Novelist, poet and essayist Alvin Greenberg charmed generations of readers with his wit and cerebral musings and ability to manipulate the English language.
“He was an extremely productive writer, and I think never got the national attention that he should have,” said Robert Warde, a retired professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. “He was a very well-respected writer among writers.”
Greenberg, who taught English at Macalester for 34 years before his retirement in 1999, died Sept. 27 in Boise, Idaho, at age 83. The cause of death was esophageal cancer.
Greenberg wrote four novels, four story collections and 10 books of poetry. He also wrote a book of essays, entitled “Dogs of Memory,” the librettos for three operas and an improvisational play for children, called “A Wall.”
In 1983, Greenberg won the Associated Writing Programs’ short fiction award. His work also appeared in the 1973 and 1982 editions of “Best American Short Stories.”
Greenberg’s first novel, “Going Nowhere,” was published by Simon & Schuster in 1971 and was described in the New York Times Book Review as “funny” and “brilliant.”
Harry Crews, the reviewer, wrote, “Any writer who will begin a novel of only 143 pages with a 400-word sentence, which sentence itself begins with ‘Once upon a time,’ can’t be all bad. For one thing, you know he’s not playing it safe.”
Born in Cincinnati, Greenberg received an undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. He taught briefly at the University of Kentucky and was hired by Macalester in 1965. In 1966, he wrote the libretto of a satirical opera, called “Horspfal,” with Eric Stokes, who taught at the University of Minnesota. The opera, about the despoiling of America since the arrival of Columbus, premiered at the Guthrie Theater. Greenberg and Stokes wrote two other operas.
Greenberg’s first book of poetry, “Dark Lands,” published in 1973, “resounds with his own celebration of words, conveyed with simplicity and humor,” according to a Minneapolis Star review. It included one of his poems:
my friend the soldier
sends me a letter.
on the envelope
it says, ‘confidential:
swallow before reading’
the dutiful mailman
stands in the doorway,
waiting and watching.
I begin to chew
like a good citizen,
an eager correspondent
biting savagely deep
into the envelope.
but the paper: it
crackles horribly, like
flames between my teeth
“There was always a quality of intelligence, wit and plenty of shades of darkness,” said writer Charles Baxter, a friend and former student of Greenberg’s.
Greenberg often rose early to write, said his wife, Janet Holmes, a poet and English professor at Boise State University. “He regarded his creative writing the way many professors regard their research,” she said. “He felt that it fed the work he did in the classroom.”
In 1989, Greenberg told an interviewer, “As with any serious endeavor, writing calls for a long apprenticeship. I try to show my students that the first step is the discipline of daily work.”
In addition to Holmes, Greenberg is survived by three children, Ann Brownlee of Stillwater, and Matthew and Nicholas Greenberg, both of Cincinnati, and a brother, Myron Greenberg, of Cincinnati.
A memorial meeting will be held in Boise.
Staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this article.