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In Memoriam: John Miles Foley (January 22, 1947–May 3, 2012)

 

A Remembrance by Lori Ann Garner, Rhodes College

John Miles Foley frequently spoke of academic work in terms of a journey, and his own voyage was utterly spectacular. Having produced no fewer than eight single-authored books, eleven edited collections, and almost two hundred articles and shorter pieces in addition to founding an international journal and three book series, John Foley profoundly influenced the study of hundreds of traditions. But tracing his journey is especially rewarding for Anglo-Saxonists. For it was Old English verse where John Foley began his brilliant academic career, and Old English poems remained at the heart of his work through the very end. [A full and annotated bibliography of his scholarly publications is available at http://journal.oraltradition.org/issues/26ii/garner2].

His very first article, published in 1975, offered a new reading of Christ I, Lyric VII based on awareness of traditional structural units. By 1976 he had already begun formulating ideas that later revolutionized the field of oral tradition, even then redefining such central concepts to oral-formulaic theory as theme and formula for Old English verse and demonstrating that “usefulness and aesthetics need no longer preclude one another’s existence; they merge in the ritual unity of traditional art” (232). Steadily broadening his comparative scope to include South Slavic traditions, ancient Greek verse, and eventually such traditions as even Basque and Mongolian, John Foley’s nuanced analyses of Old English poems sustain even into his posthumously published Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind (2012), which offers creative yet finely-tuned readings of such texts as Cædmon’s Hymn and Deor.

In short, at the same time that his ground-breaking methodologies reshaped and vastly expanded the entire field of oral tradition, his close readings of Old English texts, on which much of this larger work was based, offered profoundly innovative and tradition-specific interpretations. In his earlier work, this analysis more typically took the form of discrete chapters within larger comparative works, such as his oft-cited discussion of the Old English sea voyage theme (Traditional Oral Epic, 1990) or his extended application of performance theory to Andreas (Singer of Tales in Performance, 1995). But increasingly, his insightful readings of these Old English poems appeared boldly and directly alongside seemingly unlikely traditions, as in the paired ethnopoetic renderings of Beowulf and slam poetry (How to Read an Oral Poem, 2002). Read through John Foley’s penetrating eyes, long-textualized Old English poems, like the oral traditions from which they derive, become vibrant and alive—fixed in form but ever-changing and new in our perceptions.

As with his scholarship, so his teaching. Among the many poignant remembrances shared by deeply devoted students for his memorial service, his openness, ready wit, and humble generosity were frequently recurring themes. He “let you in,” as one student explained. Others noted the subtle, almost imperceptible, ways that he instinctively “led out what he already saw inside of us”-- his “immediate supportiveness,” his “dry humor,” his “distinct nod,” his “quiet enthusiasm.” And more than one Old English student fondly recalled seeing John in his “Hwæt hat,” given to him by participants in his last Beowulfathon, an event hosted in the Foley home for decades. Through his tireless work as founding director of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition (1985-) and the Center for eResearch (2006-), John Foley’s home institution of the University of Missouri forged productive and long-lasting partnerships with scholars and students around the world.

In all of these “performance arenas,” John Foley brought radically diverse individuals and methodologies into meaningful and mutually enriching dialogue. As Joseph Nagy eloquently observed in a tribute published only days before John’s death, John Foley brought people together: “Criss-crossing the globe in his academic travels, contributing his research and ideas to fora dizzying in the variety of their locations and disciplinary foci, and creating an international journal that showcases the work of scholars so diverse that nowhere else would one expect to find their names listed in the same table of contents, John has laid the foundation for a network binding together a vast community of scholars” (252). Ever grateful for the relationships he enabled, this otherwise unlikely community, well-represented by Anglo-Saxonists worldwide, mourns the passing of John Miles Foley — scholar, colleague, teacher, and friend.

 

References

Foley, John Miles. “Christ 164-213: A Structural Approach to the Speech Boundaries in ‘Advent Lyric VII’.” Neophilologus 59 (1975): 114-18.

Foley, John Miles. “Formula and Theme in Old English Poetry.” In Oral Literature and the Formula. Ed. by Benjamin Stolz and Richard S. Shannon. Ann Arbor: Center for Coordination of Ancient and Modern Studies, 1976. pp. 207-32.

Garner, R. Scott, comp. “Annotated Bibliography of Works by John Miles Foley.” Festschrift for John Miles Foley. Special issue of Oral Tradition 26.2 (2012). 677-723.

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “Foreword.” Festschrift for John Miles Foley. Special issue of Oral Tradition 26.2 (2012). 251-6.