A Brief Biography
Photo of Norman O. Brown by Thomas N. Brown.
Norman Oliver Brown (1913-2002) was born in El Oro de Hidalgo, Mexico, and raised in England, where he took his B.A. at Balliol College, Oxford, with double First Class Honors in the School of Literae Humaniores (Classical Philology and History). He then came to the United States and continued his studies at the University of Chicago, where he met and married Elizabeth Potter in 1938. His doctorate in classics was earned at the University of Wisconsin (1942) with a dissertation that he subsequently published as Hermes the Thief, which remains a classic of social interpretation of the history of religion. After a year of teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University, he spent the remaining war years in Washington D.C. as a research analyst with the Office of Strategic Services, working alongside men who would become life-long friends, including Herbert Marcuse and Carl Schorske. There followed a decade and a half at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he eventually chaired the Classics Department. In 1968, Brown came to Santa Cruz with the appropriate title of Professor of Humanities, after a briefer period at the University of Rochester as professor of classics and comparative literature. He held senior fellowships from the Ford and Guggenheim Foundations and from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford
Norman O. Brown (known as "Nobby" to virtually all who knew him) made his mark in the field of classics not only with Hermes but with an edition of Hesiod's Theogony and memorable interpretive essays on Pindar, on the birth of Athena, and on Daphne. But no customary academic label can encompass the scope of his scholarship, creativity, and profound influence on his students and on the reading public. To suggest something of his quality we extract sentences written to characterize him by other leaders of the contemporary intellectual world. "Brown is a most unusual scholar, whose intellectual power is such as to have burst the bonds of traditional discursive thought and to have found its proper form in a metaphoric language often closer to poetry than to prose." "Brown's scholarship, his superb technical equipment, has been used to probe toward the very roots of meaning and organization of culture." "His unique perspective on matters cultural brings all of our shopworn pieties under doubt." "He is a wayward, sometimes obscure and perverse, at other times brilliant and penetrating, always poetical and even rhapsodic writer, whose uniqueness is unquestionable ... a true original and unusual phenomenon among academics and ... to be greatly cherished."
It was in the early 1950's that Professor Brown found the key to a new vision in the writings of Sigmund Freud. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (1959) brought this vision to a large public in America, and, through numerous translations, in Europe and Japan. A revolutionary generation of college youth imbibed from it a heady spirit of inner revolution; in retrospect the book remains one of the most important essays relating psychoanalysis to cultural history. Love's Body (1966), a more difficult meal for the scholarly world to digest, dealt aphoristically with central issues of archetypal symbolism. Closing Time (1973) evoked a vision of the historical process in the guise of a gloss upon the writings of James Joyce and Giambattista Vico. Professor Brown was never tame or safely academic; his polymorphous Orphic or Blakeian vision challenges the rational orderliness of the scholarly world, which often disagreed with him, even vehemently, but respected and honored him in disagreement.
At Santa Cruz this prophetic figure was a solid and uncommonly responsible citizen of his college, Cowell, where he served on the governing committee and in other important capacities, and on the Academic Senate. In the latter capacity, he contributed loyally to two of its most important and hard-working committees. He was a central member of the Committee for the History of Consciousness Program, and also taught for the Boards of Studies of Literature and History, and for Cowell College. Throughout his career, and indeed on into retirement, he published essays and articles in a variety of journals and books.
Professor Brown officially retired from UCSC in June of 1981, but continued to occasionally teach and offer public lectures, including a series of lectures on "The Challenge of Islam" that he gave both at Oakes College at UCSC and at Tufts University in Massachusetts. In his quest across disciplinary boundaries for the roots of human meaning, in his championship of "life against death" in a world that puts life-giving meaning in jeopardy, in his daring individuality of thought and wide-ranging compass of concern, Professor Brown represented in his person and works an important aspect of what the University community in Santa Cruz would like to regard as its distinctive strength.
In 1985 a second addition of Life Against Death was published by Wesleyan University Press, with an added introduction by Christopher Lasch. In 1991 the University of California Press brought out Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis, a collection of his writings spanning 30 years.
Norman O. Brown died in Santa Cruz on October 2, 2002 after an extended period of declining health, at the age of 89. A memorial was held two weeks later. Many of the reminiscences given that day were published in book form by New Pacific Press in 2005 under the title In Memoriam: Norman O. Brown.
(Please note: Some of this text was culled from the program notes for NOB's Faculty Research Lecture given at UCSC in 1978.)