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Life Arts

The 100th Anniversary of Walter J. Ong's Birth

By       Message Thomas Farrell     Permalink
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After Ong had completed his graduate studies in English and in philosophy at Saint Louis University, he went on to complete further steps in his Jesuit training, including further graduate studies in theology. After Ong had been ordained a priest, he proceeded to doctoral studies in English at Harvard, where Miller served as the director of his doctoral dissertation on Ramus.

In his book RAMUS AND TALON INVENTORY (Harvard University Press, 1958), Ong lists more than 750 volumes by Ramus and his followers and a few of his critics, most of which were in Latin, that Ong had tracked down in more than 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe. Ong received two Guggenheim Fellowships that enabled him to conduct his library research. (As a Jesuit, he was entitled to stay in Jesuit residences when he traveled, which also put him in touch with local Jesuits who could help him with the logistics in various places he visited.)

For three years in the early 1950s, Ong was based in Paris, where he had a room in the same Jesuit residence where the French Jesuit paleontologist and religious thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin also had a room. Ong first read Teilhard's posthumously published works in manuscript there. Ong was one of the first Americans to call attention to Teilhard's thought, and Ong never tired of mentioning Teilhard in his publications the rest of his long and productive life.

In 1963, when Ong was teaching English at Saint Louis University, the French government knighted Ong "for services rendered to French culture," an honor only rarely bestowed on someone who is not a French citizen.

In 1964, Ong delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale University, published as THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (1967).

In 1966-1967, when Ong was the Berg Visiting Professor of English at New York University, he was one of the 14 members of the White House Task Force on Education that reported to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.

In 1971, Ong was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the same year in which Cornell University Press published his big collection of studies titled RHETORIC, ROMANCE, AND TECHNOLOGY, mentioned above.

In 1977, Cornell University Press published a second big collection of Ong's studies, INTERFACES OF THE WORD.

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In 1978, Ong served as the elected president of the Modern Language Association of America. To this day, he is the only Catholic priest to have been elected president of MLA.

In 1979, Ong delivered the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, published as FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (1981).

In 1981, Ong delivered the Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto, published as HOPKINS, THE SELF, AND GOD (1986).

In 1982, Methuen published ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD, which has become Ong's most widely known book.

In the 1990s, as the result of Jacob Neusner's initiative, four volumes of Ong's essays were published under the general title of FAITH AND CONTEXTS, edited by me and Paul A. Soukup (Scholars Press, 1992a, 1992b, 1995, 1999).

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In 2002, Hampton Press published AN ONG READER: CHALLENGES FOR FURTHER INQUIRY, edited by me and Paul A. Soukup.

In August 2003, after a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease, Fr. Ong died of pneumonia in a hospital in suburban St. Louis.

In his bibliography of publications by Ong, the late Thomas M. Walsh (1943-2009) in English at Saint Louis University lists more than 400 publications, not counting reprintings. By my count, Ong published 109 book reviews and review essays. Between 1939 and 1996, he published 23 items over 25 issues (with two two-part essays) in the Jesuit-sponsored magazine AMERICA, including 12 essays, nine book reviews, one poem, and one letter. So far as I know, nobody has tried to compile a list of public lectures that Ong gave over his lifetime. But he was active on the lecture circuit.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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