Professor Robert Tracy – 1928-2020

The community of Irish scholars lost one of the greats with the passing of Robert Tracy in January. Professor Tracy, gifted with an intellect of astonishing breadth and depth, was known to friends and colleagues to be unfailingly humble, generous, and kind. With Becky Tracy, his partner in life and scholarship, the Tracy household was a gathering place for a rich variety of friends and family where poets and scholars would hold forth on a range of fascinating subjects.

Robert Tracy was Professor Emeritus of English and Celtic Studies at UC Berkeley. He graduated from Boston College in 1950, received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard, and joined the Berkeley faculty in 1960 in the golden era of the California state university system. Berkeley colleagues included such noteworthies as Thomas Flanagan, Brendan O’Hehir, and Thomas Parkinson.

His varied academic assignments brought him to service as Visiting Professor of American Literature at Leeds University, of Slavic Studies at Wellesley College, and of Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, as well as Co-Director of the University of California Dickens Project.

His publications include a study of Anthony Trollope’s novels; many articles about Dickens and on Irish topics; editions of works by Synge, Trollope, Flann O’Brien, and Le Fanu; eighty poems of Osip Mandelstam translated from the Russian; and The Unappeasable Host: Studies in Irish Identities (1998).

He was a founding member, with colleagues Brendan O’Hehir, Eve Sweetser and Dan Melia, of the UC Celtic Studies Program and ACIS West (American Committee for Irish Studies), with Professors James Walsh, Audrey Eiler, and Don Jordan. He was a longtime member and Board Director with the Irish Literary and Historical Society, the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures, and the Dickens Society. Tracy’s approaches to Dickens, Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Nuala Ni Domhnaill were widely considered authoritative and essential. Bob befriended the poet Seamus Heaney during his two Berkeley residencies and was a companion during the time Heaney composed some of his acclaimed works here.

Among his many contributions to the ILHS were talks on Seamus Heaney’s two stays in Berkeley, the language of the Easter 1916 Declaration, and the gorgeous stained-glass windows of St. Brigid’s Church in San Francisco.

Tracy’s academic career had some dramatic turns, such as when he defended the comic Lenny Bruce in court in 1962. He contributed the following letter to New York Times in 2016:

“I was an expert witness at Lenny Bruce’s 1962 San Francisco trial for obscenity.

Three U.C. Berkeley professors appeared for the defense: Al Bendich and Don Geiger (speech department) and me (English department).

Geiger and I testified that Lenny’s act was creative literature, entitled to the free speech protection Bendich had earlier claimed and won for Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and for the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Judge Clayton Horn cited Judge John M. Woolsey’s 1933 opinion that James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” as a work of literature, was protected by the First Amendment.

Geiger read John Berryman’s “Dream Song 46” to the court. I read excerpts from Aristophanes, Rabelais, Chaucer and Joyce. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy included all the words Lenny had been arrested for saying in his Jazz Workshop performance. Judge Horn explained the law carefully and fully, and the jury voted for free speech and acquittal.

Lenny taught us that there are no dirty words, only dirty minds.

Robert Tracy

Berkeley, Calif.

Close family friend and fellow scholar David Vela wrote of Tracy’s passing: “We lost one of the greats: a man of great intellect and a man of a warm and generous — great — heart. Given that technology has changed how we learn, yes, this is the end of an era with a man of books passing. He brought them back to us living and fresh, delightful and intriguing.” Bob Tracy will be deeply missed by the community of Irish and literary scholars and friends at UC Berkeley, in the greater Bay Area, in Ireland, and beyond.

Tony Bucher