The son of the former Adeline Gordon and Nathan Marcus, Marcus was born in New York City on December 13, 1928, and grew up in the Bronx. He attended William Howard Taft and DeWitt Clinton High Schools, graduated at 15 and won tuition-free scholarships to Harvard and Columbia. He rejected Harvard because his family could not afford the room and board. To save money while he attended Columbia, he lived at home and packed lunch.
At the College, where he majored in English literature, Marcus studied under Lionel Trilling ’25, GSAS’38. He wrote a master’s thesis on Henry James under the guidance of Professor Frederick W. Dupee, the eminent modernist scholar.
After brief stints teaching at Indiana University and City College of New York, Marcus won a fellowship to Cambridge University, where he conducted research on a Fulbright fellowship and published his first literary criticism, in The Partisan Review and Commentary. He began teaching at Columbia in 1956. After two years in the Army, mostly in Greenland, Marcus returned to Columbia to complete his 1,105-page dissertation on Dickens, which became the basis for his 1965 book, Dickens: from Pickwick to Dombey. He became an associate professor in 1963, a full professor of English in 1967 and the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities in 1976. He twice was chairman of the Department of English and Comparative Literature and was also a principal investigator in the Columbia Project on Conflicts in Values and Health Care.
In 1993, Marcus was named dean of Columbia College and VP for arts and sciences by President George Rupp. As dean, Marcus was a staunch supporter of the Core Curriculum as the basis for a comprehensive education. But the dual role of dean and VP proved unwieldy. After less than two years, he resigned to return to teaching.
A specialist in 19th-century literature and culture, some of Marcus’ 200 authored works are The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (1966); Engels, Manchester and the Working Class (1974); Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence (1978); and Representations: Essays on Literature and Society (1991). He was also co-editor, with Trilling, of an abridged version of Ernest Jones’ three-volume biography, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1961). “That partnership,” wrote The New York Times in its obituary, “spurred Professor Marcus to apply a psychological prism to much of his own literary criticism.” For example, in The Other Victorians, Marcus likened pornographic fiction to utopian fantasy — “a world of grace abounding to the chief of sinners.” He called it “pornotopia.” Marcus’ Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis: Studies in the Transition from Victorian Humanism to Modernity (1984) challenged critics who claimed that Freud had concocted his seduction theory.
Marcus was a founder of the National Humanities Center, an independent institute operating from North Carolina since 1978 to advance studies in the field. He also was its director of planning and chairman of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees.
In 1997, the College bestowed on Marcus the Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching. He retired in 2004 as George Delacorte Professor Emeritus in the Humanities. A fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Literary Studies, Marcus received Fulbright, American Council of Learned Societies, Guggenheim, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Rockefeller and Mellon grants.
A political liberal who was opposed to the Vietnam War, he was drawn into the so-called culture wars of the 1990s and criticized exponents of political correctness as “soft totalitarians.” While expressing sympathy for the long-term goals of those advocating social change, he chastised them for what he called Orwellian humorlessness and euphemisms that threatened “the decay of language.”
Marcus’ first marriage ended in divorce. He married Gertrud Lenzer, a German sociologist, in 1966. She survives him, as does their son, violinist John Nathaniel Marcus, and a grandson.
— Lisa Palladino