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Obituaries / Ralph W. Rader, 1930 - 2007

Berkeley professor studied the novel as a literary form

December 02, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Ralph W. Rader, whose theories on the development of the novel as a genre came at a time when the novel was still considered what one colleague at UC Berkeley called "bathroom reading," died Nov. 23. He was 77.

A professor emeritus of English at Berkeley, Rader died of congestive heart failure at nearby Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, his daughter Nancy said, adding that he also suffered from diabetes and liver and kidney disease.

He became interested in the novel as a literary form after he had established himself as an expert on the British poet Alfred Tennyson. Rader found autobiographical elements in the love poem "Maud," and went on to write the book "Tennyson's Maud: The Biographical Genesis" in 1963.

He then explored the concept of an "autobiographical core" in fiction, using seminal works from the 18th to the 20th centuries as examples. One example was "David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens, who wrote in the novel about the injustices of child labor out of his own experience as a boy working in a factory.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Ralph Rader: The obituary of UC Berkeley English professor Ralph W. Rader in Sunday's California section misstated the number of sons who survive him. Rader is survived by two sons, not three.

Rader found similar biographical strands in novels by Charlotte Bronte, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and others.

It was a bold step for an English professor to take the novel as seriously as Rader did, starting in the early 1970s.

"The study of the novel as a genre, as a literary artifact, was new," said Dorothy Hale, a former student of Rader and now a professor of English at Berkeley.

"One Shakespeare professor on campus told me that the novel is bathroom reading," she recalled.

Rader believed in the concept of a literary canon of great novels, with a subheading for masterpieces.

Although colleagues questioned the whole idea, "Ralph would say that you can measure a masterwork by its endurance and continuing readership," Hale said. Shakespeare was the obvious example of that standard, Rader taught his students. Works by Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen were also on his list.

Prominent colleagues in the field developed their own theories about the influence of social trends, political dynamics, cultural dominance and other factors on novelists and poets. Rader countered that the main influence on novelists was great fiction from the past.

"His theory was quite controversial and not universally accepted," Hale said. It was outlined most famously by Harold Bloom in his 1973 book, "The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry."

"For Ralph, it was a matter of influence without the anxiety," Hale said.

Rader was born May 18, 1930, in Muskegon, Mich. He earned a bachelor's degree at Purdue University in 1952 and a doctorate at Indiana University in 1958. He joined the faculty of the English department at Berkeley in 1956 and served as chairman for two terms, first in the 1970s and later in the 1990s, before he became a professor emeritus in 1997.

Former students said Rader's greatest legacy might be the many students he mentored who went on to become English professors.

"I owe much of my academic career to Ralph," said Murray Sperber, a professor emeritus of English at Indiana University in Bloomington. "He was wonderful to students. He'll be remembered through them."

Rader is survived by his wife, June; three daughters; three sons; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned at 3 p.m. Jan. 19 in the Maud Fife Room of Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley. Contributions in Rader's name can be made to the American Diabetes Assn., Memorial and Honor Program, P.O. Box 11454, Alexandria, VA 22312.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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