Sidney Monas, noted scholar and critic, has passed away

Tue, April 2, 2019
Sidney Monas, noted scholar and critic, has passed away
Sidney Monas (1924-2019)

Sidney Monas, noted scholar and critic, died in Los Angeles on March 29, 2019, at the age of 94.

But this is not Sidney’s first obituary. In May 1945 when he returned home from a four-month internment as a POW in Hitler’s Germany, the twenty-year old Sidney was surprised to find that his hometown Pennsylvania newspaper had published an account of his death at the hand of German troops during the Battle of the Bulge in December of the previous year. Considering that some 75,000 American soldiers did perish during that battle, that Sidney was in fact on the front lines, and that the German soldiers were reportedly under orders to take no prisoners, this was not an irrational conclusion; however, it turned out to be an erroneous one. Sidney was one of the lucky few who were captured, shipped to Germany and survived starvation, disease and Allied bombing of the prison camps until being liberated by General Patton’s army.

Unlike so many fictional characters faced with a similar choice, Sidney did not take advantage of his reported death to start a new life. He returned to Princeton University to resume the education that had been interrupted in April 1943 by the draft. Sidney said he had avoided the Army Specialized Training Program—precursor of the ROTC—that would have kept him out of the war, as he did not want to miss “the fundamental uniting experience of my generation”.

Although by his own account Sidney was never comfortable at Princeton in those Jewish-quota days, he revered his teachers and threw himself into the study of history and of his first love, literature and poetry. A Princeton classmate introduced Sidney to his future wife Carolyn Munro, daughter of a Princeton professor; the two were married in 1948, the year he received his bachelor’s degree in Public and International Affairs, and they had three children between 1949 and 1954. Sidney went on to study at the Russian Research Center at Harvard and earned his Ph.D. in History from Harvard in 1955.

Sidney’s distinguished academic career included stints teaching at Amherst College (1955-1957), as an Assistant Professor at Smith College (1957-1962), and Professor of History and Comparative Literature at University of Rochester (1962-1969). In 1969, John Silber recruited him to the University of Texas at Austin, where Sidney held a joint appointment in the History and Slavic Languages Departments until his retirement. At Rochester, Sidney formed strong and life-long bonds with his colleagues Norman O. Brown and Hayden White, each of whom had a profound effect on his intellectual and philosophical development. Like Brown, he was “floored” by the works of James Joyce and of the seventeenth century sage Giambattista Vico; and like White he was fascinated by historiography and the ambiguous relationship between history and fiction. Sidney was also deeply influenced by his close friend and classmate William Arrowsmith and by his Princeton roommate W.S. Merwin, later honored as Poet Laureate of the United States.

Among his many accomplishments, Sidney was an avid translator and essayist: His published translations from the Russian include Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Journey to Armenia and Selected Essays by Osip Mandelstam; Scenes from the Bathhouse by Mikhail Zoshchenko; Images of Space: St. Petersburg in the Visual and Verbal Arts by Grigory Kaganov; and The Diaries of Nikolay Punin; and his introductions and commentaries are included in Vladimir Shklovsky’s  A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922; Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? By Andrei Amalrik, in a number of the above translations, and in many issues of the Slavic Review, of which he was editor from 1985 to 1991. Sidney’s book on the secret literary police in Tsarist Russia, The Third Section: Police and Society in Russia Under Nicholas I, was published by Harvard University Press in 1961.

Sidney’s academic schedule gave him the opportunity to exercise his continuing passion for travel; in successive sabbaticals he took his family for extended stays to Rome (1959-1960), Jerusalem (1966-1967), St. Petersburg (1974), and Canberra (1977);  he made numerous shorter trips to the Soviet Union, starting as early as 1956, and continuing through the 1980s and 1990s, to Israel again in 1992 for academic and personal purposes, and to England, France, Italy, China and Iran on the side. In the summer of 1971 he took his then seventeen-year old son Steve to the village of Roth, now on the Belgian side of the Ardennes forest, where Sidney had been stationed some 27 years earlier, and had a raucous and heartfelt reunion with the retired Burgermeister of the town, who likely had pointed the German troops to the barn where Sidney and his fellow Americans were subsequently captured. This was emblematic of Sidney’s remarkable feelings for Germany, for the Soviet Union and for the people he encountered throughout his travels; he had a deep, abiding and personal relationship with individuals, with art and with literature that transcended the machinations of the states that claimed to own them. He felt an unwavering kinship with the tramp of Modern Times, who, clobbered by history (like Sidney), always stood up, dusted himself off, and waltzed on down the road.

Sidney taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem both in 1966-1967 and in 1992. Although he was never an admirer of Theodor Herzl or of Zionist orthodoxy in general, he acknowledged the “human legitimacy” of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, given the plight of Jews in Europe, the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. And despite his own secular upbringing as the son of a self-professed Stalinist Bolshevik, Sidney felt his Jewish identity deeply, if ambivalently; he described as one of the worst moments of his life being forced (understandably under the circumstances) to deny that he was Jewish to the “political officer” of the German POW camp in which he was interred.

