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Walter Sokel

Professor Emeritus


Walter H. Sokel (1917-2014, February 21, 2014,) was Commonwealth Professor of German Literature at the University of Virginia from 1973 until his retirement in 1994. He escaped from his native Austria in 1938, the year of its annexation by Nazi Germany, and made his way to the United States where, in due time, he became a leading member of that generation of immigrant Jewish intellectuals whose impact on the American university system can be felt even today. His main focus as a scholar and writer was modern European literature. His first book, The Writer in Extremis (1959), was a pioneering work, and is still a definitive work, on German expressionism. His later writing deals with the work of a great many authors, but he is best known as one of the four or five major figures, worldwide, in the field of Kafka studies, to which his principal contributions are the books Franz Kafka: Tragik und Ironie (1964) and The Myth of Power and the Self: Essays on Franz Kafka (2002). His courses at Virginia, as one might expect, were always authoritative and demanding. But they were also always brilliantly engaging, and he was widely acknowledged to be one of the University’s best teachers. At the end of one undergraduate course, in which he had discussed Nietzsche’s idea of “eternal return,” his students presented him with a bouquet of flowers and a note expressing hope for an “eternal return” of his courses. In the German Department (and in the English Department, with which he became officially affiliated in 1980) he was known as an exceptionally friendly and conscientious colleague and a tireless worker for his graduate students. He is still remembered by many at Virginia as a loyal friend.

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