A Radical Scholar and Teacher Moves On

Bob Niemi was one of the first people I met when I first worked a St. Michael’s College. It was 1992. He was teaching an evening class and I worked the Durick Library’s front desk. I was working with him to put a few books on Reserve for his course. The titles included some of my favorites: some Kerouac, some Ferlinghetti, and a biography of William S Burroughs, to name a few. We got to talking about the Beats and from there Bob Dylan came into the conversation. Bob mentioned that he had just published a paper on Dylan in some journal. I vowed to check it out. Our evening conversations continued each night he came into the library. As time went on we talked about many things, including our kids, baseball, rock music, and LSD. Both of us believed our youthful ingestion of the latter had been a positive force in our lives.

I left St. Michael’s for a full-time job at the undergraduate library at the University of Vermont in 1994. Bob and I would occasionally email each other, but both of us were in the thick of child-raising, work and other such things that people in their forties tend to do. One afternoon, I looked up from my desk and there was Bob. He was at the library photocopying some journals when he spotted me. We grabbed some coffee at the campus bookstore and talked for awhile. We more or less stayed in touch during that time until I left for Asheville, NC eight or so years later. Bob was writing more books on film—his passion, especially US film. He was still teaching some of the coolest literature courses in Vermont and was a member of the newly-created American Studies program at St. Michael’s.

After I moved to North Carolina in 2005, Bob and I stayed in touch via email. Often, an email from him would be sparked by one of my pieces in Counterpunch. One of mine to him was usually sparked by an article he had written or an interesting piece of criticism on the Beats or Dylan that I read somewhere. Working in libraries gives curious access to a lot of material at no cost. When I moved back to Vermont in the Autumn of 2011, I ended up working back at the St. Michael’s Library. Bob and I reconnected. We would try and get together for a few beers every couple months at a local pub about a mile from St. Michael’s. When Bob married his wife Connie, she would occasionally join us. The conversations ranged from discussions about his courses, what we were reading, the ugly state of politics in the US, the wars of Washington, and our now adult kids. During football season, Bob would keep me appraised of the Patriots ups and downs, while I did the same for him regarding the Red Sox.

Born and raised in the industrial city of Fitchburg in Massachusetts, Bob’s roots were solid working class. His father was a factory worker subject to the whims of capitalism and the bosses. This helped explain his support for the custodial staff at the college when they organized a union. Most faculty and staff members were hesitant to express their public support. Bob and I attended as many of their rallies as we could until the custodians achieved their union. Like many young people, Bob did the factory thing for a couple of years before heading off to college. Like me, he had just missed the military draft—a fact of relief for millions of young US men in the year 1973. Over time, he ended up with a few degrees and what I believe was his dream job: teaching American literature and film to undergraduates. Bob’s passion for teaching was obvious. Whether he was teaching a seminar on Thomas Pynchon, a class on working-class literature or a survey course on post-Civil War US literature, Bob gave his all. Like any teacher, he wasn’t always rewarded with mutual love by his students, but they had to feel his passion if they went to class. Those who paid attention would mention to me how much they enjoyed his classes, especially the seminars on authors like Pynchon, Nelson Algren, and the Beats. He lamented some of his more recent classes featuring film, decrying the students’ inability to sit through an entire movie.

Besides teaching, Bob was a prolific writer, especially about film. His love of the US director Robert Altman is apparent in his 2016 book titled The Cinema of Robert Altman: Hollywood Maverick. His published works are numerous. He was working on a couple up to the last month of his life, when he got too sick from cancer. His contributions to academic journals were many and he also published a couple pieces in CounterPunch, the rascally (mostly) leftist mag begun in 1995. In the last few years, he worked with filmmaker Denis Mueller on a film about author Russell Banks. I’m inclined to believe that the discussions and general hanging out Denis and Bob did with Banks inspired Banks’ 2021 novel, Foregone.

Whether that is true or not, I know he inspired many young people to go beyond the minimum expected of them and to truly explore the regions in their intellect his teaching introduced.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com