Vampire-loving bicyclist professor to be remembered at Writers House

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Nina Auerbach. A gathering in remembrance of the influential scholar is scheduled for 6-8 p.m., Tuesday, April 18, at Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania.

She was a true Philly original: loud, opinionated, and a warrior bicyclist, riding from Rittenhouse Square to the University of Pennsylvania back when the city was much less bike-friendly.

But Nina Auerbach, who died in February at age 73, was also an influential critic and scholar who wrote with authority about Victorian literature, feminism — and vampires.

Friends, colleagues, and admirers will gather Tuesday from 6-8 p.m. at Kelly Writers House for An Evening in Memory of Nina Auerbach, to share food and remember her brilliance, quirkiness, and friendship.

Phyllis Rackin, professor emerita of English at Penn, is helping organize the remembrance. She pictured the great scholar on her bike: “She wore long flowing skirts as she rode up Walnut Street, and she had wild, thick hair, with a beret perched precariously on her head. She was a force of nature, so much vitality, whether personal or intellectual.”

Friends remember Auerbach as a woman frequently difficult, dramatic, with big passions, be it for foreign films, her beloved dogs, red meat, or swimming. Poet Elaine Terranova, who is scheduled to read at the Writers House gathering, said, “We went swimming together for decades, and we used to go to plays here and in New York. She was a person bigger than life, and very warm.”

Rittenhouse Square neighbor Lucienne Frappier-Mazur, also scheduled to read at the gathering, said, “She was a film buff, all kinds of films, American, foreign, almost anything. She was so interesting to talk to, with provocative ideas and tastes.”

A good example would be Auerbach’s taste for horror films and the vampire genre. She became so prominent in the field that she was interviewed on film for the HBO series True Blood. By all accounts, she loved the bloody, lurid side, but what truly drew her was what vampires mean to the culture that produces them. In the 1995 book Our Vampires, Ourselves, she wrote one of her most famous dictums, that “each age embraces the vampire it needs, and gets the vampire it deserves.”

That playful, provocative style helped spread her influence through the world of ideas. Her books included an edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and much-praised biographies of Victorian actress Ellen Terry and 20th-century gothic writer Daphne du Maurier. The words seductive and subversive are common in reviews of her books. Rackin called her “totally original. You’d start reading something of hers and think, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is perverse,’ but you’d end up being persuaded by her arguments. She was totally on her own wavelength and saw things differently.”

U.C. Knoepflmacher, professor emeritus of ancient and modern literature at Princeton University, collaborated with Auerbach on Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers,  a collection of essays still in print after 25 years. He said she encouraged him as a male writer on feminism, differing from feminist critics “who insisted on an exclusivist ‘sisterhood.’ "

“Nina was a rare thinker,” Knoepflmacher wrote by email, “always original, never a conformist. She was, to adapt E.B. White’s famous words, ‘in a class by herself,’ someone who was ‘both a true friend and a good writer.’ ”

Deirdre David, a professor of English emerita at Temple University, called her “a bold, innovative voice in the field of Victorian literature.” She said Auerbach’s 1982 book Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth was especially inspiring to her and other feminist scholars. She also praised Auerbach's biography of Terry, written in a voice “that entertained no nonsense and refused sentimental interpretation.”

“She liked to stay up all night and sleep all day,” said Rackin. “She’d stay up late, reading and watching movies and TV, especially vampire movies. She had a voracious passion for everything she loved.”


An Evening in Memory of Nina Auerbach: Readings and Reminiscences. 6-8 p.m., Tuesday, Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, 3805 Locust Walk. Free. Information: 215-746-7636,  writing.upenn.edu.

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