Ever since the third grade, when an assistant principal generously offered to teach him and two classmates French, John Miles Foley has been curious about how languages work. Starting with the early epiphany that language is always embedded in culture, Foley followed this line of thinking until it led to oral tradition, which the MU Professor of Classical Studies and English has now been researching for over three decades. It will surely be a lifelong journey, for the field far outstrips written literature in size, diversity, and social function. In fact, all the written literature we have, Foley is fond of saying, “is dwarfed by oral traditions.”
As Professor in the Classics Department at MU, Daniel Hooley’s research includes Roman poetry, the classical tradition, and translation studies, about which he has written three books, including his most recent, Roman Satire (2006). Hooley first became interested in studying the classics through an “accidental journey,” studying the western classics as an English and Humanities graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where he focused his studies on modernism and wrote his dissertation on how Latin poetry was translated by American modernists such as Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. The dissertation became his first book, The Classics in Paraphrase: Ezra Pound and Modern Translators of Latin Poetry (1988).
As a Curators’ Professor and Byler Chair in the Humanities, Foley is well known for his teaching, offering a number of courses in the Classical Studies and English departments, and occasionally in Germanic and Slavic. For example, he currently teaches courses on oral tradition, a seminar on Beowulf, and courses in Homer and Greek literature. Foley notes that the Beowulf seminar reads the entire poem—“all 3,182 lines”—in the original language of Old English. In fact, he adds, “we have a feast at the end of the semester, when we perform it aloud so that the students can get a feel of what it’s like in the original.” Regardless of the topic, Foley infuses students with an appreciation for the beauty and complexity of language and verbal art.
The basic idea behind the study of oral traditions, explains John Miles Foley, is that we must approach them differently from how we approach written texts. Foley’s seminal book, How to Read an Oral Poem (2002), now translated into Chinese, offers a methodology for approaching oral tradition while paying attention to such crucial aspects as performance, audience, structure, and specialized language.
Foley distinctly recalls the roots of his interest in languages and oral tradition. During the third grade, assistant principal Jean Buteau offered to teach French to Foley and two other students as an alternative to study-time. In graduate school, two teachers were especially influential. One of them, Robert Creed, introduced Foley to oral tradition by performing parts of the Old English Beowulf during every seminar meeting, illustrating how — unlike the written word — oral traditions live in embodiment. The other, Anne Lebeck, was Foley’s most inspiring teacher of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which also derive from oral tradition. Seeking a modern analog, Foley later began to study the living oral traditions of the Former Yugoslavia.
Dan Hooley first became interested in studying the classics through an “accidental journey,” studying the western classics as an English and Humanities graduate student at the University of Minnesota where he focused his studies on modernism and wrote his dissertation on how Latin poetry was translated by American modernists such as Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot.