Sharon Marcus: Humanities at the Core

November 15, 2014

Sharon Marcus, a scholar of 19th century French and English literature whose current research focuses on theatrical celebrity, sees her new role as dean of humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a chance to put the humanities at center stage.

This fall, Marcus, the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature, has devoted much of her time as dean to working with faculty on a Humanities Initiative. “We want to make our teaching and research more global, more public and more digital,” she said.

Marcus says she is impressed with the remarkable intellectual diversity within the humanities departments at Columbia. The Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Department, for instance, is home to faculty whose interests range from Persian literary humanism to modern energy networks.

As divisional dean, Marcus also wants to promote intellectual exchange across disciplines, such as the mini-seminars by the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures that bring Columbia students and faculty into regular contact with Asian scholars and scholarship. “I think every department has things to teach other departments.”

Marcus is currently exploring the concept of theatrical fame in the 19th century, a period when mass media came to the fore. “The invention of photography brought images of performers, monarchs, politicians and military leaders within the reach of millions of avid fans,” says Marcus. “People with unprecedented amounts of leisure time flocked to see performers who, for the first time, could travel the world by steamship and rail.”

She focuses on performers such as the renowned French stage and early cinema star, Sarah Bernhardt, nicknamed “the Divine Sarah,” a master of self-promotion.

“She had herself photographed sleeping in a coffin and published a book about traveling in a balloon,” says Marcus. “When journalists criticized her eccentric behavior, she published combative letters in newspapers, protesting how they wrote about her and getting even more coverage as a result.”

Marcus is intrigued by celebrity because it engenders so much controversy and debate: The public loves celebrities, hates them and argues about whether they deserve their fame. “Some celebrities are paragons of good behavior, others shamelessly defy convention,” she says.

Her interest can be traced to her childhood in the 1970s, when her father would take her to see classic films with stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. She spent as much time watching movies and reading film history as reading novels. “I memorized an entire book about the Academy Awards when I was 7,” says Marcus, who can still tell you who won Oscars in the 1940s.

Nowadays, film is one of many subjects that Marcus covers in a lively online review she co-founded called “Public Books,” written by scholars, artists and intellectuals and aimed at a wide audience. It was recently chosen by the website Flavorwire as one of the top five new literary publications to watch.

In addition to films and books, the review covers music and plays and literary works that have not yet been translated into English. “One of the great things about humanities professors is that most know at least one other language very well,” Marcus says. Hers is French.

What makes a good book review? “It should feel like attending a good seminar,” says Marcus, who earned a B.A. from Brown in 1986 and a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1995. Her other scholarly interests are feminist theory and LGBT studies, and urban and architectural history.

She joined the Columbia faculty in 2003 after teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of two books: "Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth Century Paris and London" and "Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England." The latter won four scholarly prizes and has been translated into Spanish.

Marcus’s roles as dean, teacher and editor leave her limited time to complete her book on celebrity. “I’ve always advised my graduate students to make sure to write one page a day, five days a week, if they want to finish their dissertations,” she says, adding, “Now, I’m trying to take my own advice.”

— By Gary Shapiro