Perhaps the best way to describe Richard Rambuss’s research is to say that he has one foot planted firmly in the past and the other in the present. But that’s not a lack of focus. Rambuss seeks to find connections among the disparities. He takes on topics as opposite as Mardi Gras and Milton and pulls them together through fascinating, unexpected historical connections. His other areas of interest are similarly dissimilar and unique: everything from Renaissance literature and the 17th-century metaphysical poets to film and modern media.
Rambuss has always had a sense of conviction about what he wanted to do, even if it meant going a bit against the grain. He was the first person in his extended family to go to college, a feat only accomplished after much convincing of his parents to let him attend Amherst, where he was offered a generous financial aid package. He arrived on campus having never even visited. He immediately felt out of place; his classmates seemed “more prepared, more worldly.”
But when he enrolled in a Renaissance class his second semester, everything began to change. The class was an overview of the Renaissance period and involved learning about art, history, magic, and music — all of the cultural markers of the time. For the first time, Rambuss felt hopeful about his college experience. He remembers thinking to himself that if he could just become educated on these topics, he would fit in with his peers. It was the “cultural capital” he needed to feel accepted.
From there on he was hooked. The class led him to major in English and write his undergraduate honors thesis on Milton’s Paradise Lost. One day, while talking with a professor, the topic of graduate school came up, and the professor told him he should apply, noting that Rambuss had a “scholarly temperament.” It was those two words that drove Rambuss to Johns Hopkins to study with Stanley Fish.
Rambuss arrives at Brown from Emory University, where he has served as chair of the English department since 2009. A widely published scholar, he is the author of two books: one on Spenser and the other a study of the erotic imagery that suffuses Renaissance devotional literature and art. He also just completed a new critical edition of the English metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw.
Rambuss currently has two new books in the works. One is about Stanley Kubrick, whose films Rambuss sees as an extended meditation on masculinity. The second originally derives from Rambuss’s time as an assistant professor of English at Tulane University in New Orleans. The book, tentatively titled Mardi Gras Milton, examines the influence of English Renaissance literature on the city’s secret society Carnival organizations, especially the “Mistick Krewe of Comus,” which took its name, Rambuss explains, from a character in a masque by Milton. The krewe titled its inaugural parade in 1857 “The Demon Actors in Paradise Lost.”
Rambuss says he was drawn to Brown in part because of the open curriculum, a program of study he is familiar with from his days at Amherst. “It’s what I went to school with. ... I am a product of the open curriculum.” He says he also admires the independence and creativity characteristic of Brown students.
Perhaps most appealing to him, though, is the interdisciplinary nature of Brown, which allows everyone — faculty and students alike — to pursue a wide range of interests. “Brown is at the forefront of crossing disciplinary boundaries; old school meets new vanguard approaches.” Sounds like a perfect fit.