Literature, UCP News

In Memoriam: Marjorie Perloff (1931–2024)

The University of Chicago Press mourns the passing of Marjorie Perloff, a long-time Press author and advisor. The following obituary was prepared by her family with the assistance of Charles Bernstein and the Press.

black and white photo of Perloff at her desk
Marjorie Perloff. Photo by Alan Thomas (2016)

One of the most influential American literary critics and scholars of modern and contemporary poetry, Marjorie Perloff died at her home in Pacific Palisades (Los Angeles), California, on March 24, according to her daughters, Carey and Nancy Perloff. 

Perloff was born Gabriele Mintz in Vienna on September 28, 1931, into a prominent intellectual Jewish family. She and her family fled Vienna on March 15, 1938, two days after the Anschluss. This escape, and their journey to America, is recounted in The Vienna Paradox (2003). Perloff’s vast knowledge of European literature, not only in her native German but also French, Italian, and Russian, combined with her love of American culture and the American avant-garde, made her a seminal critic and a beacon for students of twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature. 

Perloff started her career relatively late in her life.  At twenty-one, she married cardiologist Joseph Perloff (1924–2014), who became a renowned physician and the Streisand and American Heart Association professor at UCLA.  She had two children, Nancy and Carey, in her mid-twenties. Her first job was at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, writing subtitles for movies. After the family moved to Washington, DC, she earned an MA in English literature at Catholic University. Perloff relished her time at Catholic University, finding it to be a rigorous and intellectually stimulating, and she returned to CU in 1965 to get her PhD with a dissertation on “Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats” (published as a book in 1970). Perloff was offered a full-time job by CU, where she taught from 1966 to 1971. She went on to teach at the University of Maryland from 1971 to 1976 and at the University of Southern California from 1979 to 1986.

Perloff’s writing career took off with the first book on the poetry of Frank O’Hara, one of the great figures of the 50s and 60s, who, along with John Ashbery, was part of the “New York School.” Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters” (1977) secured Perloff’s status as a major voice in the contemporary poetry scene and introduced her as an influential critic of the visual arts, concrete poetry, book art, conceptual art, and the intersection of language and visual culture. Her O’Hara book was followed by The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981), which reevaluated post-war European and American poetry. Her work over the years on John Cage, Robert Smithson, Gertrude Stein, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Ashbery, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Johanna Drucker, David Antin, and numerous other artists proved groundbreaking. She also wrote trenchant criticism on Samuel Beckett. 

Perloff’s academic career culminated in her move to Stanford University in 1986 and appointment in 1990 as the Sadie Patek Dernham Professor of Humanities. At Stanford she taught classes on everything from Pinter and Beckett to the work of Language poets such as Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein to classes on Joyce and Proust, as well as mentoring students who went on to become significant critics and scholars. Perloff also organized an important conference on and celebration of the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage.  

Perloff became an internationally sought-after speaker and scholar with a vast knowledge of post-war literature and art, and ability to see the bigger trends that have moved culture forward. In addition to her many books, Perloff wrote scores of reviews for small magazines and scholarly publications. These reviews have been collected as Circling the Canon (two volumes, 2019). She was a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement  In 2006, Perloff served as president of the Modern Language Association. In 1997, she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2012, she was inducted into the American Philosophical Society. Several of her many interviews have been collected in Poetics in a New Key (2014). Perloff was also active in China, where her work was widely known and translated. In 2011 she co-founded the Chinese/American Association of Poetry and Poetics; she remained president at the time of her death. Perloff frequently lectured in China. In 2021, she was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art and made an Austrian citizen.  

Perloff was a maverick, refusing to go along with the latest academic trends or to see herself as disadvantaged by her status as a woman, a Jew, a mother, or a scholar without an Ivy League degree. Instead, her outsider status gave her a unique lens on literary movements. She overturned views on T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, and other canonized artists, always returning to her close reading and textual analysis. Perloff was fascinated by Futurism and wrote the landmark study The Futurist Moment (1986), dedicated to the magical “defamiliarization” that occurred in Russia between the wars and lifted the modernist project into an experimental sphere that left naturalism and the lyric behind. That book began her long association with the University of Chicago Press, which published it and most of her subsequent books. Her exploration of poetry and technology continued with Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1992).  

Toward the end of her career, Perloff returned to the literature of her childhood, exploring the writers of the Austrian diaspora in Edge of Irony (2016),a book that brought together Paul Celan, Joseph Roth, and Karl Kraus to reveal how their own outsider status within the Hapsburg Empire gave these writers a mordant wit and despairing irony.  

Throughout this later period Perloff became more and more fascinated by the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, in particular his groundbreaking idea that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Tracing Wittgenstein’s influence on artists as diverse as Walter Benjamin, Susan Howe, and Marcel Duchamp, Perloff opened readers’ eyes to the vast energy of the modernist project. During the COVID pandemic, Perloff translated into English Wittgenstein’s secret notebooks, written in code during WW I (her edition was published as Private Notebooks: 1914-1916 in 2022). This brought her into close contact with Damion Searls, whose 2024 translation of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus includes an introduction by Perloff.  

What distinguishes her writings is Perloff’s insatiable curiosity, roving intelligence, linguistic dexterity, and irrepressible wit. She never took given wisdom as gospel; she was forever questioning why and how certain literary movements had come to be and what would prove to be lasting. Perloff analyzed work she loved and championed artists she felt others had ignored or misunderstood.  

Perloff is survived by her daughters Carey and Nancy, their husbands Anthony Giles and Robert Lempert, and her grandchildren Alexandra, Ben, and Nicholas. Carey, a playwright and theater director, was the long-time Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Nancy is a curator at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and the author of books on the Russian avant-garde, concrete poetry, and the circle of Erik Satie. Perloff was a passionate and devoted mother and grandmother.  

Perloff leaves behind friends across the globe, from China to Israel, to whom she was devoted and whom she visited often in her travels and lectures around the world. Her books have been translated into dozens of languages, and her hundreds of articles and essays continue to be reprinted and devoured by new generations of readers. Perhaps it is Frank O’Hara who summed up her life force: she was filled with “the grace to be born and live as variously as possible.”