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Renaissance Man

His ‘life of the mind’ is guided by his heart

Just to be clear, Leonard Barkan ’65 is not retiring.

He understands the confusion, considering the fete held in his honor in May. The two-day “Barkanfest,” planned largely by his former graduate students, brought together friends, colleagues, and mentees to wax poetic about Princeton University’s esteemed Class of 1943 University Professor of Comparative Literature.

The gathering wasn’t so much a scholarly event as it was a celebration—of his academic work spanning five universities and nearly 50 years, and of his passion for art and theater, food and wine, Berlin and Rome.

“It was one of the great events of my professional—and personal—life,” says Barkan, an expert on early modern literature and culture. “The talks were extraordinary in their range of approaches. One learned about literature, about art, about the Renaissance, about friendship—often all at the same time.”

Barkan found his calling early at Swarthmore, studying English under Samuel Hynes (now a colleague as a professor emeritus at Princeton). In one class, Hynes spent the entire period on a seemingly naive four-line medieval poem, enlightening Barkan to the richness and density of pre-modern cultural activity.

“It was written when—as I always say to students—they didn’t even have flush toilets, showing that you didn’t require modernity and all its comforts to write masterpieces,” Barkan says. “Our own time blankets us so thoroughly in the present. My job is to break open the monopoly the present moment has on our imaginations.”

Though Barkan has always enjoyed studying literature, he’s also always needed something else, he says. Early in his career, that was theater, when he worked professionally as an actor while serving as an assistant professor. Later on, it was art, so he remade himself as an art historian over a 10-year period. Barkan’s first book on the subject won the Christian Gauss Award from Phi Beta Kappa, “but I always say, the first time I was ever in an art history classroom, I was the professor.”

Barkan’s more recent interests in food and wine have led to his forthcoming book Reading for the Food, a scholarly look at the eating and drinking detailed in works of antiquity and the Renaissance. Among his explorations: the 60 feasts mentioned over the course of The Odyssey, and the bread and wine (and potentially other food) present at the Last Supper.

Given the consideration Barkan lends to menus of the past, it was only fitting for him to have a say in the menu of the present. The honoree selected the wines served at the Barkanfest, whose “star performers” included Marjorie Garber ’66, H’04, Tom Laqueur ’67, H’14, and Ron Martinez ’69.

Dear friend Alexander Nehamas ’66, a fellow professor at Princeton, delivered a “deeply learned toast” at the final banquet. A tribute to a career, and a life, enriched by the humanities.

“The humanities are a place where we leave our own egocentrism and step into the mind, soul, and time of others,” says Barkan. “And we all have to do that, whether we think we’re living in good times or bad.”