Bercovitch, Sacvan

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BERCOVITCH, SACVAN (1933– ), U.S. literary scholar. Bercovitch was born in Montreal of poor Ukrainian immigrant parents, both of whom were idealistic communists. His mother, Bryna, enlisted in the Red Army in 1917 and fought in the civil wars following the Revolution; his father, Alexander, an artist who had studied in Palestine, St. Petersburg, and Munich, had been conscripted into, and deserted from, the Russian Army during World War i. They immigrated to Canada in 1926. Bercovitch, who spoke Yiddish and French in childhood before learning English, was named after Sacco and Vanzetti.

Bercovitch began his higher education at the New School in New York and at Reed College in Oregon, but dropped out to live for four years in a left-wing kibbutz in Israel, where he met his first wife. He returned to Canada in 1958 and while working at a supermarket in Montreal attended night classes at Sir George Williams College (today Concordia College), where he earned his B.A. in 1961. He received his M.A. in 1962 and Ph.D. in 1965 from Claremont Graduate School in California. He taught at Brandeis (1966–68), the University of California, San Diego (1968–70), Columbia (1970–83), and finally Harvard (1983–2002), where he subsequently became professor emeritus and Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature. He was a visiting professor or lecturer at many universities around the world.

Bercovitch's scholarly work, growing out of his fascination with (and resistance to, in his words) American culture, has focused primarily on the formation of the American character and of American myth, what he has called the "symbolic construction of America," through an examination of classic American literature from the 17th through the 19th centuries. He is the author of several influential works of scholarship, including The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975), The American Jeremiad (1978), and The Office of "The Scarlet Letter" (1991); editor or coeditor of the equally influential collectionsThe American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation (1974), Reconstructing American Literary History (1986), and Ideology and Classic American Literature (1986, with Myra Jehlen); and author of numerous important essays, some of which are collected in The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America (1993). (The essay "The Music of America," printed as the Introduction to this book, contains Bercovitch's reflections on his personal and intellectual relationship to American culture as well as the Canadian and "Yiddishist-leftist" culture in which he grew up.) He was also the editor of the ongoing new multivolume Cambridge History of American Literature and published English translations of Yiddish writers.

Sacvan Bercovitch characterizes his work as "cultural close reading," and its subject as the "American 'consensus.'" "America was a venture in exegesis," he says, "… a corporate identity built on fragmentation and dissent" whose "function was partly to mystify or mask social realities. Nonetheless it denoted something equally real: a coherent system of symbols, values, and beliefs, and a series of rituals designed to keep the system going" (The Rites of Assent, 29–30). His great erudition, intellectual depth, and skepticism of doctrinaire interpretation won him widespread respect and made him one of the most influential Americanists of his time.

[Drew Silver (2nd ed.)]