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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 2, 2021: As certain OEN readers know, I have often written about the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) in my 494 OEN articles. The present essay is my 495th OEN article.
Over the years, I took five courses from Father Ong at Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). In the first course I took from him, Practical Criticism: Poetry in the fall semester of 1964, my junior year, I was impressed with him. When he assigned us to read three selected chapters in his 1962 essay collection The Barbarian Within: And Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (New York: Macmillan, pages 15-25, 26-40, and 49-67), which he had put on reserve at the SLU library, I decided to buy my own copy of the book at the campus bookstore, and I read more than just the three assigned essays in it. Thus, I was off and running as a budding Ongophile.
For reasons that I am not sure that I could explain fully to this day, I was, as an aspiring English major in my junior year, most deeply impressed with Ong's essay "Voice as Summons for Belief: Literature, Faith, and the Divided Self" in his 1962 essay collection (pages 49-67). Perhaps my experience of listening to Ong in class and then reading some of his essays in that 1962 essay collection enabled me to feel summoned somehow by his voice as a teacher and essay writer.
Ong's "Voice as Summons for Belief: Literature, Faith, and the Divided Self" is also reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002, pages 259-275).
Now, for an extensive discussion of Ong's works on voice, see Thomas D. Zlatic's lengthy essay "Faith in Pretext: An Ongian Context for [Melville's 1857 Novel] The Confidence-Man" in the ambitious anthology Of Ong and Media Ecology, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (New York: Hampton Press, 2012, pages 241-280).
No doubt I did at the time feel summoned by his voice - but at that time I did not yet feel summoned to become a scholar. That summons, if I may so characterize it, came a bit later in my life. In the fall semester of 1964, I aspired only to become a high school English teacher. However, a bit later in my life, I did unequivocally feel summoned to become an Ong scholar.
But in the fall semester of 1964, I also felt summoned somehow by the voice of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). I heard him speak on the SLU campus on Monday, October 12, 1964 - just days before it was announced that he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. I also heard him speak in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25, 1965, at the end of his famous march from Selma to Montgomery.
In addition, I heard Erich Fromm (1900-1980), the author of two books I had read on my own before my junior year, speak on the SLU campus on Sunday, April 25, 1965. In the case of Fromm, I may have first felt summoned to listen to his voice by reading two of his books. However, meeting him in person briefly before he spoke at SLU and then listening to him speak publicly at SLU were also memorable experiences in my young life as an impressionable undergraduate.
In any event, I imagine that you can imagine just how pleasantly surprised I was to see Ong quoted somewhat extensively in the cover story in November 13, 1967 issue of Newsweek (pages 74-78). The cover story is titled "Anything Goes: Taboos in Twilight." In it, he is described as "Father Walter J. Ong, the brilliant Jesuit theologian and author of "The Presence of the Word" (page 74). Indeed, Ong's 1967 book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History had just been published by Yale University Press; it is the expanded version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University.
Now, Ong himself characterized his mature work from the early 1950s onward as phenomenological and personalist in cast. He liked to say that we need both proximity (closeness) and distance to understand something, and he even suggested that his mature work can provide us with a needed measure of distance as we try to understand our contemporary world - a suggestion that I myself have attempted to honor in my various publications over the years about his work.
Now, I have listed my professional publications at my homepage at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD):
Incidentally, my UMD homepage includes a photo of me, if you are interested.
Now, I have tried to the best of my ability to honor the phenomenological and personalist cast of Ong's mature work in my introductory survey book Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, second revised edition (New York: Hampton Press, 2015; first edition, 2000).
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