Arts & Culture

Scholar enjoys wrestling ‘the Great Bear’

4 min read

Some scholars are hard-pressed to identify what exactly drew them to their field. Others can point to a specific “aha!” moment when they found their academic calling. In Justin Weir’s case, it all began with a bit of bureaucracy.

Weir, 39, is a recently tenured professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Harvard. Two decades ago, upon enrolling as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, he learned that he would not receive graduation credit for first-year German, Spanish, or French. So he decided to knock on the door of the Russian department. After all, he had enjoyed reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in high school English class. Why not give their language a try?

It turned out to be a good decision. Weir easily took to those initial language classes at Minnesota, which further fueled his interest in Russian literature. He soon switched his major from political science to Russian and made plans to pursue a Ph.D. in the field.

Upon graduating from Minnesota, Weir enrolled in the graduate studies program at Northwestern University. He obtained his Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures in 1997. Weir served as visiting assistant professor at Reed College in Oregon for two years, then returned to Northwestern for a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship before coming to Harvard in 2000.

Weir’s primary area of research is Russian literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2002 he published “The Author as Hero: Self and Tradition in Bulgakov, Pasternak and Nabokov” (Northwestern University Press). The book focuses on Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago,” and Nabokov’s “The Gift,” three acclaimed novels written in the mid-20th century.

“I was curious to explore how the modernist dilemma of personal identity intersected with Russian post-revolutionary issues, in particular the challenge of what to do with the literary traditions of the 19th century,” said Weir. “Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Nabokov smuggled in examples of 19th century literature as the written work of the author-heroes who figure in their novels.”

Weir is currently putting the finishing touches on a second book, which will be published by Yale University Press in 2010. Titled “Leo Tolstoy and the Alibi of Narrative,” the book aims to elucidate Tolstoy’s strategies of self-representation in his major works of fiction. Weir explores theories of authorship and self-creation in a range of Tolstoy’s literature, from works he wrote as a young man to those published after his death.

“I argue that Tolstoy returned to the anti-conventional strategies he used as a young author to remake his career as an older man,” said Weir. “He reinterpreted his earlier work, for example, to suggest that he had always intended to become a religious philosopher.”

Both projects reflect Weir’s fascination with authorship, identity, and self-creation. He addresses these themes further in his Literature and Arts Core course, titled “Theories of Authorship: Russian Case Studies.” The course analyzes how philosophical concepts of the “self” (as identified by Plato, Descartes, and others) are articulated in Russian literature.

Weir also teaches a course on literature of and about the 1917 Russian revolution, an in-depth course on Tolstoy, and a freshman seminar dedicated to the films of Sergei Eisenstein. He will be teaching a new course next year on Russian film after Stalin.

Weir sits on the Film Studies Committee for the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies and said that he enjoys being part of the programming activities.

“It is a very exciting time for film studies at Harvard, with the launch of the doctoral program next fall and the development of secondary fields for undergraduate and graduate students,” he said.

When he isn’t teaching or writing, Weir enjoys spending time with his wife and three young children. He travels to Russia regularly, to complete research or to catch up with old friends he has made over the years. Though he has visited and enjoyed many cities, St. Petersburg holds a special place in Weir’s heart — it’s where he proposed to his wife while they were studying abroad together in the early ’90s.

“I had to exchange frighteningly large amounts of money on the black market for her little Russian diamond,” Weir recalled, chuckling. “It was the biggest one I could afford, and it was about that big.” He held up two fingers, barely a hairsbreadth apart.

“But I’ve made it up to her,” he added with a smile.