I. J. (Israel James) Kapstein (1904-1983), professor of English, was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on January 16, 1904. He lived in Boston before moving to Providence in 1916. At the Candace Street Grammar School he met his lifelong friend S. J. Perelman, and his future wife Stella Cohen. In college he wrote for the literary supplement of the Brown Daily Herald, contributed to the book review page of the Brown Jug, and was editor of Casements. After graduation in 1926 Kapstein, with a literary career in mind, moved to New York and worked for Alfred Knopf, publisher, where he was assigned to the textbook department. He and S. J. Perelman roomed together in a Greenwich Village flat, and wrote short stories which did not sell.
In 1928 he was brought back to Brown by invitation of Professor George W. Benedict as an instructor in English, and earned his master’s degree in 1929 and his Ph.D. in 1931. In 1937 his story, “Song the Summer Evening Sings,” was published in Story magazine. His 1941 novel, Something of a Hero, made the best-seller list. He collaborated with Rabbi William Braude on a translation of Peskta de-Rab Kahana: R. Kahana’s Compilation of Discourses for Sabbaths and Festal Days, which was awarded the 1976 National Jewish Book Award. In August 1960 he was sent by the State Department to Vietnam where he taught American literature at the University of Saigon until the following April.
“Kappy” was always popular with the students and was several times elected the “favorite professor” by the Pembroke students. When the Graduate Center was opened in 1968, a honey locust tree was planted in his honor, a gift of Sol B. Korn ’65 as a tribute to his “friend and counselor,” crediting Kapstein, with whom he had never taken a course, as being the person who encouraged him when he thought of dropping out of college. In 1982 a former student, Marvyn Carton ’38, established the Israel J. Kapstein Professorship. Carton had taken only one course with Kapstein, but he stated that that course had stayed with him for life. Kapstein retired in 1969. He died in Providence on August 5, 1983.