Take Five with Robert Alter ’57

Robert Alter ’57 is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967. He is the author of 23 books; his translation of the Hebrew Bible was published in 2018.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was naive and unformed, if intellectually avid. My range of reading and experience with people was limited. I knew nothing about art or music. So, Lit Hum and the required art history and music history courses opened whole worlds to me.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in Hartley Hall in a three-room suite with three roommates. We slept in double decker bunk beds. The only chairs aside from desk chairs were high-backed, very hard wooden chairs. I remember reading Crime and Punishment in a kind of trance through the night sitting in one of those chairs and then feeling all my muscles aching.

What class do you most remember and why?

Meyer Schapiro CC 1924, GSAS 1935’s 20th-century painting course. There were hardly any rooms in Hamilton Hall then with AV equipment, so we sat in a room that held around 70, and some people stood the whole semester. He was, of course, a great art historian, and his lectures were amazing — a constant flow of brilliance coupled with eloquence backed up with immense learning.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I didn’t have a favorite spot — but my most unfavorite spot was the wooden indoor track set outdoors for the winter season (no proper facility was available), where we members of the track team worked out in temperatures that sometimes went down to 10 degrees, the icy air stabbing our lungs.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I can’t think of a candidate for a do-over in the remarkable academic program. One thing I regret is that as an unsuccessful sprinter on the track team (I’d done much better in high school), I decided not to continue with track in my senior year but to concentrate on reading. I came to feel that was a mistake.