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John Harvard's Journal

Elisa New


Elisa New is writing two books. One, The Mystery of the Puritans, analyzes Puritan poetry; having arrived a year ago at Harvard, she declares, "This is ground zero!" The professor of English and American literature and language observes, "Puritan poetry always starts with sin--it's full of the weight of the body, of longing. And it gives deep pleasure." Her other book, Jacob's Cane, traces nineteenth-century Jewish immigration from Lithuania to London and Baltimore, via her own family history. Her great-grandfather's ornately carved ebony cane inspired the project. "I've followed that cane around the world!" she jokes. Raised in suburban Maryland, New wrote poetry in her youth and published in reviews like Ploughshares and Raritan. But "I wanted a larger canvas," she says. "I'm happier writing paragraphs than poems." She graduated from Brandeis in 1980, having studied with Philip Fisher, now her Harvard colleague; next, she earned a Ph.D. at Columbia, then taught at the University of Pennsylvania for a decade, meanwhile publishing two highly regarded books on American poetry, The Regenerate Lyric (1993) and The Line's Eye (1998). Harvard, she feels, is "a rare place for poetry studies. People here really think of poetry as central to literary studies, rather than decorative." New lives in Brookline with husband Fred Levine, a major-gifts officer with Harvard's development office, and three children. Her busy life involves "mostly dropping balls!" she says, laughing, but allows "brief wedges of fun. My hobby is taking a laptop to a café like Peet's and writing. It feels like fun when you're drinking someone else's coffee."