Dorrit Cohn ’45, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus, died on March 10. She was 87.
Cohn came to Harvard in 1971. A scholar of German and comparative literature, Cohn was one of three women appointed to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in 1971. (Prior to that year, FAS had tenured only four other women in its history.) During a long academic career that began at Indiana University in 1964 and ran through her retirement in 1995, she won a number of honors, including a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship (1970-71), the Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal (1982), and the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award (1984).
Cohn’s scholarship included work on formal devices in narrative and the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Her book “Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction” (1978) was hailed as “one of the most important contributions to the understanding of fiction in the last decade,” by University of Toronto professor and literary scholar Henry Weinberg. Her 1998 book “The Distinction of Fiction” won the Modern Language Association of America’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literature Studies.
“Dorrit Cohn’s ‘Transparent Minds’ was a breakthrough work, a brilliant meditation on how fiction enables us to read the minds of others,” said Maria Tatar, the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures. “A high-wattage analysis of narrative technique, it continues to exert a powerful influence on many disciplines outside the field of literary studies. The prize-winning ‘Distinction of Fiction’ instructed us about the tripwire alerts in the borderland between fiction and history. Dorrit Cohn understood the wizardry of words at a profound level and made it her life’s work to demystify it, even as she appreciated and preserved it.”
Born in Vienna in 1924, Cohn’s family left Austria days before Nazi takeover, traveled for a year, and immigrated to the United States in 1939. She received a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1945 and a master’s degree in comparative literature in 1946, both from Radcliffe College. Cohn studied comparative literature at Yale and, after an 11-year hiatus, completed her Ph.D. in German at Stanford. She began teaching at Indiana University soon after.
Cohn spent her final years in Durham, N.C., where she continued to write and translate scholarly works. In 2011 she won the Wayne C. Booth Lifetime Achievement Award, which “recognizes outstanding scholar-teachers who have made sustained contributions to narrative studies over the course of their careers.”
Wernor Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and professor of African and African American studies, was a longtime colleague of Cohn. He mourned her passing and remembered her as a good friend and a sharp wit.
“Dorrit was a great conversationalist, both witty and warm,” said Wernor Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and professor of African and African American studies. “Whether she commented on a famous lecture by referring to it ironically as ‘narratology for the masses’ or noted in a committee meeting, with a skeptical glance, that some readers do like to believe that great artists also have admirable political views, she often quipped memorably and was ready to puncture many myths of the academic tribe, in person as well as in print.”
Dorrit Cohn is survived by her sons, Richard L. Cohn, the Battell Professor of Music Theory at Yale University, and Stephen Cohn of Durham, N.C., as well as four grandchildren.
An on-campus memorial service celebrating the life of Professor Dorrit Cohn is currently being organized.