Caryl Emerson grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, and then Rochester, New York, where her father was a professor of theory and acoustics at the Eastman School of Music. When she was 11, her maternal grandmother brought her along on a visit to the Soviet Union, which had just opened up to tourism after Stalin’s death. That trip was to have an enormous influence on Caryl’s career; it was the first of 50 visits to a country that has never ceased to intrigue, inspire, and infuriate her.
As an undergraduate at Cornell, Caryl majored in Russian literature, graduating as valedictorian. She then received master’s degrees in Russian studies and Russian language teaching from Harvard. At that point, she felt that she could share her enthusiasm for the subject best by teaching on the secondary level and she took a job at the public high school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. After being reprimanded for organizing demonstrations against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, she left to teach Russian area studies at Windham College in Putney, Vermont.
Caryl spent two years in Putney, then decided to enroll in the Ph.D. program in comparative literature at the University of Texas in Austin, where she focused on Russian and German. Her dissertation, which became the basis for her first book, was a pioneering study of genre. She began with the historian Nikolai Karamzin’s account of the reign of Boris Godunov, then examined Alexander Pushkin’s play on this subject (for which Karamzin was his main source) and then Modest Musorgsky’s opera (which uses Pushkin’s drama as its libretto). The dissertation gives a sense of the far-reaching interests that would distinguish Caryl’s career: history and historiography, drama (both as text and performance), and music.
It was in graduate school that Caryl first encountered the work of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), a philosopher of language and imaginative literary scholar who had been ignored—when not actually repressed—in the Soviet Union. Caryl became an authority on his work. Her fluid translations of his dense prose (essays on the theory of the novel collected under the title The Dialogic Imagination, published in 1981, and Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, published in 1984) greatly facilitated the assimilation of Bakhtin’s work outside of Russia. Caryl’s translations and explications were major contributions in the “Bakhtin boom” in Western scholarship, which would extend beyond literary studies to fields as diverse as philosophy, theology, psychology, and anthropology.
After teaching for seven years at Cornell, Caryl came to Princeton in 1988 with a joint appointment in Slavic languages and literatures and comparative literature. Since then, she has been a stalwart of both departments, directing at least 20 dissertations and countless undergraduate theses. She served as director of graduate studies and chair (for two terms) of Slavic. All the while she has managed to produce a steady stream of important books and essays. In 1990, she coauthored (with Gary Saul Morson) Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford University Press). In 1994, she co-authored (with Robert Oldani) Modest Musorgsky and Boris Godunov: Myths, Realities, Reconsiderations (Cambridge University Press). In 1997, Princeton University Press published her The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin. Two years later saw the appearance of her The Life of Musorgsky (Cambridge University Press). That same press then commissioned her to write The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature, which appeared in 2008. This was followed by a collected essays volume called All the Same the Words Don’t Go Away: Essays on Authors, Heroes, Aesthetics, and Stage Adaptations from the Russian Tradition (Academic Studies Press, 2010). Her work has been translated into Russian, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, and Korean. She has also edited 10 volumes of essays or special issues of journals and written more than 100 scholarly articles, as well as hundreds of reviews and smaller pieces.
As a pedagogue, Caryl is remarkable for her energy, her detailed preparation, and her generous feedback. In addition to standard courses on individual writers on periods (including her legendary Tolstoy course), she has taught Russian language (!), Russian literary theory, the Eastern European novel, drama and dramaturgy of the early Soviet period, and Russian religious philosophy. Her fascination with the performing arts has led her to create numerous courses that were cross-listed with music and theater studies. These have twice been connected to University-wide initiatives comanaged with Simon Morrison (a former graduate student of Caryl’s, now professor of music): in 2006–07 a reconstruction of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s (aborted) 1936 production of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov with incidental music by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by an undergraduate cast of actors, singers, and instrumentalists on a modernist set designed in a Princeton School of Architecture graduate seminar, and in 2011–12 Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s stage adaptation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (with the cooperation of the Program in Theater, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra). These productions were reviewed in The New York Times as well as in Russia and Japan.
Beyond her prolific scholarship and inspired teaching, Caryl has been an indispensable citizen of Princeton University, serving on numerous committees (Committee on Appointments and Advancements, Priorities Committee) and executive boards and committees (Princeton University Press, University Center for Human Values, Society of Fellows, Council of the Humanities). As the chair of the ad-hoc committee on the status of lecturers at Princeton (2005), she was instrumental in improving the fate of that crucial segment of the University’s teaching staff. When President Shirley M. Tilghman initiated a series of University lectures by distinguished faculty, Caryl was invited to give the first one. Caryl has also led alumni courses (including “Princeton Journeys”), given keynote lectures for pre-freshmen, and spoken at Princeton alumni clubs across the country.
Caryl is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading Slavists. Her scholarship has earned her fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and American Council of Learned Societies. She has won lifetime awards for “outstanding contributions to the field” from both national Slavic organizations: the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (language and literature), and the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (area studies), in addition to awards for her individual books. She has likewise won numerous prizes for humanities at Princeton,including the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching (1992), the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities (1997) and the Graduate Mentoring Award (2012). In 1995, she was named the A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures.
It is a typical of Caryl’s generosity that she chooses to retire at this time. She is still producing excellent scholarship at a rate that would make junior faculty envious, and she is exploring new areas. Indeed, for her final course this spring she elected to co-teach (with Tim Vasen of the Program in Theater) a one-time-only course dramatizing the prose of the neglected Soviet writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whom she has been championing for the last decade. In short, Caryl is not retiring from scholarly activity. She is retiring because she feels that in non-growth fields like the Slavic humanities, senior faculty should make way for the many talented Ph.D.s who face a difficult job market. As Caryl has stated, graduate students in the Russian field have never been better; we cannot continue to train them and then not move on ourselves.