Sidney’s father David Monas had first emigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1913, primarily to avoid conscription in the Tsar’s army. David found work in a clothing factory, where he caught the attention of early union organizers due to his ability to communicate in Yiddish, Russian, and English. Following the 1917 revolution in Russia, David and his brother Harry traveled the long way via Japan and Siberia back to Ukraine, arriving in the midst of the Russian Civil War. David was promptly elected to the local soviet; but when the notoriously anti-Semitic White Army began to close in on their region, David, Harry and David’s new wife Eva emigrated/escaped once again to the United States. After an unsuccessful attempt to run a paint business in Brooklyn, David had a long and successful career as a union organizer and ultimately General Manager of the Pennsylvania Joint Board of the Amalgamated Shirt Workers.

Sidney was born in New York City on September 15, 1924. His mother Eva died of heart failure when he was nine years old, although his father couldn’t bring himself to tell Sidney until two years later, when he was about to re-marry. Subsequently, David was posted by the Shirtworkers’ Union to Bangor, Pennsylvania, where Sidney attended elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse. Sidney’s isolated boyhood as “a city boy growing up on a farm” (his words) both stoked his passion for company and intellectual conversation, and left him deeply and incurably lonely. Sidney hit his stride in the seventh grade at Bangor High School, where (as he would later at Princeton and then at Rochester) he revered and imprinted on his mentors, one an English teacher who encouraged the young Sidney’s literary gifts, and the other a native German speaker who taught biology as well as German grammar. Sidney won spelling bees, science prizes, book medals, and became the first graduate of Bangor High ever to be accepted to Princeton, all of which he claimed endeared him to, rather than estranged him from, his less high-achieving classmates.

Sidney’s mid-life career at the University of Texas was intellectually rewarding: He taught classes at the undergraduate and graduate level in Russian intellectual history—a novel concept at the time, exploring the influence of social, historical and philosophical ideas in the public sphere, featuring and stoking his unique ability to synthesize concepts from diverse disciplines—as well as his popular course in Russian literature, christened “Tolstoyevsky”, and arguably more obscure courses on Marxist Hermeneutics (at a time when virtually no other courses at the University of Texas offered even basic readings in Karl Marx), as well as offerings in historiography, comparative literature, and even an English Department class in Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.

At the same time, life in the late 1960s and 1970s at the University of Texas was politically challenging: In the first year of his employment, Sidney’s champion and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences John Silber was roiled in a bitter and ultimately losing feud with the UT Board of Regents, which sent Silber packing and his academic recruits (among them Sidney, his friends Bill Arrowsmith, Roger Shattuck and Neill Megaw) into political limbo. Silber was followed by a succession of unsympathetic and unresponsive deans, and a number of Sidney’s colleagues left the University for more welcoming venues. At the same time, Sidney was caught up in the larger social and political upheavals of the time around the Vietnam War, civil rights and feminism, and like many academic liberals he found himself trying to bridge the uncomfortable gap between the Establishment (of which he was at that point an inarguable if reluctant part) and his more radicalized students.

In 1985 Sidney’s wife Carol died of pulmonary fibrosis. After a brief and unhappy bachelorhood, Sid in 1987 married Claire Anderson, a Ph.D. candidate in the UT History Department, who brought him back into an active social and intellectual life, and into a loving family with her eleven-year old daughter Rose. Sidney and Claire were frequent attendants at the meetings of the UT British Studies Seminar, hosted lively gatherings in their home in Westlake Hills outside Austin, and traveled widely together. Claire accompanied Sidney to Israel in 1992, where her sympathies and background as a student of Egyptian history gave him a different perspective on the plight of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Some time after his retirement from active teaching in the mid-1990s, Sidney settled down to work on his magnum opus, an intellectual history of the influence of St. Petersburg in Russian history and literature. He was convinced that his book would pull together a lifetime of learning and influences, and would bring him, if not fame and fortune, the satisfaction of graduating from being a promising and “bright young man” of seventy years to a mature and hopefully useful resource. What he didn’t know at the time was that his brain was beginning even then to show the early signs of the dementia that would ultimately incapacitate him and end his life some twenty-four years later.  The hours, days and weeks that he spent at his computer resulted in multiple chapters of great erudition that somehow were not cohering.

Sidney was still in demand as a speaker on the subjects of Russian Literature and Intellectual History, and he often gave talks through the 1990s and early 2000s on those subjects. In 2006 his  autobiographical account “My Life and Not So Hard Times” was published in Burnt Orange Britannia: Adventures in History and the Arts, edited by Roger Louis of the British Studies Seminar and UT Department of History. But he gradually became more and more frustrated with his inability to complete his book, ultimately shelving it at the end of the decade.

In 2012, Sidney moved in with his son Steve and daughter-in-law Maggie Megaw in Los Angeles, and ultimately separated from Claire in 2014. He began the tedious and sometimes painful process of  donating his extensive and eclectic library to various universities, including the University of Texas, which also houses his collection of papers at the Briscoe Center for American History. Sidney continued to have an active and vigorous life, regularly attending the Los Angeles Symphony, ballet and theatre in Los Angeles, working out with a personal trainer three times a week, and contrasting the joys of Disney animation with the more problematic offerings of arthouse cinema. In his last months he enjoyed the constant company of his caregivers Shineen Requena and Mayola Pinelo, and Shineen’s three-year old daughter Adelyn.

Sidney is predeceased by his daughter Erica and grandson Michael, and is survived by his two children, Deborah and Stephen, his six grandchildren Noah, Grace, Ben, Hannah, Anna, and Rachel,  and his five great-grandchildren Wiley, Eric, Elise, Antonella, and Peter. He treasured the gift of life, and did not waste a minute of it.

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