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In Memoriam: Albert Bates Lord (1912-91)


A Remembrance by John Miles Foley, Univ. of Missouri-Columbia

Together with Milman Parry, whose remarkable accomplishments were not nearly so predictive of Lord's own brilliant work as has been commonly and unreflectively assumed, Albert Lord established radical new ways of understanding a tremendous variety of literatures and other forms of verbal art: at last count, their research and scholarship had affected more than one hundred twenty separate language areas, from the ancient world to contemporary cultures. His own dossier alone included scholarship on the ancient and Byzantine Greek, Old French, Babylonian, African, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Turkic (Central Asian), Armenian, Finnish, Latvian, Albanian, Modern Greek, and Biblical traditions, in addition, of course, to chapters and articles on Old English poetry. [For a full list of Lord's publications, see "Albert Bates Lord (1912-1991): An Obituary," Journal of American Folklore 105 (1992), 57-65.]

But no mere enumeration, no matter how lang ys to reccenne, can sufficiently address the depth and continuing impact of his contribution, just as no account of his work specifically on Beowulf or other Anglo-Saxon poems can adumbrate the overall importance of his scholarship for Old English poetry.

Born in Boston on September 15, 1912, Albert Lord took his early training at Boston Public Latin School, moving on to Harvard for his A.B. in Classics (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, 1934) and AM. (1936) and Ph.D. (1949) in Comparative Literature. At the beginning his graduate concentration was English, with minors in ancient Greek and Serbo-Croatian; after the death of his mentor Milman Parry in 1935, however, the major focus became Serbo-Croatian, with minors in Greek and Germanic epic. Lord was the recipient of many honors during his remarkable lifetime, among them Junior Fellow at Harvard, 1937-40; Order of Sveti Sava [Yugoslavia], 1940; Guggenheim Fellow, 1949-50; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1956; Honorary Curator of the Milman Parry Collection, 1959- 91; Fellow of the American Folklore Society, 1969; Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard, 1971-83 [Emeritus, 1983-91]; Order of the Yugoslav Flag with Golden Wreath, 1988; and Honorary Doctorate, University of Novi Sad, 1990. At the time of his death on July 29, 1991, he had published some seventy scholarly articles in addition to The Singer of Tales, Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs (with Bela Bartók), four volumes of Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs (III and IV with David Bynum, chronicling Avdo Medjedović's The Wedding of Smailagić Meho), an edition of Russian folktales, two collections of essays, textbooks on the Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian languages, and the 1991 anthology of his own works, Epic Singers and Oral Tradition.

By alerting us to a world outside our texts, Albert Lord allowed us, without paradox, to read our texts better. We are much the richer for his presence among us, even as we are much the poorer now that he has departed in the tracks of exile, wræccan lastum, and left us lacking both a friend and a kinsman, winemæge bidroren[e]. Perhaps we might best remember him and his seminal contribution to the dryht of Old English scholars with an only slightly recomposed version of the closing lines of the poem Albert loved so well:

Swa begnornodon      Geata leode

hlafordes hryre,      heorðgeneatas;

cwædon þæt he wære      wyruldcyninga

manna mildust      ond monðwærust,

leodum liðost      ond leoðgeornost.

OEN 25.1 (1991): 15.