Richard M. Ohmann, 90, Dies; Brought Radical Politics to College English
Inspired by the antiwar movement of the 1960s, he helped transform humanities by making room for subjects like women’s studies and Marxist criticism.
Richard M. Ohmann was an unlikely revolutionary. One of the youngest tenured professors in the country, an associate provost at Wesleyan and a former member of the elite Society of Fellows at Harvard, he was the picture of the liberal establishment of the late 1960s.
But there he was, in December 1968, at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, smuggling a copier into his hotel room to print antiwar fliers, hanging posters in the halls and organizing dissident seminars on Vietnam and the women’s movement.
Then, during the group’s business meeting at the Americana Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, he orchestrated a series of antiwar resolutions and even got Louis Kampf, a fellow activist academic, elected second vice president on an antiwar platform — a role that guaranteed him the presidency two years later. It wasn’t just their ideas that were radical: The very notion that a scholarly organization should take a stand on nonacademic issues was practically unheard of.
“We imagined ourselves struggling toward a just and democratic society,” Dr. Ohmann wrote for the website Insider Higher Ed in 2017. “We thought of ourselves as the academic wing of international popular movements.”
The New York Times editorial board, among others, criticized the coup at the M.L.A., deriding Dr. Ohmann and his colleagues as “a noisy fringe group.” But in fact it was a turning point for academic literary studies, the moment when a vanguard of young professors decided to inject politics into their profession, not just against the war but in favor of fields like gender studies, African-American studies and Marxist literary criticism.
Dr. Ohmann was 90 when he died on Oct. 8 at his home in Hawley, Mass. His stepdaughter, Nicole Polier, said the cause was complications of heart disease.
He had begun his career as a scholar of British literature, and by the late 1960s was respected enough that the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary invited him to write a definitive essay on grammar and meaning for their 1969 edition.
But starting in the 1970s, Dr. Ohmann turned his gaze inward, writing a series of books exposing what he saw as the complicity of higher education, and in particular the study of English literature, in the perpetuation of class, gender and racial hierarchies.
He used his leadership role at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, to help create some of the country’s first programs in gender studies and African-American studies, and he edited two influential journals, College English and Radical Teacher, that spread his ideas around the academic world. He invited other leftist scholars to guest edit issues, which he dedicated to then-outré topics like homosexuality in literature.
“He gave protection and cover to all sorts of radical initiatives when these were dangerous things to do,” Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan, said in a phone interview.
Dr. Ohmann’s efforts set the stage for the rise of cultural studies as a discipline and the so-called culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, in which academics like him worked to break open the canon to once-marginalized writers and artists. Such was his influence that in 1996 Lynne Cheney, the conservative former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, singled him out as a dangerous radical in an essay for The Wall Street Journal.
Elizabeth Bobrick, a visiting scholar at Wesleyan, wrote in the university’s alumni magazine in 1998, “In this amorphous, amoebic field” of cultural studies, “Ohmann is the closest thing to a patriarch that his chosen milieu allows.”
Richard Malin Ohmann was born on July 11, 1931, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the suburb of Cleveland. His father, Oliver Arthur Ohmann, taught psychology at what is now Case Western Reserve University and later worked for Standard Oil. His mother, Grace (Malin) Ohmann, was a homemaker.
He received his bachelor’s degree in literature from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1952, and his master’s and doctorate from Harvard in 1960. He arrived at Wesleyan a year later.
Dr. Ohmann married Carol Burke in 1962. They separated in the 1980s, and he married Elizabeth Powell in 1990. She died in 2007. Along with his stepdaughter, he is survived by his daughter, Sarah Ohmann; a stepson, Stephen Polier; and a step-granddaughter.
Dr. Ohmann’s putsch at the M.L.A. was not his first act of dissent. He was already active in Resist, a group that helped young men oppose the draft, and in 1967 he joined hundreds in a protest outside the Department of Justice in Washington, where they symbolically returned their draft cards — an act of defiance that got him featured on the “CBS Evening News.”
Unlike some activist academics at the time, Dr. Ohmann never drew a line between his activism and his teaching or scholarship. His book “English in America: A Radical View of the Profession” (1976) illuminated what he saw as the role of literary studies in perpetuating capitalist hierarchies: It both diverted attention and, by applying standards to writing and rhetoric, perpetuated class distinctions, he wrote.
His best-known book, “Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century” (1996), is considered a classic text in cultural studies in its examination of how mass-market advertising shaped consumer patterns and body ideals, especially among middle-class women. Part of its appeal is its readability — despite his interest in Marxist criticism, which often came laden with indecipherable jargon, he wrote in crisp, clear, accessible prose.
“Richard Ohmann’s work was to elucidate the intricacies of our implication in capitalism in our everyday lives as academics,” said Patricia Harkin, an emeritus professor of English and communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “He explained them clearly and courageously for a wide general audience.”
Dr. Ohmann took emeritus status in 1996, and at a retirement party at Wesleyan he gave a short speech about how far his field had come since 1968. Notions like “culture is political” and “students bring their lives into the classroom” were, he said, formerly unheard-of ideas that had become conventional, even canonical, during his career; he was too humble to claim rightful credit for helping bring those changes about.
He also had something to say about the excesses of the movement he had helped spawn, including a culture of political correctness, that at Wesleyan were often lampooned as extreme and absurd.
“There’s a lot of what people call P.C. at Wesleyan,” he said. “But if I had to choose between P.C. and its antagonists, I’ll choose P.C. every time.”