On Monday, April 16 at 1 p.m., a memorial service for Robert Martin, a professor at Concordia from 1967 until 1992, will be held in the Loyola Chapel. Martin died on February 20 from complications arising from Parkinson’s Disease, a condition which he lived with for more than twelve years.
Martin came out as a gay man during his years as a graduate student at Brown University, and became interested in pursuing questions of gender. After finishing his comprehensive exams at Brown, Martin taught American Studies in Germany for a year, before returning once again to the United States where he became involved in the anti-war and black civil rights movements.
Even though Martin was never actually called up for military service, as a graduate student who had left school without completing his dissertation, he was eligible for the draft. He eventually came to Canada in 1967, deciding that it was the safest way to avoid either military service or jail.
After visiting a friend in Montreal, Martin decided to settle in the city. He got a job as a lecturer at Loyola College in 1967. The late 60s and early 70s was a time of considerable social change, and attitudes towards gay scholarship were improving. Martin gave his first “gay paper” at the American Studies Association in 1973, and began building a network with other scholars who were studying homosexuality in literature.
“You have to remember though, that at this point people were still very careful about having their names used publicly,” he recalled. “There was still great danger of people without tenure being fired.” Even so, Martin remembered the sense of excitement, and of a community developing around him.
Martin garnered enough support from within the English department at Brown to write his dissertation, The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. In 1979, it was published as a book, which was hailed by many as groundbreaking. Leslie Fiedler, pioneering author of Love and Death in the American Novel called it, "The first full-fledged attempt by a gay critic to put the gay writers of the American past in proper perspective."
Martin went on to author and co-author numerous books and articles on American literature, including re-examinations of the works of E.M. Forster and Herman Melville. He also won many awards for his scholarly work.
During his years at Concordia, Martin developed a reputation for his innovative and always humane and intellectually responsible style of teaching and scholarship. He remained at the university until 1992, when he left to become chair of the English department at the Université de Montréal (UdeM).
According to an article posted by the university’s Départment d’études anglaises, Martin transformed the French university’s English department, recognizing the need for internationalization and a broadening of the curriculum. “Robert made it possible for students, undergraduate and graduate, to take courses in women’s literature, African-American literature and post-colonial Literature. He took the ideas of his younger colleagues seriously.”
Last year, the CAAS announced the creation of the Robert K. Martin prize for the best monograph written by a member of the association.
While at Concordia, Martin inspired countless students; one of whom was Matthew Hays, Part-time Instructor in the Cinema Department, and author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers.
“Robert was really a very inspiring professor,” Hays said. “And he was also very kind and caring. He took a great interest in his students’ work, and he always had supportive words for me. I’ll never forget the class I had with him. He was a lovely man, and I’m tremendously saddened by his passing.”
Film Studies Professor Thomas Waugh taught a one-year collaborative course on queer film and literature with Martin for the first time in 1988. The course was the precursor to the Minor in Interdisciplinary Studies in Sexuality.
“Robert was wonderful to work with,” Waugh recalls. “We were very proud to have him at Concordia. He was very brave, and really made his mark.”
A session was held at Northwestern University during the 2006 Modern Language Convention to honour Martin’s career. As Jay Grossman, a literature professor, recalled, “Audience members commented on his political bravery — not only staking his academic career on openly acknowledging his own homosexuality but also focusing his scholarship on the irreducible relevance of sexuality and homosexuality for literary studies.”
Former colleagues, students, and friends are invited to attend the celebration of Martin’s life, co-hosted by both Concordia and UdeM.
When: Monday, April 16 at 1 p.m.
Where: Loyola Chapel, Loyola Campus (7141 Sherbrooke St. W.)
• Robert K. Martin bibliography
• In Memoriam: Robert K. Martin (Département d’études anglaises – Université de Montréal.)