Professor of English
1953 – 2006
Nicholas Howe, a leading scholar of the literature and culture of early-medieval England, and a distinguished writer on travel literature and cultural geography past and present, died September 27, 2006 of complications attending the leukemia he had battled for over two years; he was 53. In his three years as a member of the University of California, Berkeley faculty he generously displayed all the qualities of mind, character, and intellectual achievement that had drawn international applause for Berkeley's choice at the time of his appointment. A scholar of vision and originality, whose generosity to the profession was legendary, he was also a treasured and trusted colleague, passionately committed to academic culture and to the continued vitality of humane scholarship in contemporary life.
Born in Princeton, New Jersey on February 17, 1953, and raised in Belmont, Massachusetts and Buffalo, New York, Howe was the son of academics: his mother was the classicist Thalia Phillies; his father was the literary and cultural critic Irving Howe. He received his B.A. in English from York University in Toronto in 1974 and his Ph.D. in English from Yale University in 1978, with a dissertation entitled “The Latin Encyclopedia Tradition and Old English Poetry”; this study formed the heart of his first book, The Old English Catalogue Poems: A Study in Poetic Form (1985). His first postdoctoral appointment was that of assistant professor at Rutgers University (1978-85), after which he became associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, moving in 1991 to The Ohio State University as professor. There, as director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1995-2002), he showed what generous and energetic academic leadership, collegiality, and devoted teaching could build. In 2002 he accepted appointment in Berkeley’s Department of English. Winner of many honors and teaching awards, he held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002-2003 and in 2005 was elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, the Academy's highest honor.
In a speciality within literary studies better known for its technical demands than for its broad imaginative challenges, Howe's scholarship stood out for the range of his erudition and his willingness to address big ideas. His writings attest to a lifelong fascination with the role of place as imaginative focus for creating and narrating historical identities. Before the last debilitating stage of his illness, he managed to complete a long-gestated major scholarly book in the field of Old English studies, Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England: Essays in Cultural Geography; the focus of his work on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002-2003, it will be published by Yale University Press in 2007. Presenting new research on major monuments of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Latin writing, including the historical and geographical works of the monastic scholar Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the epic poem Beowulf, it develops further implications of his own agenda-setting work, presented in his 1989 book, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (1989; reprinted 2001), an instant classic in the field. There Howe argued that the northern European tribes that crossed from the continent to England from about 600 C.E. saw their experience as a transition from pagan darkness to a Christian promised land, thus imaginatively aligning their migration to that of the Israelites in biblical history, and framing their own history in the narrative pattern of exile and return. The forthcoming book develops the ways in which this capacious historical analogy inflected their spatial imagination of near and far, "home" and alien terrain, center and borders of an intelligible world, in an era that realized its maps largely in verbal and narrative forms rather than diagrammatic displays. Howe invariably opened fresh perspectives on the imaginative life-worlds of Anglo-Saxon culture through such seemingly narrow apertures as those offered by anomalous features of language. In a pivotal, and already classic, essay on the role of literacy in this period, “The Cultural Construction of Reading in Anglo-Saxon England” (1993), he develops the implications of the divergence of English from other Germanic languages in deriving its verb for the activity of construing writing not from the Latin root legere/ Gm. lesen but from an Old English verb meaning to offer counsel or wisdom, raedan (Mod. E. “read”), with cognates that denote posing or solving riddles.
Howe regarded writing about places in the contemporary world as fully continuous with his scholarship on medieval culture. Published the year he arrived at Berkeley, his most recent book, Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin (Princeton University Press, 2003), illustrated with his own photographs, is a collection of topographical essays about places he had lived in or visited, from Buffalo to Toronto, Oklahoma to Columbus, Ohio, Paris to Berlin. At the time of his death, he had been working with Donlyn Lyndon, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of architecture and urban design, on a book in the form of an exchange of letters, in which the two were to trade views of places they visited.
Central to all his scholarship was a fascination with language, landscape, and North American culture. He was surely the only medievalist to publish regularly in The New Republic, The Southwest Review, The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, and Dissent, as well as in Anglo-Saxon England, Old English Newsletter, Speculum, and PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America), and his essays ranged widely across contemporary as well as medieval society. He wrote as engagingly and memorably about theme parks, fast-food America, and construction cranes, on the writings of Calvino, Cavafy and Joan Didion, and on metaphor in American political discourse, as about the contemporary academic profession, and the afterlives of medieval culture and writings in later centuries. His essays often linked medieval with modern works, or set medieval texts in unexpected relations, as in a review discussion pairing a medieval African's description of Greenland with a Swede's journey to the Sahara. Questions of historical style and its "authentic" representations to modern readers were pervasive concerns of his critical investigation: "Who's Afraid of Translating Beowulf?" (2005) not only reviews a number of translations for expressiveness and clarity, but explores remoter echoes of Old English poetic diction in poets like Geoffrey Hill. A recent sequence of essays linked aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture to later echoes or manipulations of them: “Beowulf in the House of Dickens” (2005) examines the epic's first appearance in a popular English periodical, Charles Dickens’ Household Words; “In the Post-Colonial Void: The Emergence of Anglo-Saxon England” (2005) reconstructs the memory of Roman empire and Roman building in the earliest writings from "post-colonial" Britain as well as in Bede and the Old English poem The Wanderer. Published in a collection of essays on environmental history, Nature's Past (University of Michigan, 2005), Howe's essay “Two Stories, Two Landscapes: Anglo-Saxon England and Contemporary America” compares Anglo-Saxon visions of the desirable land to romanticization of the American wilderness; medieval historians reviewing this collection praised Howe's contribution as “a little masterpiece ... in every way ... a real gem” (William Chester Jordan in Speculum), “a model for linking specific medieval texts to firm environmental understanding and sense of place” (Richard Hoffmann in H-Net Reviews). “From Bede's World to ‘Bede's World’: Medieval Text to Modern Site” (2002) brings together both genres of Howe's writing, juxtaposing a sympathetic reading of Bede's sense of place with a sharp-eyed description of a new theme park that exhibits an “authentic” recreation of a seventh-century village — and also blocks the view of what Howe came to photograph, the rusting industrial ruins of Jarrow.
Howe had many gifts, and he was generous with them all. His love of good jokes, his instinct for fun, and his ability, as one friend put it, to keep darkness at bay, allowed him to be a compassionate observer while cutting through cant, sloth, and pretense. His love of life — good food, good wine, good books, good friends — was contagious, and his knowledge of and pleasure in the delights of daily existence (long walks, blues, jazz, cars, movies, sports, horticulture, bivalves, monorails, where to find the best peaches) exhilarating.
His survivors include his wife Georgina Kleege, a member of Berkeley’s English faculty, his sister Nina Howe, of Montreal, and his stepmother Arien Mack, professor of psychology at the New School, New York.