Word Play

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A Professor’s Influence
The rich texture opened by Edelstein’s diverse word studies took a different form for his early mentor, Longsworth. For Longsworth, the intrigue lies in the study of a word in its natural habitat, as C.S. Lewis believed. It is an approach that teases out not only the live meaning of words as intended by their medieval authors, but also a word’s value to contemporaries and its place in the history of ideas. Longsworth, one could say, honors this oral tradition, or the word in the mouth.

The professor came to his own appreciation of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English by philology, the line-by-line dissection of 14th-century texts, which are not many, but deep. They compensate by serving as thrilling spirits of lost civilizations. Longsworth shares with Lewis the sentiment that “well we should become aware of what we are doing when we speak–of the ancient, fragile, and immensely potent instruments that words are.”

As for his own baptism in the medieval, Longsworth says that the older literature wasn’t “the sort of stuff whose arteries had hardened.” Not at all. “Those periods of history were quite as vivacious as ours,” he adds. “It’s just that the changes in language tended to obscure that.”

In 1964, Longsworth (then 27 and an expert on the arcane Cornish medieval drama) arrived at Oberlin, hoping to convince his new students of the benefits of reading Chaucer intently. He claims that his first course in HEL—the one that captivated Edelstein—helped his quest.

“I learned the degree to which we are the product of our words, the result of a woven culture of words that has been honed, polished, shaped, and misshaped not by texts—that was the big surprise—but in our mouths,” he says. “Meanings evolve through discussion with each other. There is this vast, delightful, cultural mass that is fundamentally oral. Texts try to imitate or capture a bit of it, but they do an imperfect job.”

A gentle and careful man, Longsworth is courteous and deferential in manner. But when he reads aloud from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a thousand years of human thought thunder into the light. During his tenure, he took his students by surprise, delighting them with Anglo-Saxon and Old and Middle English made vivid. He raised words from the dead and made them prance and preen.

“We look at Chaucer’s words, and we read what we think is there from the vantage of today,” Longsworth says. “In modern English, the prologue of the Wife of Bath might seem to say, ‘and experience, though no authority were in this world, is right enough for me to speak of woe that is a marriage.’” He recites the sentence flatly, as much of literature reads today.

“But then you get the difference in the sound,” he says, his voice growing rich. “EGGSPERIENCE!?” he booms. “Thoch no auchtorite werre in this worrld! Is riche enofe forrr ME to spake of woe of marreagea!’

“Do you see?” he asks. “In just the first line you get the fierce juxtaposition of ‘auctorite’—a word of great weight in the 14th century when patriarchy and the consolidation of power dominated—against experience, which was held then as a rather flaky quality.”

In her tale, the wife of Bath makes a strenuous argument that Biblical authority is totally male and excludes half of the race. “It was a pre-feminist argument that she makes with considerable skill just by speaking from her experience,” Longsworth notes. “She had, after all, five husbands. But she is also arguing that texts and writers—the authorities of the day—were not sufficient, and were indeed guilty of distorting crucial information that must be counterbalanced by our human knowledge. That’s a fairly daring notion for the 14th century.”

It was this inherent empathy and humanity in Longsworth that created his instant chemistry with so many students, Edelstein among them. His energetic reach from words lying inert on a page to all kinds of daring notions—old, new, and taboo—made the professor’s courses on the thorny works of the so-called Dark Ages so entrancing.

“When you start to study the Middle Ages, you very quickly lose your narrow academic amenities,” he says. Why? Medieval texts jump from Old English to French, Latin, and German and require a working grasp of European and church history. Medieval literature covers a millennium of human endeavor, available in little more than carved stone, fragile paper texts, and words that have survived into the 20th century. Students like Edelstein, who undertook Longsworth in depth, rapidly found themselves awash in ideas.

And Longsworth encouraged it.

During his final class on the Canterbury Tales, he says, a student tripped over the horrific anti-Semitism framed by Chaucer in “The Prioress’s Tale.” With a tip of the hat from Longsworth, she took on the whole history of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, unearthing a daunting body of research and producing a cogent literary paper that was well beyond that attempted by other students.

Another student, Sue Kropp ’99, now editor of Oberlin Online, was a creative writing aspirant when she enrolled in Longsworth’s medieval literature course simply to fulfill a requirement. It changed her whole direction. In preparing for a private reading, Longsworth handed her a copy of Marcabrun’s eyebrow-raising poetry. It made her face burn. “Well, we had to knock you off your pedestal,” he told her.

Today, Kropp’s English degree is so fat with medieval fare, Latin, and German that she likely has post-graduate options in medieval studies, medieval history, art history, or theology.

But Longsworth’s approach to pedagogy was never a matter of knocking people off their high horses. Rather, he engaged their energy and cultivated mutual respect. He served as acting dean, then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1974 to 1984, a period when Oberlin professors were called upon to account for grading and evaluation policies that potentially affected a student’s draft status for the Vietnam War. Subsequently, he took student concerns anything but lightly, entering into their world unfortified by an ivory tower.

In retirement, Longsworth is editing an annotated dictionary of words based on those culled by generations of Oberlin students. Among them are four-letter taboo words that prevailed on campus during the ’70s and ’80s. At Oberlin, he observes, where political correctness and social engagement are priorities of the highest order, the most offensive word proved just recently to be “girl.”

“There is no circumstance, the students indicated, in which one person can call another a girl, except in dialogue between two intimate black women. A black male cannot call a black female a girl, nor can a non-black male or female,” he says. “It’s very interesting in terms of all the layers of signification that go on in language.”

Student opinion, the dashing of stereotypes, and open discussions of peer values and taboo words “close to the heart of any hormonal adolescent,” Longsworth says wryly—were ever legitimate in HEL (now HECL or History of English Culture and Language). He required two projects of his students: an ongoing language notebook and a biography of a word, any word at all.

Edelstein, when given the assignment, went wild. He bought a tape recorder—a rather new and bulky technology in those days—and used the “Wolf Book” (the student directory) to identify a handful of students from other countries and regions. He recorded each student reading aloud the same sentence, which he then transcribed phonetically into his HEL notebook. “I had a ball,” he says. “I met a lot of people in my first month at school. It was my first experiment in getting women to see my etchings, so to speak.”

The alumnus is already at work on his sequel to Dubious Doublets—this one on eponyms, or words and places that derive from names. He also pursues other Oberlin-inspired interests. Raised in Rochester, New York, he studied French horn and piano and graduated from the preparatory department at Eastman. He continued his horn studies at Oberlin, playing in the College wind ensemble. Twenty years ago, with a dentist, a cardiologist, a music teacher, and a church music director, he launched a quintet called “Prevailing Winds” which performs still; he also plays the shofar at his synagogue.

And, like Longsworth, Edelstein may be said to honor the word in the mouth, so to speak—the breath and spirit that makes us fully human, generation after generation.

Allison Tracy worked in journalism, public relations, and communications
for 20 years. She is a freelance writer and dance critic in Stockbridge, Maryland

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