I was saddened to learn of the death of Professor James (Jim) Maraniss, from a heart attack on January 9. He was 76.
“Jim” was one of my favorite professors at Amherst College, where I graduated, class of 1996. His son Ben was a classmate and in my circle of friends. His younger brother is David Maraniss, the acclaimed author and presidential biographer.
Here’s a profile David wrote about Jim in 2010 for the Amherst alumni magazine. And here’s the story of the Pulitzer Prize Jim won along with one of my other favorite professors, composer Lewis Spatlan, for their opera, Life Is a Dream.
Professor Maraniss was basically the coolest professor of all time. He was just awesome. He was funny, wry, witty, full of knowledge and passion and humor and great stories. He made you feel like a kindred intellect and spirit—he was a professor and you were a student, but you were all travelers in this fabulous world and there was no reason not to be pals. Generations of students adored him, as I do.
I took at least two classes with him that I can recall. The first was an odd one. Amherst had no core curriculum at the time but a requirement that freshmen take one of a choice of “Introduction to Liberal Studies” classes—your “ILS”—in the first semester.
They were kind of an odd potpourri of interdisciplinary subjects and I ended up in “The Nazi Olympics,” about the Games of 1936, but really about the rise of Nazism. It was taught by Prof. Allen Guttman, who kind of “took lead,” as I think this was more his field of expertise, alongside Prof. Maraniss.
It met at 9AM so we freshman, who quickly abused our newfound ability to stay up as late as we wanted, found that getting to class on time was surprisingly difficult. We’d be bleary-eyed, and I remember looking over to see a classmate idly doodle swastikas in her margins. I nudged her, “Uh, Heidi, what are you doing...?” She hadn’t even realized it.
What I noticed very quickly is that Professor Maraniss was...different. I was shocked one morning when he swore in class—while teaching, not at anybody, but just to make his point academically. After high school, which was like a penitentiary even in the backwaters of Martha’s Vineyard—a teacher who swore?!
He was friendly. He was chill. You’d see him walking around campus all the time, skinny with messy hair. He was just a fixture and utterly unique.
One of his passions was French new wave cinema. I took his class on the “nouvelle vague” and got a thorough education in these amazing films (Godard, Truffaut, Bresson, et al.). I remember there was a “response paper” you had to write about each film (or maybe every other film?), but his grading was never very hard. In fact, it became part of his legend how easy his classes were, if you were just looking for a “gut,” as we called it.
But he just wasn’t about being a disciplinarian. He shared his knowledge and his passion and if you were open, you would learn a ton—as I did.
Uma Thurman’s father was a professor of religion at Amherst from 1973–1988, and Prof. Maraniss would offhandedly mention when he used to see little Uma (this was the era of Pulp Fiction, she was a huge star) as a runny-nosed kid at the 7–Eleven. Or maybe his son Ben told me this?
There is an urban legend that Prof. Maraniss was the inspiration for the Donald Sutherland character in Animal House. I think I asked about this once—either him directly, or Ben—and all I remember about the answer is it may have been true, but that he would never have crossed boundaries with students the way that character did.
I looked it up and apparently the Animal House screenwriter Chris Miller based the fictional Faber College on Dartmouth, where he went. So I guess it’s not true?
This clip is pretty revealing—except for the fact that Sutherland’s voice is deeper, I can easily imagine Prof. Maraniss...
After graduating I stayed in touch with Professor Maraniss a bit. I don’t remember the reason, maybe to share things I was doing with Film Score Monthly?
I saw the news that he had passed yesterday from his son Ben on Facebook and was just, like...awwwwww, no.
My heart goes out to Ben, David and the entire Maraniss family—and all of us whose lives and minds and hearts were touched by this one-of-a-kind man.