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In Memoriam: Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. (1921-1994)


A Remembrance by Fred C. Robinson, Yale University

Jess Balsor Bessinger, Jr., Professor Emeritus of English at New York University, pioneer in the use of computer technology in preparing Old English concordances, and co-founder of the Old English Newsletter, died of a heart attack on June 23, 1994, in his home in Middletown, Rhode Island. He had been suffering from cancer prior to the heart attack.

Bessinger was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 25, 1921. His family moved to Houston when he was quite young, and so he grew up a Texan. He attended Rice Institute in Houston with a full scholarship and graduated in 1943 with honors in English and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Entering the U.S. Army, he served with the Third Army in Europe in 1944 and 1945. After the war, he enrolled in the graduate program in English at Harvard, where he both studied and taught Old English with Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., with whom he formed a lasting friendship. He dedicated his Concordance to Beowulf "to Francis P. Magoun, Jr., Prime Mover" and co-edited with Robert P. Creed the Magoun festschrift Franciplegius, which was published by New York University Press in 1965. While working on his Harvard dissertation on the early stages of the Robin Hood legend, Bessinger traveled to London, and there he fell under the spell of the Sutton Hoo treasures and especially of the reconstructed harp, which had recently been placed on view in the British Museum. In London he began his recitations of Old English poetry to the accompaniment of the harp replica, and for years to come he delighted audiences of Anglo-Saxonists with his spirited renditions of Old English poetry. While in London Bessinger was also appointed an honorary teaching associate at University College London 1950-52, where he taught undergraduate Middle English. On completing his dissertation at Harvard, he was appointed Assistant Professor of English at Brown University (1952-56), after which he was appointed Associate Professor (1956-60) and Professor (1960-63) at University College Toronto. While in Toronto he was co-founder of the Centre for Medieval Studies there and served as the Centre's first Academic Secretary (1962-63).

In 1963 Bessinger was appointed to a professorial chair at New York University, where he remained for the rest of his teaching career. He was always a popular teacher of Old and Middle English and was named "Great Teacher" by students, faculty, and alumni of New York University in 1989. For many years he commuted by bus from his home in Middletown, Rhode Island, to Washington Square for his NYU classes, and with characteristic efficiency he became accustomed to marking papers on the long bus rides.

Bessinger's publications include A Short Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Toronto, 1960; fourth revised printing 1967), A Concordance to Beowulf (Ithaca, NY, 1969), A Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (Ithaca, NY, 1978), and several works edited or co-edited, such as his and Stanley J. Kahrl's Essential Articles for the Study of Old English Poetry (Hamden, CT, 1968), and his and Robert F. Yeager's Approaches to Teaching Beowulf (New York, 1984). With his two concordances Bessinger did more than provide scholars with a valuable research tool; he and his programmer Philip H. Smith, Jr., began with these projects the earliest introduction of Anglo-Saxon scholars to computers. Computers were still in a primitive stage when Bessinger commenced his merger of electronic prowess with Old English lexicography, and he endured a series of frustrations as the machines changed out from under his project, and other glitches in the early development of computers delayed his work. But he persevered and became quite learned in computer applications so that he was able in 1969 to put his expertise at the disposal of Angus Cameron and his group at Toronto who wanted to begin work on a new dictionary of Old English using computers: see Bessinger's contribution in the volume Computers and Old English Concordances, ed. Angus Cameron et al. (Toronto, 1970).

Throughout his career Bessinger received recognition for the good work he was doing. He held a Fulbright Fellowship in 1950-52, when he was studying in England, and in 1960-61 he held a Canada Council Fellowship. Twice he held Guggenheim Fellowships – in 1963 to explore the use of computers in Old English studies and in 1974 for a comparative study of oral-traditional heroic song in Greek, Turkish, and English. In 1993 the festschrift Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period, edited by Helen Damico and John Leyerle (Kalamazoo, MI, 1993) was presented to him. In May of 1994 his alma mater Rice University honored him as Alumnus of the Year.

Bessinger's work with computers was but one way in which he used twentieth-century technology to promote medieval and literary studies. While at Brown he collaborated in producing eight films for television broadcasting called A Prospect of Literature (Ann Arbor, 1956), and he made seven recordings for Caedmon Records. These include Beowulf and Other Old English Poems (1962), The Canterbury Tales (1962), Gawain and the Green Knight (with Marie Borroff, 1965), and A History of the English Language (1973).

Anyone who ever heard Bessinger's readings, whether in the Caedmon recordings or in live performance, will never forget his deep, rich voice, and it should be no surprise that when he was a student at Rice he began a passionate, life-long devotion to opera and song. He listened to recordings and attended performances whenever he could, both at Rice and at Harvard, and in Cambridge he joined singing groups and even sang the part of Colas in a performance of Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne. During his years in Rhode Island he took part in the Newport Summer Opera performances, and in New York City he sang in performances by the St. Cecilia's Chorus and Orchestra. The voice disciplined and enriched by so much choral exercise was ideal for reading poetry, and the Caedmon records of his readings are a very special legacy to lovers of Old English poetry.

Another enthusiasm was the sea. When he was on his honeymoon with Elizabeth Lieber Du Vally he learned sailing from his wife, and subsequently the family always had a craft in harbor. His sons Anthony and Jess B. Bessinger III developed a love of boats and shared their father's fascination with Viking seamanship and English longships. The three of them also enjoyed snorkeling in the Caribbean for many years, and later in life, when he was in his sixties, Bessinger took up scuba-diving and received certification in Florida and the Cayman Islands. He understood the Anglo-Saxon affinity for the sea, for it was in his blood.

In 1966 Jess Bessinger and I collaborated on a report to the Old English Group of the Modern Language Association of America on "The Status of Old English in America Today." Using questionnaires we had gathered and tabulated, we reported on the morale of the profession, on teaching trends and scholarly production, and then we concluded our report with the proposal that he and I should begin the editing of an Old English Newsletter. The audience assembled approved the proposal. and in 1967 OEN volume I, number 1 appeared. It was Jess Bessinger who conceived the idea for a newsletter, and although I eagerly accepted his suggestion that we should co-edit such a publication, I did not foresee what the OEN would become for scholars and teachers in the field, Jess Bessinger, who with his voice returned speech to an earlier age, was again looking forward to expand the audience to hear those songs.

OEN 27.3 (1994): 13-14.