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Samuel Louis (Sam) Goldberg (1926–1991)

by Jane Grant

This article was published:

Samuel Louis Goldberg (1926–1991), professor of English, was born on 19 November 1926 in Melbourne, son of English-born Isaac Myer Goldberg, tailor, and his wife Bella, née Silman. Educated at Faraday Street Public, Coburg High, and University High schools, Sam matriculated (1944) with exhibitions in English literature, English expression, and British history. At the University of Melbourne (BA, 1947) he excelled in history and English and was mentored by Ian Maxwell, whose department promoted an historical and scholarly approach to the study of literature and offered an eclectic survey of English writers. Goldberg’s 1947 article ‘The Conception of History in James Joyce’s Ulysses’ in the student journal, Present Opinion, marked the beginning of intensive work on Joyce, which culminated in his 1961 publication, The Classical Temper.

In 1948 Goldberg was invited by Maxwell to tutor and lecture on Joyce. Maxwell was already alert to the difficult personality that would compromise Goldberg’s reputation as an academic manager and a teacher, describing him as brilliant but distant and not popular with his students. In 1950 Goldberg left to study at Lincoln College, Oxford (BLitt, 1953). He had intended to write his thesis on Joyce but his topic was declined because someone else had very recently written on the novelist. Instead, he wrote on the Elizabethan historian, Sir John Hayward, and was supervised by the retired Merton professor of English David Nichol Smith. On 18 January 1951 at the parish church of St Peter in the East, Oxford, he married Muriel Winifred Hill, a teacher. They would divorce in 1959.

While Goldberg was at Oxford The Common Pursuit (1952), a collection of essays by the Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis, was published. Leavis’s evaluative critical practise, and the humanist moral seriousness which determined his aesthetic judgements, would define Goldberg as both a critic and a teacher of English. It was the structure of Leavis’s thinking rather than his conclusions that Goldberg believed could be usefully applied to the study of English in Australia. Returning to Australia in 1953 as lecturer in Renaissance literature at the University of Melbourne, he quickly established a reputation as Australia’s leading Leavisite critic. His younger colleagues Maggie O’Keefe and Thomas (Jock) Tomlinson, who would soon marry, contributed to the growing Leavisite approach of the Melbourne department. Further discussions with the young poet and senior tutor, Vincent Buckley, widened the critical questions Goldberg was asking of literature, from the moral to the metaphysical perspectives of literary criticism.

Goldberg was an exacting teacher who brought an uncompromising rigour to his discussions with students whom he was training to be a new breed of critic. Many former students from the 1950s went on to distinguished careers; others felt intimidated or overlooked. His interest in contemporary literature as a focus for the study of evaluative criticism motivated his revival (1957) of the University Literature Club. Collaboration with students led to his establishment (1958) of Melbourne Critical Review (later Critical Review), which he would edit until his death. By the early 1960s he was recognised as an expert on Joyce, and one of Australia’s influential literary critics. While the journal disseminated ‘Goldbergian’ criticism, as it came to be called, the publication of The Classical Temper established him as a leading authority on Joyce and one of Australia’s most significant critics.

On 1 November 1961 Goldberg married Judith Anne Young, a secondary school teacher of history and literature; they were to divorce in 1976. His appointment (1963) to the Challis chair of English literature at the University of Sydney finally delivered the influence over a curriculum that had long eluded him. It also heralded one of the most acrimonious and divisive episodes in the discipline’s history in Australia. The speed with which he introduced a Leavisite bias led even supporters to see him as ‘partisan, unwise and impatient’ (Wiltshire 1998, 41). His recruitment of the Tomlinsons from Melbourne, and of sympathetic British graduates and former students, alienated many staff members, particularly Gerry Wilkes who had been overlooked for the chair. In 1965 Wilkes gained faculty approval to offer an alternative English course that restored bibliographic scholarship and other Goldberg exclusions. This split the department, forcing staff and students to take sides. Goldberg’s decision to return to the University of Melbourne, taking the Tomlinsons with him, led to recriminations from younger Sydney recruits that he had abandoned them.

In 1966 he was appointed Robert Wallace professor of English, and in 1969 was elected an inaugural member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Pioneering the study of modernism at Melbourne, Goldberg presided over a period of increased student enrolments. But by the mid-1970s the critical and cultural climate of the universities was turning against approaches seen as elitist and untheorised. An Essay on King Lear (1974) was published to mixed reviews which expressed unease with his ‘restricted standards of evaluative literary criticism’ (Huffman 1975, 242). In 1976 he resigned, becoming a senior fellow in Eugene Kamenka’s history of ideas unit at the Australian National University (ANU).

At the ANU Goldberg established and co-edited with the historian F. B. Smith an interdisciplinary journal Australian Cultural History. He continued to work on literary criticism and took some graduate classes. Chris Wallace-Crabbe described him as 'a deeply conservative man, stubborn and sometimes gruff’ (Wallace-Crabb 1991, 68). On 25 January 1978 in Canberra, he married Jane Adamson, a lecturer in literature at the ANU, who was a close collaborator in much of his work. Survived by her and two sons and a daughter of his second marriage, he died in Canberra on 11 December 1991 and was cremated. His posthumously published Agents and Lives: Moral Thinking in Literature (1993) was a reaffirmation of humanist criticism, and an investigation into its differences with some precepts of contemporary moral philosophy.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Freadman, Richard, ed. Literature, Criticism and the Universities: Interviews with Leonie Kramer, S. L. Goldberg & Howard Felperin. Perth: Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, University of Western Australia, 1983. Grant, Jane. ‘A Critical Mind: On Sam Goldberg.’ Meanjin 69, no. 1 (Autumn 2010): 43-52. Huffman, Clifford Chalmers. ‘An Essay on King Lear by S. L. Goldberg.’ Journal of English and Germanic Philology 74, no. 2 (April 1975): 241-2. Wallace-Crabbe, Chris. ‘Samuel Louis Goldberg 1926-1991.’ Proceedings (Australian Academy of the Humanities), 1991: 67-8. Wiltshire, John. ‘Fault Lines.’ Eureka Street 8, no. 10 (December 1998): 8-41.

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Citation details

Jane Grant, 'Goldberg, Samuel Louis (Sam) (1926–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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