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In Memoriam: Norman E. Eliason (1908-91)


A Remembrance by Fred C. Robinson

Norman E. Eliason, Kenan Professor Emeritus of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of many studies of Old English literature and language, died on January 24 at the University of North Carolina Hospital. He was 83.

Born in Glenwood, Minnesota, of Norwegian-American parents, Eliason grew up in a Norwegian-speaking household and was bilingual in his early years. He always retained some fluency in the language, and during his scholarly career he reviewed books from time to time in Scandinavian languages. Although Old English was at the center of his scholarly interest (he co-edited with P A.M. Clemoes vol. 13 of Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, Ælfric's First Series of Catholic Homilies [1966], and wrote a series of important essays, many of which were collected in his honor by Robert G. Benson and Erika C.D. Lindemann, English Essays Literary and Linguistic [1975]), his scholarly range was really quite broad, including substantial publications in English phonology, Chaucer (especially The Language of Chaucer's Poetry [1972]), modern linguistics, and American English (especially his magisterial study Tarheel Talk: An Historical Study of the English Language in North Carolina to 1860 [1956]). He was also a very productive editor of the Copenhagen monograph series Anglistica and served as an editor for Southern Folklore Quarterly and American Speech. He was a long-time member of the editorial board of Studies in Philology.

He studied at Luther College (A.B. 1927) and the University of Iowa (M.A. 1931) before going to Johns Hopkins University to earn a Ph.D. under the direction of Kemp Malone, whose exacting standards made a lasting impression on the young Eliason (Ph.D. 1936). He taught at the University of Nebraska, Luther College, Indiana University, and the University of Florida before accepting a full professorship from the University of North Carolina in 1946. He was made Kenan Professor in 1966. In all of his teaching Eliason set high standards for graduate students, who generally feared him at first, and his lectures exemplified persuasively a kind of no-nonsense practicality about both scholarship and teaching. These distinctive features of his pedagogy may have resulted from his experience as a high school principal in Charter Oak, Iowa, before he began graduate work, from his apprenticeship with Kemp Malone, and from his military service in Naval Intelligence (1942-46), which he left with the rank of Lt. Comdr. His terms of praise were "efficient," "skillful," "succinct," "tidy," and "sound," while his favorite terms of disapproval were "befuddled," "bungling," "fuzzy-minded," "slap-dash," and "lazy." Absent from his terminology of praise were words like "ingenious," "daring," and "adventuresome," and he rarely pronounced a work of scholarship "dull" or "boring." If substance and good sense were there, he was tolerant of a presentation that was indifferent so long as it was not prolix.

Eliason was sought out as a visiting professor by the universities of Innsbruck, London, Iowa, and Washington as well as by Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford. He and his wife Dorothy were cosmopolitan and enjoyed traveling. They were familiar and delightful presences at conferences, such as triennial meetings of the International Association of University Professors of English, in which Eliason served as Vice President from 1971 to 1974.

When the first issue of the Old English Newsletter reported the results of "A Survey of Old English Teaching in America" in 1966, it noted that of the Old English teachers in the United States Norman E. Eliason had produced the largest number of Ph.D.s during the period surveyed. For those who had worked with him this was not surprising. Despite the at first fearsome-seeming way in which he enforced his high standards, his graduate students soon came to know him as their special friend, one who cared deeply about them individually and about their progress in the profession. In the droll words of the late R.E. Kaske, who was a student of Eliason's, "By the time you found out what a really nice guy he actually was, it was too late: you had already learned far more than you intended." It is telling and appropriate that in 1986 a former student of Norman Eliason's established the Norman Eliason Fund, which helps Chapel Hill students in all areas of English to find jobs in the profession.

Other honors also came his way. His alma mater Luther College conferred an honorary Doctor of Literature degree on him in 1967, and two volumes were compiled in his honor, one a collection of his own exemplary essays (mentioned above in the second paragraph) and the other a collection of Eight Anglo-Saxon Studies published with a charming foreword by Joseph S. Wittig as Studies in Philology: Texts and Studies (1981). Through his publications and his personal force as a teacher and colleague he will long remain a beneficent influence on North American and Anglo-Saxon studies.

OEN 24.1 (1990): 12.