The rich texture opened by Edelsteins 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 words 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.
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 speakof the ancient, fragile, and immensely
potent instruments that words are.
for his own baptism in the medieval, Longsworth says that the older
literature wasnt the sort of stuff whose arteries had
hardened. Not at all. Those periods of history were
quite as vivacious as ours, he adds. Its just
that the changes in language tended to obscure that.
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 HELthe one that captivated Edelsteinhelped
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 textsthat was the big surprisebut
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.
and careful man, Longsworth is courteous and deferential in manner.
But when he reads aloud from Chaucers 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.
look at Chaucers 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.
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!
you see? he asks. In just the first line you get the
fierce juxtaposition of auctoritea word of great
weight in the 14th century when patriarchy and the consolidation
of power dominatedagainst experience, which was held then
as a rather flaky quality.
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 writersthe authorities of the daywere not sufficient,
and were indeed guilty of distorting crucial information that must
be counterbalanced by our human knowledge. Thats a fairly
daring notion for the 14th century.
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 notionsold, new, and taboomade the professors
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.
his final class on the Canterbury Tales, he says, a student
tripped over the horrific anti-Semitism framed by Chaucer in The
Prioresss 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.
student, Sue Kropp 99, now editor of Oberlin Online, was a
creative writing aspirant when she enrolled in Longsworths
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 Marcabruns eyebrow-raising poetry. It
made her face burn. Well, we had to knock you off your pedestal,
he told her.
Kropps 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.
Longsworths 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 students draft status
for the Vietnam War. Subsequently, he took student concerns anything
but lightly, entering into their world unfortified by an ivory tower.
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.
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. Its very
interesting in terms of all the layers of signification that go
on in language.
opinion, the dashing of stereotypes, and open discussions of peer
values and taboo words close to the heart of any hormonal
adolescent, Longsworth says wrylywere 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.
when given the assignment, went wild. He bought a tape recordera
rather new and bulky technology in those daysand 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.
alumnus is already at work on his sequel to Dubious Doubletsthis
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 speakthe breath and spirit that makes us
fully human, generation after generation.
Tracy worked in journalism, public relations, and communications
for 20 years. She is a freelance writer and dance critic in Stockbridge,
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