonfiction editor at the Massachusetts Review (MR) from 2001 through 2009, recalls how David put his distinctive mark on the magazine. He comments that, he followed “in the footsteps of the generation of Jules Chametzky and his colleagues, who founded MR as a platform for recognizing and celebrating the contributions to American arts and letters of powerful minority voices. David made all who came to work with the magazine appreciate what had come before—contributions by such legendary voices as M.L. King, Jr., Chinua Achebe, Angela Davis and other fierce Black voices, as well as profound philosophical voices, such as Jean-Paul Sartre—and he added newer thinkers in the tradition of that radical democratic lineage, voices such as Cornel West and Judith Butler. Beyond that, during his tenure, many emerging voices found in MR a place where they would not simply be recognized, but celebrated. He led his colleagues, who romanticized themselves as a rag-tag group of poetry, fiction and non-fiction editors, to embrace that romance in the everyday work of the Review, meeting monthly in its modest offices to discuss themes of journal issues and go through piles of unsolicited essays, stories and poems, reading aloud to each other the good, the bad, the profound and the clichéd, often on Friday afternoons, often over bottles of wine.” As founding editor Jules himself puts it, David “did a splendid job clearing out the mustiness that had attached itself to the Review and its older leadership and staff, bringing the journal into the present, technologically and intellectually.”
During these years, David also hosted a WMUA radio show, MR2 with Roger Fega, inviting luminaries such as Peter Coyote, Samuel R. Delany, Martín Espada, Jonathan Lethem, lê thịdiễm thúy, Lynn Margulis, and Michael Pollan to discuss topics that ranged from the blues, bookbinding, painting, publishing, literature, nudity, the majesty of catalpa trees, marijuana, Disney, perversion, animals, weaponry, binaural recording, book design, contemporary poetry, ancient Athenian sex strikes, war protest, media criticism, sculpture, sexuality, food, intellectual stimulation, and baseball. Martín Espada recalls, in particular, his regular appearances as part of “a roundtable with other Red Sox fans—the strangest, funniest, most erudite and most unique baseball show on the air.” He comments, “I would drive down the highway, listening to tapes of that program, and laugh out loud.”
A few years back, Martín also wrote one of his “elegies for the living” for Lenson—a little night music for the professor-musician. Here’s how it opens: “The Professor played saxophone for the Reprobate Blues Band, / rocking the horn like an unrepentant sinner at the poet’s wedding.” Doug Anderson, the poet whose wedding had called for such festivities, adds that, not only did David play at his wedding, he also wanted him to play at his divorce, but the judge wouldn't allow it.
David had many friends in the music world. Local musicians Janny and Bo Henderson note that his nickname, Jersey Dave, “came from his mighty saxophone chops which met up with Bo Henderson’s guitar in 1970. Through their friendship on- and offstage, ‘Jersey’ played with many blues greats: Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Luther Georgia Boy Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and Bonnie Raitt to name a few. He played on every local stage with many valley bands as well.” Jim Armenti remembers David “as a superbly complex mind and a lover of rough edges. He was a fine, easy-going tenor player with a rich tone, but it was his swinging, light as air personality that made him fit into low-flying outfits. He was expansive in his sense of musicality and generous in his praise of songs.”
David Lenson’s teaching changed lives. Following Lauren Scrima’s 2010 portrait of him in the Daily Collegian, a former student comments, “It’s been about thirteen years since I first encountered him. He’s why I became a Comp Lit major, why I moved to New York City, and why I became a professional writer. He’s genius.” Another of those students, Cristy Chambers, went from writing her senior thesis on The Sopranos to working on the set of the program, then becoming a producer and writer for Boardwalk Empire..
To legions of undergraduate and graduate students at UMass, David Lenson was an incomparable example. All those who earned Ph.Ds learned how to be a professor and how to mentor from David. Anita Mannur, now Associate Professor of English at Miami University of Ohio, remembers that when she came to graduate school in 1996, “David was the first professor to take me under his wing. I was his teaching assistant for a class, ‘Brave New World’ on dystopic futures, and it was as his TA that David introduced me to so many amazing authors: Philip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Neal Stephenson, Marilynne Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson, George Orwell and others who would write so presciently about the need to take stock of our present nightmares to avoid nightmarish futures.” She adds, “David was perhaps an unlikely mentor to me: I was a twenty-two-year-old immigrant when I started graduate school and knew nothing of teaching. I was only a year older than many of my students and terrified of the classroom.” And yet, she notes, “When I had to deal with toxic entitled white male students, it was David who helped me think about my position as a woman of color and who had my back. When I needed to figure out how to carry myself in front of students with confidence, it was David who reminded me of my potential.” Anita surely speaks for many in saying that, “in the middle of what feels like the most dystopic times of [our lives], it has been a punch in the gut to realize David is no longer with us. The world feels a little greyer now, clouded by [his] absence.”
Pamela Glaven remembers that, “After a few coffee dates, David and I had our first official date on March 25, 1978 and it never really ended. We lived together for close to 5 years before we were officially married on December 21, 1982. We worked and played together. We were well matched, both of us working across disciplines. I have a vast storehouse of wonderful memories of our rich life together. We were officially divorced on May 16, 2019.”
Pam also notes that “David’s legendary ‘good boy/bad boy’ dichotomy was certainly part of his enormous charm. Until it wasn’t. He had many demons, and in the end it was his demons who won. One of the many gifts he leaves us with is his cautionary tale. If you love someone who is struggling with mental illness and addiction, get help—for everyone involved. David got help a-plenty, but he resisted it to the end. It took us a very long time to realize that we could not save him.” Pam adds that their “brilliant, beautiful, and kind daughter Lizzie was born on April 21, 1991. Lizzie is as abundantly gifted in as many ways as her father was. Surely she is the best of both of us.”
Lizzie has now lived in Louisiana for over six years. A working poet and visual artist, she also records electronic music under the alias LÖ. After managing in the hospitality industry for many years, she has become something of a wine expert. Today Lizzie is the proprietor of Jackie’s Louisiana Apothecary, a pocket-sized, sustainable herb & vegetable farm in St. Tammany Parish, LA. She conducts remote, sliding-scale, community herbal outreach & reads fortunes.
To see Professor Lenson at his best, and see him take down Socrates, watch his lecture at UMass’s Commonwealth Honor College, from back in 2012.
Given a man who has given us all so many wonderful words, it seems fitting to close with a short phrase of his own, penned after he lost a musician and friend, a dozen years ago.
“Good-bye, David. Go ride the music.”
A memorial will be held at some future date and announced by the family.
If you would like to make a donation in David Lenson’s memory, the family requests you donate to the Biden/Harris 2020 campaign.