After working thirty-one years as the Danish Literature Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Scandinavian, Karin Sanders is retiring! During that time, Karin has poured her heart and soul in our small but mighty department and has done more than anyone else to create a rare intellectual and social milieu.
Karin’s research throughout her career has been both wonderfully imaginative and keenly analytical, very frequently moving fluidly across disciplines but with a deep grounding in Danish literature and arts in particular. Her early training was in theater studies, and she brought the multi-disciplinary world of the theater, with its inclusion of visual, material, and performative art, into her approach to literary texts. Those who visited Karin’s office could not fail to be struck by the enormous and imposing reproduction of Nicolai Abilgaard’s neoclassical painting, The Wounded Philoctetes, which hung on the wall facing her visitors. The muscular male nude, viewed from the side, glowers under a knit brow at the viewer as he clutches his wounded foot. Painted in 1775, the work exemplifies something that has continuously preoccupied Karin: how a “dead” work of art comes miraculously alive. Her first book explored the interplay between sculpture, images of death and literature, and she meditated on the transformation of the living body to a dead body, a body of white marble. Her second book develops a similar theme, looking at the literary and artistic fascination across the centuries with the bodies found in Danish bogs. Here she also plunged into a study of archeology and its relationship to literature, art, and history. Her innovative take on the bodies of the bog captivated her readers, leading to an invitation to be interviewed on BBC alongside celebrated detective writer P.D. James. From the bodies in the bog she went on to consider the living “things” that populate the work of H.C. Andersen, and in her most recent book research, she has entered into the realm of ice art, art that lives only to melt away.
Karin’s creative energy, imagination, and intellectual strength have led to innumerable invited lectures and interviews, opportunities to collaborate with Scandinavia’s pre-eminent scholars, and a membership in the Danish Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her connections to Denmark and to all of Scandinavia enriched the life of Berkeley’s Scandinavian department immeasurably; we had a constant stream of fascinating visitors whose presence benefited faculty and students alike. Karin ran an open house both on campus and in South Berkeley; she has been a generous host, welcoming scholars to visit the department and often to stay at her place while they do. Her home on Carleton Street has been a less disturbing version of the Hotel California: both a modern-day salon for international academics, writers, and intellectuals and a hyggelig gathering place for students, friends, and colleagues over the years. She understands the emotional value of staging: of working hard to create the convergence of conditions for something special to happen in a social setting. When future scholars try to understand Nordic literary culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, it is no exaggeration to say that her home, and by extension, Berkeley itself, will be a central node on that map.
As a teacher, Karin was inspirational. Her undergraduate courses in H.C. Andersen, Isak Dinesen, Søren Kierkegaard, the Scandinavian novel, and for many years an interdisciplinary class called Word and Image were popular mainstays in the UCB undergraduate curriculum. She took special delight in helping undergraduate students discover the high quality of Scandinavian authors and texts. At the graduate level, her concept-driven seminars have generated creative intellectual frameworks for countless students who have followed her thinking and branched off into research of their own. Many a dissertation over the years has an idea, a concept, or a framework that can be traced back to one of Karin’s rich seminar topics.
Karin took more than one turn as department chair during her time at Berkeley and was a conscientious and effective administrator. She felt it so important as chair to foster climate and made sure that visitors, students, and faculty alike all felt a sense of belonging as stakeholders in the department enterprise. Most remarkably, she did this without succumbing to cynicism, as department chairs can so easily (and some might say, rightfully) do. This sincerity can sometimes be misleading; between 1990–92, just after Karin joined the department, it was faced with a threatened consolidation with another department. Elaine Tennant was an outside chair from the German Department who, after successfully steering the department through those turbulent waters, was rightfully fêted for her effort in “Elaine’s Saga,” a description of the events written by Carol Clover. Here is a short bit from that saga describing our retiree: “[–] And there lived the Scandafirthings: […] two Karins, the nicest of the Scandafirthings and therefore both known as Karin the Nice; […]”. Seen from the current day all these years later, that specific line clearly doesn’t tell the whole story. How better to describe Karin’s special form of kindness than to turn to said Elaine, who now appends this moral to the saga story: “What the saga didn’t (have to) say is that the nicest of the Scandinavian wise women have, along with their kindness, a truly heroic tenacity and devotion, which they wear so lightly that some casual observers of their ‘niceness’ may not recognize it.”
In Karin Sanders we have had a colleague whose personal generosity, integrity, and intellectual breadth and depth contributed to the quality of life and work in the department in irreplaceable ways. Happy retirement, Professor Emerita Karin Sanders! We look forward to seeing you in the department whenever you choose to be there.