In Memoriam: Professor of Comparative Literature and English Jed Deppman
John “Jed” Erickson Deppman, Irvin E. Houck Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Oberlin College, died peacefully on June 22, 2019, with his family at his side.
Born June 13, 1967, in Washington, D.C., Jed grew up in Middlebury, Vermont. In 1985, he confirmed his love of languages and discovered the value of mental tenacity during a year as an AFS exchange student in northern France, where he completed the demanding baccalauréat with mention bien, placing second in his class. After returning to the United States, he enrolled at Amherst College. In 1990, he graduated both summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a senior thesis on mental heroism in European folklore.
With the support of two graduate scholarships, including the prestigious Henry P. Field award, he went on to the University of Wisconsin, Madison to earn an MA (1992) and PhD (1998) in comparative literature, with a dissertation on “Community and the Sublime in Dickinson, Valéry, and Joyce.” While in graduate school, he earned a Diplôme d'Études Approfondies in Philosophy and Epistemology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, where he studied with Jacques Derrida and Vincent Descombes. In 2003, after brief stints at Eastern Kentucky University and Trinity University, San Antonio, he and his wife, Hsiu-Chuang Deppman, professor of Chinese and cinema studies, joined the Oberlin College faculty.
A leading expert on Emily Dickinson and James Joyce, Deppman published his monograph Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson with UMass Press in 2008. He coedited Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Poetics (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) and Emily Dickinson and Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2013). He also translated and coedited Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-Textes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), a seminal volume that opened up an entire field to the English-speaking academy. Among his many awards are an NEH fellowship, a Fulbright scholarship, and Amherst’s Lindberg-Seyersted Scholarship. His many published essays deal with topics as diverse as Borges, Walt Whitman, Jean-Luc Nancy, Sophocles, and 19th-century lexicography. He recently completed a novel, Taking Chemo with Nietzsche.
At Oberlin, Deppman directed the Comparative Literature Program almost without interruption, and with great success, for 15 years. Under his leadership, it has become a flagship humanities program, consistently attracting some of Oberlin’s best students, while breaking through silos to build lasting connections among the College of Arts and Sciences, Allen Memorial Art Museum, and the Conservatory of Music. He also conceived and organized Oberlin’s legendary annual Translation Symposium.
Deppman believed in the transformative power of literature, art, music, and thought. He was deeply committed to rigorous humanistic scholarship as a means of deepening our understanding of life and the world. A dynamic and innovative teacher and sought-after advisor, he was ferociously demanding and unconditionally supportive of his students. In 2014, he was awarded Oberlin’s Excellence in Teaching Award and, in 2015, the Professor Props “Instructor of the Year.”
In his life and work, Professor Deppman embodied the border-crossing, eclectic ethos of Comparative Literature in an exemplary way. In addition to his work on Dickinson, Joyce, Valéry, Derrida, and Whitman, he was a specialist in postmodern and poststructuralist French thought, genetic criticism, translation theory, and philosophies of death. He had a near-native command of French and spoke Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin, as well. In high school and college, he excelled in math and science. At different points of his life, he was a high-school student in Dunkirk, France; an academic translator; an Ultimate athlete; a novelist; and a line-cook in Paris. He also was a fiercely competitive table tennis player.
At Oberlin, Professor Deppman taught many popular cross-listed courses, including Introduction to Comparative Literature, European Modernism and the World, Itineraries of Postmodernism, French Joyce, Introduction to Literary Translation, and an advanced translation workshop. From his very first semester at Oberlin, he was also known for his first-year seminar Ars Moriendi: Death and the Art of Dying, in which students not only read, thought, and talked about death but also paired up with residents of Kendal at Oberlin to connect with people for whom the end of life was an imminent reality. It quickly became one of the most transformative courses in the First-Year Seminar Program. He’d teach it almost every year.
The Ars Moriendi seminar gained an unexpectedly personal dimension in fall 2008 when Professor Deppman was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Nonetheless, for the next 11 years, and with the tireless support of his wife, Hsiu-Chuang, he taught full time, traveled the world, lived abroad, and continued to produce scholarship of the highest caliber.
Professor Deppman will be remembered for his deep love of his family and friends, dedication to his students, fierce intelligence, sharp sense of humor, extraordinary mental tenacity, and thirst for adventure. In his final essay “Coda: Living and Dying with Emily Dickinson,” forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Emily Dickinson (eds. Cristanne Miller and Karen J. Sanchez-Eppler), he concluded: “We can identify impressive moments we have witnessed or imagined, work them into dynamic images, and use them to organize our attitude toward life and death. Similarly, we can always rethink the limits of who and where we are. We have always been connected to so much—our loved ones, people who have died already, our childhood, our past and future selves, our past and future places—that we can always think about new ways to belong to them.’’
In addition to Hsiu-Chuang and their two daughters, Formosa and Ginger, Professor Deppman is survived by his mother, Elizabeth A. McLain and her husband, John H. Fitzhugh, of West Berlin, Vermont; father John C. Deppman, and his wife Clara Yu, of Fort Myers, Florida; sister Ann A. Deppman (Vance DeBouter) of Oberlin, Ohio; brother Benjamin H. Deppman (Lesley Deppman), of Cornwall, Vermont; aunt Lynn McLain of Chestertown, Maryland; cousin Joseph Cook, of Baltimore, Maryland; and seven nieces and nephews: Victor, Kent, Alden, John, Jack, Lydia, and Calvin.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Comparative Literature Program at Oberlin College in Jed Deppman’s memory or to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, 1025 Vermont Ave NW, Suite 1066, Washington, D.C. 20005.
Gifts to the Comparative Literature Program can be made online at oberlin.edu/donate—when asked for a designation choose “other” and then enter “Comparative Literature” in the text box, and include Professor Deppman's name in the memorial section. Checks can be sent to Oberlin College, 50 W. Lorain St., Oberlin, OH 44074 and should include “Jed Deppman” in the reference field. Please contact Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
[Editor’s note: Many thanks to Sebastiaan Faber for his contributions to this article.]