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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Edgar Morris Slotkin (1943-2015)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Sabina Magliocco (California State University) — 

The field of folklore studies is blessed with an extraordinary number of inspiring teachers, but few among them can equal the generosity, dedication, and brilliance of Edgar M. Slotkin.  Born in Buffalo, New York on February 13, 1943, he attended Harvard University, where he became a protégé of Albert B. Lord, earning a BA in English and an MA and Ph.D. in Celtic Languages and Literatures. In 1972, he accepted a position in the Department of English and Comparative Literatures at the University of Cincinnati, where he taught until his retirement in 2012. He also served as Visiting Professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in 1990 and 1997-98. He was the recipient of an NEH Masterworks grant in 1993 and the William C. Boyce Teaching Award from the University of Cincinnati in 1992.

Edgar’s scholarship bridged the gap between generalism and specialization.  His publications centered on the relationship between oral and written narrative and the nature of storytelling, both in Celtic literature and in contemporary folklore. Each is like a little gem; they are frequently taught and cited, and remain significant contributions. But it was his teaching and mentorship that inspired dozens of students to continue their scholarship in folklore and Celtic Studies.  During the arc of his career, he taught over 35 courses, running the gamut from standard folklore offerings such as “Introduction to Folklore,” “The Legend,” “Festivals,” and “Folk Humor” to more esoteric fare, including “Irish Studies,” “Totems and Tropes,” “Versification and Prosody,” and “The Sociological Bases of Literary Forms.” A polyglot who mastered over 20 languages, he also taught Old Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Middle Welsh.  His students were often impressed by the encyclopedic breadth of his knowledge and his ability to comment intelligently on almost any subject.  In addition to being a scholar, he was also a gifted composer who wrote modern Classical music, including a complete symphony in five movements.

Edgar was one of the founding members of the Celtic Studies Association of North America (CSANA), itself a remarkable achievement. What began as the creation of a few graduate school friends turned into a respected international organization with its own annual conference and publications.  Perhaps more important than the institution itself is the tone of warmth and collegiality that Edgar and his colleagues set for the society, which welcomed all members to enjoy exploring the field together.  

Despite his considerable achievements, Edgar’s self-deprecating sense of humor kept him humble.  His oral presentations were characterized by their wit; one of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was to always open a lecture with a relevant joke.  He possessed a childlike sense of fun that delighted everyone around him when it surfaced.

Above all, Edgar taught his students not just the material, but how to be scholars and colleagues. We saw ourselves in him and through his eyes, and from that view, were inspired to reach for great heights.  I’d like to think that the gates of Tír na nÓg, the Irish otherworld where there is no sickness, old age, or death, swung wide to welcome him home, where he now stands with the Mighty Dead, ancestors to whom we look for inspiration. He goes forth shining; what is remembered, lives.

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