English, Department of


Date of this Version



PMLA 71, No. 1, March 1956, pp 3-13.


I HOPE this microphone works. If you have to listen to me I hope you can hear me. Once before at a gathering of a learned society, seeing an upright gadget before me, I talked with extreme care directly into it for half an hour, moving neither to the right nor to the left, only to find as I went down from the platform that it was a lamp.

For half a century I have belonged to the MLA. My name first appears in the Proceedings for 1906, printed in 1907. Apparently I joined in a historic year. Percy Waldron Long, who became Secretary of our Association in 1935 and its President in 1948, joined in that same year, 1906, and our retiring Secretary, William Riley Parker, to whom the MLA owes its recent and long needed Foreign Language Program, was born in that year. Recently when looking over old volumes of PMLA I was surprised to note-I had utterly forgotten this-that in 1898 I was on the program of the Central Division, the earliest Division to splinter off for geographical convenience from the MLA proper. It was founded at a Chicago meeting in 1895 and was given up at Ann Arbor in 1923. Thereafter the general meetings were to alternate between the East and the "West," the latter usually meaning Chicago. By our day multiple divisions of our now gargantuan parent organization have arisen in the South and West, with the Rocky Mountain Division nearest the old Central.1 In 1898 Chancellor G. E. MacLean of the University of Nebraska, who studied at Berlin and Leipsic, Professors L. Fossler of the Department of German and A. H. Edgren, head of Romance Languages (founder of our graduate School, later Chancellor of the University of Goteborg, Sweden, later still member of the Nobel Prize Commission), brought the fourth session of the Central Division to Lincoln. I had been newly promoted from theme reader to a minor form of instructorship. When a paper from the Department of English Literature was wished for the program, my head, Dr. L. A. Sherman, asked me to prepare one. I was not a member of the MLA then, probably knew nothing about joining. I was in good company on the program. C. Alphonso Smith, then of the University of Louisiana, was the President of the Central Division. Sixteen papers were read. Among those taking part were three professors from the University of Chicago, F. I. Carpenter, A. H. Tolman, P. S. Allen. Others appearing were Raymond Weeks of Missouri and W. H. Carruth of Kansas. The subject I selected to discuss was (of all things) "The Relation of the Finnsburg Fragment to the Finn episode in Beowulf," a moot question then. Professor Blackburn of Chicago commented that he thought the paper should be published. Inexperienced as I was, unacquainted with organs of publication and none too sure of my home-grown Anglo-Saxon, I did nothing about this. Perhaps I should have tried to print my venture, for its conclusions were those ultimately prevailing.

Joining as I did in the early twentieth century if not in the late nineteenth, I come tonight trailing clouds of MLA memories, manners, and mores. Am I becoming a professional patriarch? I reported in this role to the Dialect Society a few years ago and I was given a gold pin recently for membership for fifty years in a local society. I have kept up my MLA membership all these decades except for paying dues. In the first World War period when life memberships were offered for $25 I took out one. The Treasurer of the MLA informs me that I have saved $151 thereby through the years.

I promise to try not to exceed my allotted time. I do not want my hearers to say of me what Gertrude Stein once said in a private letter. She remarked of a woman speaker (I have quoted this saying often and widely since I came upon it), "She's the kind you like the better the more you hear her less."