Obituary: Miriam Silverberg

18Mar08

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Miriam Silverberg, whose new book,  Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, I was looking forward to reading, died on March 16th.  She had suffered from Parkinsons.  James Fujii wrote this about her on H-NET:

After a long bout with illness, Miriam Rom Silverberg passed
away in the early hours of Sunday, March 16, 2008.  Miriam
spent her formative years in Tokyo where she graduated from
the International School of the Sacred Heart before
returning to the United States.  With an M.A. from
Georgetown University and a Ph.D. from the University of
Chicago (1984), she would establish and maintain close
associations with such historians as John Witek, Harry
Harootunian, Tetsuo Najita, Fujita Shozo, and Fujime Yuki,
and with Peter Rabinowitz, Masao Miyoshi, Bill Sibley, and
Maeda Ai in the field of literature.  She, in turn, would
profoundly influence countless colleagues, students, social
activists, and others on both sides of the Pacific, and from
all walks of life.  Her Changing Song: the Marxist
Manifestos of Nakano Shigeharu, winner of the John Fairbank
award for East Asian history, and translated into Japanese
in 1998, demonstrated the extraordinary power of literature
and history when freed from their arbitrary disciplinary
homes.  It remains a peerless example of how to read
literature as social critique.

             One of the most self-consciously theoretical
historians of modern Japan, at the same time Miriam's work
has remained steadfastly moored to explorations of
subjectivity, whether in affirming the efforts of
oppositional figures such as Nakano Shigeharu and Sata
Ineko, or in exploring the figuration of women as consumers,
critics, laborers, and intellectuals.  Internationally
renowned for landmark essays on the Japanese "modern girl"
('The Modern Girl as Militant," "The Cafe Waitress Sang the
Blues"), her work ranged broadly into Marxist literature,
mass culture of the inter-war years, the rise of urban
society, Japan's colonial encounters, and contemporary
popular culture.  Her abiding interest in the conjuncture of
modernity and imperialism bookends her remarkable career:
she began her studies at Georgetown with a paper on the
massacre of Koreans in Tokyo and Yokohama in the aftermath
of the 1923 earthquake, and her courses at the end of her
career at UCLA examined colonial encounters in such courses
as "Race and Culture" and "The Japanese Ideology of Empire."

             Miriam would bring to her tenure as director of
the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA the intellectual
dynamism that was so evident in her scholarly work.  The
diverse workshops and events held under her stewardship
included the long-lived "Migrating Epistemologies", a talk
by the Asahi Newspaper editor/reporter Matsui Yayori as
representative of the Women's International War Crimes
Tribunal (on Comfort Women), and a ground-breaking
conference titled "Feminism Confronts Disability" that would
fold her own confrontation with Parkinson's into the
academic-humanistic register of disability studies.

             Perhaps most remarkable in a scholar whose
reputation was international was the priority she gave to
her students, particularly during her last few years when
Parkinson's disease made lecturing, even while seated, a
challenge, let alone completing what would become her
masterful study of Japan's inter-war mass culture, Erotic
Grotesque Nonsense (U.C. Press, 2007).  Writing
recommendations, advising, and guiding her students when she
could no longer write unassisted, as her days became a
succession of unrelenting confinement, her colleagues,
friends, and foremost her students would visit, from across
the Atlantic and the Pacific, from college towns large and
small across the nation.  Sometimes in groups, often alone,
they would find ways of communicating with her in the
hospital, in quiet and touching testimony to the singular
impact she had made on all of those she had instructed,
guided, and with whom she shared food, laughter and her
irrepressible brilliance."

You may also find Adrienne Carey Hurley discuss her passing here.

As a young academic, Silverberg’s essay and writings inspired me to study modernity and gender issues and she remained an important influence.  It’s a shame for her family, of course, and the academic community to lose such a star.  I’m surprised and saddened to hear the news.

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One Response to “Obituary: Miriam Silverberg”


  1. 1 Tokyo Damage Report » Japan Book review 3: EROTIC GROTESQUE NONSENSE

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