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In Memoriam: Sherman McAllister Kuhn (1907-91)


A Remembrance by Robert E. Lewis, University of Michigan

On January 7, 1991, Sherman M. Kuhn, Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan and Editor Emeritus of the Middle English Dictionary, died after a brief illness. Though he was 83 at the time of his death, he had been retired for only eight years, having been permitted by the University of Michigan to remain past the normal retirement age in order to continue his work on the Dictionary and to participate in the transition to the editorship of his successor.

Kuhn was born on September 15, 1907, in Alexandria, South Dakota, the son of a Presbyterian minister who moved around the upper midwest and northern plains of the United States and homesteaded in Alberta, Canada, during Kuhn's youth. Kuhn attended Dubuque University in Iowa and received his BA. from Park College in Missouri in 1929. While teaching high-school English in Illinois, he attended the University of Chicago during the summers and earned his MA. in American literature in 1933; work on a Ph.D. in English linguistics followed, and he received his degree in 1935 with a dissertation entitled A Grammar of the Mercian Dialect.

Kuhn began his university teaching career at what is now Oklahoma State University, where he taught for thirteen years (1935-48), interrupted only by a stint as a cryptographer in the U.S. Army towards the end of World War II; in 1948 he was recruited by Hans Kurath for work on the Middle English Dictionary and in that year came to the University of Michigan as associate professor of English and associate editor of the Dictionary. He was subsequently promoted to professor (1955) and on Kurath's retirement in 1961 became editor of the Dictionary and remained in those positions until his own retirement in 1983. Kuhn was honored with election as a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and of the Dictionary Society of North America; in the year of his retirement he received a Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award from the University of Michigan and in the next year was presented with a volume of his major articles on Old English language and literature, Studies in the Language and Poetics of Anglo-Saxon England (Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers, Inc., 1984).

Kuhn began his scholarly career as an Anglo-Saxonist, and much of his personal research throughout his life focused on Old English, primarily the philological aspects of Old English. His dissertation, A Grammar of the Mercian Dialect, laid the groundwork for his first article, "The Dialect of the Corpus Glossary," PMLA, 54 (1939), 1-19, and for much of his subsequent work on the Vespasian Psalter, which culminated in 1965 in the first volume of his edition of the work (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press); the second volume (introduction, notes, etc.) was to have been his major project during retirement, and though drafts of various portions were written at the time of his death, unfortunately the volume itself was never completed. His scholarship is characterized by a complete knowledge of the subject, exhaustive research, and methodological rigor in reaching a conclusion.

Kuhn will, however, always be known chiefly for his editorship of the Middle English Dictionary, which has been called "the greatest achievement in medieval scholarship in America" and the "most important single project ... in English historical lexicography being carried out anywhere today." As associate editor (1948-61), he helped Kurath formulate the editing plan on which the Dictionary is based. His own editorship (1961-83) was a long one, and during that time he systematized and regularized the elements of the editing plan, with the result that the letters he was responsible for, G through P, are more coherent and fuller in their coverage than the earlier ones and have set a standard for the later ones. His nearly thirty years of experience and expertise is recounted in his masterly article entitled "On the Making of the Middle English Dictionary," Poetica, 4 (1976), 1-23 (reprinted in Dictionaries, 4 [1982], 14-41, with some updating). His commitment to the project never wavered. One of my most vivid memories of this is from his last year as editor, when he was ill and confined to his home for over four months: every week or ten days we would deliver typed copy to him, which he would review and correct with his green pencil, often making major rearrangements of senses and quotations, and then return, usually within a few days so as not to hold up the production schedule.

As a scholar, Kuhn held himself to high standards and expected the same of others. This expectation carried over into the classroom, where he was a demanding teacher; students often found him intimidating, stern, and gruff, but he was also humane and understanding and had a strong sense of humor, and the best graduate students sought him out for his courses on Old English, Old Icelandic, Old Irish, palaeography, and lexicography and for his help and direction on their dissertations. As a lexicographer, he had both an open mind and a passion for detail, accuracy, and completeness, and he would never come to a conclusion until he had sifted all of the available evidence. He once said he had never met a word he did not like.

A longer version of this remembrance appeared in Medieval English Studies Newsletter No. 24 (June 1991).

OEN 24.3 (1991): 10.