Thursday, September 28, 2006

In memoriam: Nicholas Howe

Eileen writes with the sad but not unexpected news that Nicholas Howe has died. The author of numerous field-changing books and essays, Howe will be sorely missed in the profession.

My graduate seminar just read his superlative "Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England" on Tuesday, and I had been wondering about his health (he had leukemia, and had recently taken a turn for the worse).

I never met Howe in person. After he gave my book Of Giants a generally affirmative review in Speculum, I emailed and thanked him (it would have been an easy book to trash). He wrote back and said "Why should you care what an old fart like me thinks?" But I did care, because his work has always been so impressive. Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England opened new vistas on the early island. Work that followed grew increasingly complex philosophically while maintaining a linguistic beauty that could be breathtaking. "Anglo-Saxon England and the postcolonial void" (in Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages) is about as good as it gets as far as scholarship goes. I wish I could write half as well.

I invite readers of In the Middle to share their own thoughts about Nick Howe and his work. If anyone is interested in composing a substantial memorial guest post, please let Eileen, Karl or me know.


Eileen Joy said...

Like Jeffrey, I had never really met Nicholas Howe, although I was once briefly introduced to him by one of his former graduate students, Dana Oswald, at the Medieval Academy meeting in Miami about two years ago. Although he barely knew me, he knew people who *did* know me and my work, and on that basis, generously offered to write a letter to Univ. of Notre Dame Press when I was ready to send out my book for review. Apparently, this type of generosity to younger-ish scholars was not uncommon for Nicholas Howe. I hae always been a huge fan of Howe's work--not just because it is smart and learned and erudite and thoroughly researched, because it is all those things, but because it is so beautifully written. We have many smart and well-trained and thorough scholars in the field of Old English studies, but not many who write as beautifully as Howe. He could have been a novelist in another lifetime. Howe's work on "Beowulf" [his last chapter in "Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England"], along with essays on "Beowulf" by Allen Frantzen and John Niles, form the core of the History/Historicism section of "The Postmodern Beowulf," and it would not be a long stretch to say that, along with Niles and Frantzen and a few other scholars in OE studies [including Seth Lerer, Carol Braun Pasternack, John M. Hill, James Earl, Roy Liuzza, Gillian Overing, and Clare Lees], that this "old fart" was an important mover in the "leading edge" of my field, which is now greatly impoverished as a result of his loss.

Eileen Joy said...

I think I'll take this sad occasion to also point readers of this blog to an essay by Nicholas Howe that I don't think gets the attention it deserves, mainly because it was published in a collection of essays, "Reading Old English Texts," ed. Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe [Cambridge, 1997], that is mainly read for the purposes of teaching various "approaches" to OE studies to undergraduate and graduate students, and Nicholas Howe's essay in that book also has the unfortunate unsexy title of "Historicist Approaches." The essay, however, is a timely and cogent meditation on the importance of a historical, yet present-minded, critical approach to Old English history and texts. In that essay he writes the following, which I think is apropos to many of the conversations we have had on this blog:

"[There is] . . . a haunting anxiety that the past, even if it can be reimagined or recovered, will be mute when we press it to speak to our moment. But the consequences of not making that connection is great, and we must admit the sting in Walter Benjamin's observation: 'Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.' If we fail to make pre-Conquest England a subject of interest, even in a quietly modest way, we risk trivializing ourselves as antiquarians who collect lore about the past as magpies collect bright, shiny objects" (p. 82).

Anonymous said...

I had the great privilege of knowing Nick Howe, too. I published his last book, Across an Inland Sea, which wasn't a medievalist book, but of course related to his work and interest on medieval travel narratives. At any rate, it is a lovely book written by a lovely man, who was friendly (genuinely: he regularly engaged in acts of recognition and kindness), generous and full of ideas and life. I can't quite fathom the loss.

Anonymous said...

Judith Humphrey said...

Nick was a student of mine at York University. I was a young Faculty member who taught Medieval literature among other things. One day Irving Howe came to visit Nick and Nick grew rhapsodic about the things he was learning in the course. His dad turned to Nick and said, "You mean, this little girl has taught you all these things?"

Of course, I hadn't. Nick was a natural student with enormous passion for learning. But when I heard that Nick had chosen to focus on The Anglo-Saxon period as a scholar, I thought perhaps I had lit a spark of some sort.

He was an amazing student. His passion for the subject, his ability to articulate his views with such clarity, and his wonderful enthusiasm made Nick one of those students who come along every 10 years.

I am deeply sorry about his death and the loss to his family and to the world of letters. Fortunately, he will live on in his great works.

Anonymous said...

Nick Howe was my favorite professor at the University of Oklahoma as I was working on my MA in English. I took every available "Nick course" and always enjoyed him as much as I learned from him.

One of my favorite things about Nick was his ability to take the mundane and make it exciting. I remember one particular day during his History of the English Language course (which was his favorite, by the way) when he took great glee in telling us the etimology of a commonly used "dirty word" often referred to in good company as "the F word." The bottom line was that no one really knows where that word came from, but he got great enjoyment out of telling us the various stories that people used to claim original etimology.

Years later, I wrote to him to tell him how much he had meant to me as a student, and I was surprised to get a nice, long letter from him. I honestly hadn't expected him to remember me, but he remembered me well and was extremely generous in his "review" of my as a student and professional writer.

I am saddened to learn of his death today, as I looked him up to find out where he was so I could write him again. This is a great loss to academia and the world. He was a brilliant, funny, interesting, insightful man and an exceptional professor. I miss him already.

Maggy Floeter

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thank you, Maggie, for that beautiful remembrance.

Markasaurus said...

I just finished reading his book, "Across and Inland Sea" last night. I am so saddened to hear that he died almost two years ago, I had no idea. All I have been able to think of is how much I wanted to email him and thank him for this book. I similarly grew up in Buffalo, and lived in Columbus (the first and last chapters of his book) and I discovered the book by chance at an architectural bookstore (I'm an architect, not a Medievalist). Nicholas Howe captured the significance of place so completely, I don't think I've read a better book on the subject. I am crushed to discover he is no longer with us, as I ended up in the Bay Area just as he did and looked forward to meeting him some day.

Eileen Joy said...

Mark: thanks for returning us to this older post and for letting us know how Howe's work touched someone who is not a medievalist. I think that would have meant a great deal to Howe, and it means a great deal to those of us in medieval studies who want to believe our work can sometimes matter to the present.