By Claudio Iván Remeseira/ Hispanic New York
Isaias Lerner, an internationally acclaimed specialist in Miguel de Cervantes who taught for more than four decades at the City University of New York, died of lung cancer in Manhattan on January 8.
Professor Lerner, a descendant of Jewish immigrants from Europe, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He obtained a degree of literature from the University of Buenos Aires, where he also started his teaching career. He was also an instructor of Latin and Greek at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, the country’s most prestigious public high school.
Prof. Lerner was part of the diaspora of Argentine intellectuals who went into exile shortly after the coup that put General Juan Carlos Ongania in power. On July 29, 1966, barely a month into the new military dictatorship, the Federal Police force launched the infamous Night of the Long Batons, a violent crack-down of university students and professors that was a grim precursor of the much bloodier repression of the following decade. Other scholars who left Argentina in the wake of those events include historian and Professor Emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley Tulio Halperin Donghi, philosopher Mario Bunge, and scientist Rolando Garcia, a future collaborator of Jean Piaget.
Prof. Isaias Lerner’s legacy in academia
Once established in the United States, Prof. Isaias Lerner attended the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he obtained his Ph.D. In 1971 he began teaching at Lehman College in the Bronx and seven years later he became a faculty member of CUNY’S Graduate School. From 1985 to 1993 he was Executive Officer of the Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages (HLBLL) and in 1999 he was appointed Distinguished Professor.
Throughout his long career, Lerner wrote hundreds of articles and essays on Spanish literature and linguistics and was a visiting scholar at different universities in the U.S., Spain and Latin America. One of his most important contributions, both for his academic field and for the public in general, was the two-volume annotated edition of Don Quixote, a collaboration with another great scholar of an earlier generation of Hispanists, Celina Sabor de Cortazar.
“That edition, known among specialists as ‘La Americana’ (The American) is one of the quintessential editions of Cervantes’ classic,” writes Jose del Valle, current Executive Officer of the HLBLL, in a moving obituary posted on Facebook. “(Lerner and Sabor de Cortazar read) Don Quixote from the other side of the Atlantic, and in doing so they rightfully claimed the cultural and critical property of the text.”
“Isaias’s intellectual legacy—added del Valle—will survive not only in the libraries but also in the wisdom and critical mind of his many students and collaborators, all of whom were touched by his intelligence and kindness”.
Isaias Lerner is survived by his wife, Lia Schwartz, also a Distinguished Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at CUNY’s Graduate Center and a former director of its Spanish language Ph.D. program.