November 15, 2007
Vol. 27 No. 5

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    Obituary: Jansen, scholar of German literature, was expert on Heinrich von Kleist

    Peter K. Jansen, Professor Emeritus, a scholar and translator of 19th and 20th-century German literature, died at his home in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood on Saturday, Sept. 22. He was 72.

    Among German scholars, Jansen was highly regarded for his work on the 18th- century German writer Heinrich von Kleist. “Jansen earned a permanent place in the scholarship on Heinrich von Kleist, for whose story, The Foundling, Peter discovered an important source,” said Eric Santner, Professor and Chair of Germanic Studies.

    In addition to his scholarship, Jansen also was an accomplished literary translator, who taught the theory and practice of translation at Chicago. His translation of three plays by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, done in collaboration with his longtime colleague Kenneth Northcott, was first published in the collection Histrionics in 1990. The translation has been used in performances in both England and Canada. A production of a Bernhard play, based on the Jansen/Northcott translation, will be performed in Chicago this December. “Clearly theater was one of Peter's loves,” said Santner, “and he often traveled far and wide to see new experimental theater.”

    Born in Essen, Germany, in 1934, Jansen studied at universities in Austria, France and Germany before coming to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he completed his master's and doctoral degrees in German. His dissertation examined the use of irony in the writings of the 19th century dramatist Georg Büchner. After working at both the University of Illinois and Indiana University, he joined Chicago's faculty in 1968.

    During his more than three decades at Chicago, Jansen's research focused heavily on German drama of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the works of von Kleist, Friedrich Grabbe, Georg Büchner and Bertolt Brecht. He also studied the German novel, Realism, Naturalism, German comedy and August von Kotzebue. His research appeared in Modern Philology, the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Germanic Quarterly, and the Journal of Religion.

    But Jansen was perhaps best known at Chicago as a teacher. “He had an encyclopedic knowledge of German literature,” said Vreni Naess, the longtime administrator of the University's Germanic Studies department. “And students loved him.”

    In honor of Jansen's 70th birthday two years ago, several former students, who have gone on to become professors of German themselves, praised Jansen for his careful and generous mentorship, for his intellect, his meticulous preparation, tireless patience, and perhaps more than anything, his love of literature. One former student, Stefan Lindinger recalled how Jansen had an almost “visceral love” of books. The bibliophile Jansen would, Lindinger explained, carefully carry valuable first editions from the public section of the University's Joseph Regenstein Library to the rare books section, fearing they might be damaged.

    Susan Hohl, a former student of Jansen's, added, “As a teacher and as a person, his was a rare blend of generosity of intellect, elegance and a quiet graciousness that inspired.”

    Though Jansen retired from the University in 1999, he continued his work as an active translator of German and Austrian literature, and become involved in shaping some of the activities of the Goethe Institut Chicago. One of the founding members of the Friends of the Goethe-Institut Chicago, he not only helped arrange for presentations for the institute, but frequently assisted in translating German texts—from colloquial young literature to technical essays to classic works of fiction.

    “Peter Jansen was an integral part of the Goethe-Institut Chicago whose warm presence will be deeply missed,” said Rudiger van den Boom, the institute's director.

    A longtime resident of Hyde Park, Jansen is survived by his wife, Laurie Bederow. A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, in Bond Chapel. The family asked that all donations in Jansen's name go to the Humane Society of the United States.

    “Anyone who knew Peter also knows, he was a great and true friend of canine creatures large and small,” added Santner.