Renowned scholar and author Norman O. Brown dies at age 89

Norman O. Brown, professor emeritus of humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of Life Against Death and Love's Body, died October 2 at his residence in Santa Cruz, California. He was 89.

Brown's influential scholarship and teaching encompassed the classics, theology, history, psychology, sociology, and literature, among other disciplines. "He was a liberating, visionary scholar, the successor in the 20th century to Blake and to Nietzsche," said Jerome Neu, professor of philosophy at UC Santa Cruz and a longtime colleague of Brown.

When Brown's prize-winning book Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959) was published, Lionel Trilling called it "the best interpretation of Freud that I know." It was internationally acclaimed, ranking on the London Observer's list of best nonfiction books.

"Until I wrote Life Against Death, I was a perfect sleeper," Brown said in a 1970 interview. "But when I learned to interpret my dreams, the power of sleep was taken from me. Freud said he came to disturb the sleep of the world. In my case, he succeeded."

Life Against Death disturbed Brown in another way as well. It attracted a wide following among the 1960s activist generation of American students, creating unwelcome notoriety for a man who considered himself not a radical or a revolutionary, but rather a scholar and teacher. An attempt at a psychoanalysis of history, Life Against Death brought Brown fame in a variety of contexts, including the European intellectual community and the American counterculture. In 1966, Time magazine ranked Life Against Death "as one of the underground books that undergraduates feel they must read to be with it."

It was this kind of celebrity that Brown shied away from, and in describing his next book, Love's Body (1966), Brown said, "I did feel.some kind of obligation to undo what I had done in Life Against Death. I wanted to release any followers I had acquired.I don't want to be a leader."

Known to friends, colleagues, and students as "Nobby," Brown was born in Mexico and educated in Europe; he trained in classics at Oxford University. "I wanted to go straight to the heart of the dynamo," was how Brown explained his decision to do graduate studies in America. After getting a Ph.D. in classics at the University of Wisconsin, he began teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

His academic career was interrupted by World War II, during which Brown worked as a research analyst for the Office of Strategic Services. He returned to teaching after the war, chairing the Classics Department at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and then moving to the University of Rochester, where he was a professor of classics and comparative literature. He also published his first book, Hermes the Thief (1947), a sociological interpretation of mythology, greatly influenced by Marx.

Brown joined the faculty at UCSC in 1968 as a fellow of Cowell College and was appointed a Professor of Humanities, the only UCSC faculty member ever given that title. "I believe Norman O. Brown was the most distinguished faculty member in the history of UCSC. Certainly he was a model of what a teacher, a colleague, and an engaged intellectual should be," said Neu.

Brown taught a variety of courses, mostly through the History of Consciousness Department, until his retirement in 1981. His last two books were Closing Time (1973), and Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (1991), a collection of essays he had written over the course of 30 years.

Brown was known for his erudite and imaginative lecture style, which was often poetic. Speaking at a UCSC commencement in 1984, he told the new graduates: "It is not a matter of having a soul, or of saving it, but more actively a matter of soul-making. The soul is creative and must create itself: it is the creative imagination."

Brown is survived by his wife of 64 years, Elizabeth P. Brown; his sons Stephen and Thomas; daughters Rebecca and Susan; grandsons Alex Brown and Jeremy Gussin; and granddaughters Lisa Brown, Meika Scott-Brown, and Sara Gussin.

There will be a celebration of the life of Norman O. Brown on Saturday, October 19, at 3 p.m. at UCSC's Performing Arts Second Stage (the building next to the Mainstage in the Theater Arts Center). A map of that area of the campus is available at


A photograph of Normal O. Brown is available for download from: