Amherst College mourns the passing of James Maraniss, professor emeritus of Spanish, on Jan. 9, 2022. He arrived at the College in 1972 and retired in 2015.
Maraniss' life and career—including his work as librettist for the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Life Is a Dream
, composed by music professor Lewis Spratlan—were the subject of a pair
in the Summer 2010 issue of Amherst
For more information, please see this obituary
by Dave Zweifel and this New York Times obituary
, as well as the following obituary prepared by Professor Maraniss himself:
James Maraniss, a retired professor of Spanish and European studies at Amherst College, died on Jan. 9, 2022, in Chesterfield, Mass., where he had lived with his wife, Virginia Kaeser, a photographer and nursery school teacher, for [many] years. He is survived by his wife; their children—Ben, of New York; Elliott, of Boston; Lucia, of San Francisco—stepson Michael Kelly, of Berkeley, Calif.; brother David, a biographer, and his wife, Linda, of Washington, D.C.; sister Jean, a librarian, and her husband, Michael Alexander, of Pittsburgh, Pa.; plus five nephews, one niece, seven grandnieces and two grandnephews. His youngest sister, Wendy, died in an auto crash in 1997. She was a distinguished pianist.
Jim was the eldest son of Elliott Maraniss and Mary Cummins Maraniss of Madison, Wis. His father, born in Boston and raised in Brooklyn, met his mother, born in Superior, Neb., at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Jim was born on March 22, 1945, while his father served as a lieutenant in the Army of the United States for the invasion of Okinawa. Both parents were targets of the Red Scare of the 1950s, and the family of six led a life of internal refugees in Michigan, New York, Ohio and Iowa until finally settling in Wisconsin in 1957, where Mary and Elliott found work as editors, one for a progressive newspaper, the Madison Capital Times, and the other for the University of Wisconsin Press.
Jim attended Madison West High School, where his English teacher was Gretchen H. Schoff, a native of Stevens Point, Wis., who embodied his newly adoptive motherland, and who showed him what a teacher could be, until 1962, and then Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1966. In college he caught an interest in Spanish literature from Professor Stephen Gilman, and later, after graduate school at Princeton—where his important teacher and mentor was a Texan, Professor Edmund L. King—he taught at Amherst College for more than 40 years.
His role in life was that of a professor at Amherst College, where his favorite and most popular courses dealt with Cervantes, the cinema of Luis Buñuel, 17th-century European theater, the Spanish Civil War (in which his maternal uncle Bob Cummins had been a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) and poetic translation. He never really understood why so many generations of students seemed to find him interesting, but they did, and he certainly valued them. He lived for the classroom.
It was as a translator that he sought to influence the wider English-speaking culture, first as the librettist of the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Life Is a Dream (music by Lewis Spratlan), an exaltation of the Baroque play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and second as the maker of translations of the work of the exiled Cuban author Antonio Benitez-Rojo, notably the historical novel Sea of Lentils (El mar de las lentejas) (University of Massachusetts Press, 1990) and the essays concerning the Caribbean in The Repeating Island (Duke University Press, 1992). He could be considered an authority on the works of Calderón de la Barca, although he thought such a distinction transitory.
Jim and Gigi lived in a near-paradisiacal near-wilderness beside the Westfield River in Chesterfield. Jim was a friend to some well-known cultural figures, without being one himself. Some of Jim’s closest friends were the actor John Lithgow, his classmate at Harvard College, and John’s brother David P. Lithgow, an ace pilot; the singer James Taylor, for whom he wrote part of the song “Only a Dream in Rio”; the novelist Robert Stone, an intimate friend, a poet of destructive passion, whom he met in Amherst in the early 1970s, and who was his traveling companion to Cuba and Central America; as well as his Amherst colleagues and collaborators Lewis Spratlan and Antonio Benitez-Rojo, whose glory he could be said to have reflected or shared. He enjoyed eating out with a regular group of friends, including Russianists Dale and Lorna Peterson and Stanley Rabinowitz; his interest in film was shared by Christian Rogowski and Helen von Schmidt of Amherst and Ted Braun of USC; his love of baseball by geologist John T. Cheney and UMass historian Bruce Laurie; his tie to the great tradition of Amherst English by William H. Pritchard '53; his love of science by the learn’d astronomer George Greenstein; his love of music by Smith College composer Donald Wheelock; his love for art and art history by Timothy Segar, Charles Kanwischer, Nicola Courtright and Mark and Katja Oxman; his ability as a friend by Amherst College historians Frank Couvares and William Taubman, by Janice Stone, by Paul Rockwell, by Smith College Luso-Brazilianist Charles Cutler, and by his lifetime best friend Charles Warren of Boston and North Carolina.
He was a member of the West Cummington Congregational Church, UCC, where his minister was Stephen Philbrick.
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