Peter Sourian, the long-time professor at Bard College, scholar, writer, journalist and critic, passed away in New York City on April 27, with his daughter at his side. He was 84 years old.
Born in Boston, the son of Zareh and Zabelle Sourian, he was raised in New York City. The life of the mind came naturally to Sourian. After graduating from Harvard in the 50s, and serving a short stint in the U.S. Army, he published a sharp and witty novel, Miri, when he was only twenty- four years old. “The season’s most appealing fiction debut,” TIME magazine declared. Although Miri was his breakout, earning strong reviews for its depiction of the coming of age of three friends, it was actually the third book he’d written by that age. But when his publisher asked to see the precocious young writer’s early attempts, Sourian refused to take them out of the drawer. They were “terrible,” he said.
Over the years, Sourian’s intellect and curiosity would lead him to explore a range of literary endeavors in fiction, philosophy, history and pop culture-writing about everything from the seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal to the 1970’s TV show All in the Family. In the 60s he joined Bard College as an English professor, and he remained a teacher and figure of the department for forty years, until his retirement. He wrote constantly and published two more novels, The Best and Worst of Times, noted for its “psychological reflections” of two college students, which was followed by The Gate, his most political work, an exploration of the Armenian genocide. One critic called it a “quiet frenzy” of “literary mastery.” Later, he’d write Supper Among Strangers, a collection of short stories, and a book of essays, “”At The French Embassy in Sofia.” He was the film and television critic of The Nation, during the 70s, and wrote book reviews for the New York Times. His outlook was conservative but never doctrinaire.
In a Nation piece about the 1976 Republican National Convention, he witnessed “an Invocation which actually mentioned Jesus Christ, a US Secretary of State with a terrific German accent, a President’s wife looking unwell, glum, black conservatives, and clever NBC cameras alternating shots of Rockefeller having a grand foxy time with shots of a heavy unhappy Happy Rockerfeller.”
In the 60s Sourian met Eve Pocquet, a professor of French at City College, at a dinner party in New York. He impressed her with his fluency in French, Spanish and German and they dated for several months before the relationship fizzled. Five years later, he called Eve and asked her to dinner again. Over dessert, he proposed marriage. They married eventually and had two children, Mark and Delphine, who were also raised in New York. The family spent their summers on Nantucket.
As a boy, Sourian had worked in a grocery store on the island and he bought several acres of land there for $100 when he was fourteen years old. A gregarious and generous man, in his later years Sourian was deeply involved in The Clemente Course, sponsored by Bard College, which provides free college courses to students who would otherwise not be able to afford them. He loved to talk, lecture, and argue. One Christmas a relative gave him a t-shirt that read, “I yell because I care.”
He was a deeply affectionate man who also had a fierce love of the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or troublesome. Sourian’s great political passion was raising awareness of the Armenian genocide and of the Armenian diaspora. He wrote for decades about the plight of Armenia and served on the editorial board of Ararat Magazine. In 2010, he was honored by the Writers’ Union of Armenia, Literary Bridges Program. Looking back, as a man in his early 80s, he published a collection of maxims in Philosophy and Literature: ” There may be no new thought,” he wrote, ” but there can be new information to which old thought can adjust with originality.”
In addition to his beloved wife, Eve, Sourian is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Mark and Stephanie of Los Angeles; his daughter, Delphine of Los Angeles; his sister, Gay Sourian Cropper of Manhattan; and several generations of other relatives. He is remembered by all with enduring love. “Asdvadz hokin lousavore,” which means in Armenian, “God illuminate his soul.” The funeral will be held at St. Vartan’s Cathedral in Manhattan at 10am on May 6.