Jeffrey L. Sammons
Recording of the Memorial Tribute by Yale University and NAHS
October 12, 2021
by Jocelyne Kolb
Jeffrey L. Sammons died peacefully on the morning of 15 February 2021 at the Whitney Center in Hamden, Connecticut. He was born on 9 November 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio. He received his B.A. from Yale in 1958, having spent his junior year at the University of Heidelberg, and remained at Yale for graduate school. One of only a handful of students to complete the degree in four years, he was awarded the Ph.D. in 1962 with a dissertation on Die Nachtwachen von Bonaventura. Sixteen books, editions of varying kinds, essays on a staggering array of topics, reviews in the hundreds, a series of translations, and a dedication to his teaching and to the profession were to follow. From 1961 to 1964 he taught at Brown, returning to Yale as an assistant professor in 1964. He was promoted to professor in 1969 and named the Leavenworth Professor of German Literature in 1979.
No one can think of Jeffrey Sammons without also thinking of Heine, and no one can—or should—think of Heine without thinking of Jeffrey Sammons. Heinrich Heine: The Elusive Poet was published by Yale University Press in 1969, when Jeff was in his early thirties. The book, xiv + 542 pages long, established his reputation as one of the world’s foremost Heine scholars and a formidable stylist. That reputation lasted for the rest of his life, no matter what he might sometimes grumblingly say. Today, more than fifty years later, The Elusive Poet is still worth reading. Heine: A Modern Biography was published in 1979 by Princeton University Press but did not, to Jeff’s disappointment, get the attention or appreciation he would have wished and that it deserved. 1991 saw the publication of his book on Heine in the distinguished Metzler series. In 2006, Königshausen & Neumann published Heinrich Heine: Alternative Perspectives 1985-2005, a collection of essays on Heine and Heine scholarship that he wrote after The Elusive Poet and A Modern Biography. The volume is rich in ideas and discoveries, and the essays all bear the stamp of Jeff’s learning, originality, and wit.
From 1969 to 1999, Jeffrey Sammons contributed the section on Heine--and sometimes the sections on Bonaventura, Varnhagen, and Klingemann--to The Romantic Movement: A Selective and Critical Bibliography, the yearly supplement to English Language Notes that was a valuable scholarly resource made all the more precious by his participation. His entries were succinct and sure in their judgments; in 1982 he augmented and shaped them into a useful and fascinating history of postwar Heine reception that he simply, accurately, and with characteristic understatement called Critical Bibliography of Secondary Literature on Heinrich Heine, 1956-1980 (Garland, 1982). His many book reviews were miniature essays that often concluded with a list of the misprints or mistakes caught by his eagle eye, rather like a finishing flourish. The list came at the end in order not to distract from the larger scholarly and intellectual questions that he raised in the review, and they typified his ability to see the forest and the trees simultaneously. He always wanted to understand what he read, and his reviews put that effort on display. They were an apt forum for his famous opinions, which he based on facts and wide reading and expressed trenchantly, elegantly, and clearly.
Reviews were one example among many of Jeffrey Sammons’s service to the profession. Others included a selection of Heine’s works for the classroom and some editions of Goethe and Schiller in English translation. His in every sense critical edition of the notorious Protokolle der Weisen von Zion was published by Wallstein in 1998 with the subtitle “Die Grundlage des modernen Antisemitismus—eine Fälschung.” He translated Peter Demetz’s Marx, Engels, and the Poets: Origins of Marxist Literary Criticism in 1967 and published the first full English translation of Heine’s Ludwig Börne: A Memorial in 2006, with an introduction and annotations that were as always erudite yet accessible.
For an astounding twenty-five years, members of the North American Heine Society benefited from Jeffrey Sammons’s service as secretary-treasurer, first in 1985-86 and then without interruption from 1990-2014. He would send what he called his “dunning letter” to the membership every year in early January, requesting dues, reporting on the Society’s membership and finances, sometimes reflecting on the Society’s government and philosophy. The style, as always with him, was the man. No letter was the same as any other, but they shared certain traits. Under the date was a quotation, usually from Heine, that became the point of reference for Jeff’s opening. In the letter of May 27, 2000, for example, when he announced the transition from Bob Holub to Roger Cook as former and future presidents of the NAHS, he chose a quotation from Heine’s letter to Varnhagen in 1838 about the project of a “Deutsche Zeitung.” Heine writes that he will “hinfüro dem monarchischen Prinzip huldigen,” and the letter wryly begins: “We of the North American Heine Society, on the other hand, honor the democratic principle, when necessary and within reasonable limits.” What could have been a pedestrian exercise became in his hands playful as well as substantive and efficient. Service with a smile--an ironic smile.
Heine was a fixed point for Jeffrey Sammons, but Heine was at the center of only five of his sixteen books. Before writing The Elusive Poet, he published his thesis on Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura and wrote a book about Angelus Silesius for the Twayne series. He published the book Literary Sociology and Practical Criticism: An Inquiry in 1977 and otherwise wrote extensively about nineteenth-century German literature, with a particular concentration on the novel. He wanted to show, as he put it, “what people actually read” and to understand why. He wrote about the Young German novel (1 book), Wilhelm Raabe’s works and reception (3 books), Friedrich Spielhagen (1 book), and on what he called “German novelists of America,” principally Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstäcker, and Karl May (1 book). Cultural transfer interested him greatly and was the focus of his last book but one, Kuno Francke’s Edition of The German Classics (1913-15): A Historical and Critical Overview. It is literary history at its most complex. Jeff investigates not just what people in general read, but what Americans read, and how the historical moment affected the perception and fate of German literature in the United States.
Jeffrey Sammons was a natural teacher as well as a natural writer. He taught in class, in conversation, and in letters, always with precision and, because he was so quick and so full of bons mots, without pedantry. He was truly a Doktorvater to his doctoral students, and he had adoptive Doktorkinder among the young scholars who published monographs for the series he edited. They appreciated his advice, encouragement, and generosity of spirit.
It is easy to understand why Jeffrey Sammons was drawn to Heine, but he never identified with the author he knew so well. He kept his scholarly distance and was wary of those who did not. But Mother Nature had her say at the end, as she often does, and made connections of her own: during his last weeks, Jeff, too, required regular doses of morphine, and he died exactly two days shy of the date on which Heine died 165 years earlier. Jeffrey Sammons will be missed and mourned by his students and colleagues and friends, some of whom were all three in one. It is a source of comfort that his writings survive and that Christa Sammons does, too. He is also survived by his daughter Rebecca, his sons Charles, Harold, and Benjamin, and his grandchildren Isaac (“Misha”), David, Lydia (“Lio”), and Clara.