restricted access Eloquence and Vocation: Dwight’s Calling
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328 Joseph Roach Eloquence and Vocation Dwight’s Calling Dwight Conquergood’s career-­ long commitment to people with hyphenated identities began with Anglo-­ Saxons. He wrote his dissertation as a medievalist, exploring the literary remains of a primordial speech act—­ the boast. He submitted “The Anglo-­ Saxon Boast: Structure and Function” to the School of Speech at Northwestern in August 1977 after accepting his first job, in the English department at the State University of New York at Binghamton. His scholarship on Beowulf, the Old English poem about the epic deeds of a Norse warrior-­ hero, and The Battle of Maldon, the verse record of a Saxon defeat by the Vikings in 991 CE during the unfortunate reign of Aethelred the Unready, qualified him as a respectable exegete of Old English, a West Germanic language closely related to Old Frisian. Fully inflected, with five grammatical cases—­ nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental—­ Old English is a foreign language to readers of modern English or even Middle English . Many of the translations in the dissertation are Dwight’s own,1 and the oral-­formulaic gilpwide, or “boast speech,” gave him expansive opportunities to demonstrate his linguistic mastery, philological learning, and trans-­ cultural imagination. “The Anglo-­ Saxon Boast” is Dwight’s only completed book-­ length work of scholarship until now. Like many scholars trained as medievalists , he made his reputation by publishing a series of influential articles, a number of which are collected here. He consolidated his reputation by publishing an edition with learned commentary, namely, I Am a Shaman : A Hmong Life Story with Ethnographic Commentary (1989). Like many scholars trained as medievalists, he was an ethnolinguist or ethnographer at heart, attuned to language as the culturally expressive behavior of other peoples, made strange by time or intercultural distance, then increasingly familiar by sustained close reading or deep listening. By returning to his 221-­ page dissertation, in which he had the scope critical responses  329  to follow an unbroken arc of thinking about culture and performance, I intend to reflect on his vocation. By vocation I mean something like his voice, in several meanings of that word. As distinctively particular to each of us as our eyes, the physical voice is the capacity to produce sound by action of the lungs, larynx, and resonators that is shared by all vertebrates. But voice is also what lucky poets find when they become most unlike other poets. That latter voice is cognate to invocation, evocation , and most urgently, vocation. Voice is thus a call, drawing people together, and a calling, drawing them individually along their chosen or fated paths. In a certain sense, vocation is the life that chooses them, not the life they choose. “Shamanism,” Dwight writes, in a passage I believe to be in some measure autobiographical, “is a vocation in the true sense of ‘calling.’ An individual does not decide to become a shaman as a career choice.”2 Dwight was called to the study of promissory speech acts (of which the Anglo-­ Saxon boast is a particularly vivid example), and in those acts, I believe, he found his voice—­ as a scholar, thinker, and compassionate activist—­ even as his vocation found him. The Oral Interpretation of Literature, as Performance Studies at Northwestern University was once known, was the founding department of the School of Oratory, circa 1868, which later became the School of Speech, now Communication. Under any of those names, it ought to have been (and ought to be) a good place to go to find a voice, and so it proved for Dwight. The ties between literature and speech were still close when Dwight arrived in Evanston in 1974. Dwight’s dissertation adviser was Wallace Bacon, long-­ time chair of Oral Interpretation, who wrote his own dissertation (“Shakespeare’s Dramatic Romances”) in English literature at the University of Michigan. Dwight’s committee included Catharine Regan, an Anglo-­ Saxonist in Northwestern’s English department . Rather than publishing their interpretations of poems and other literary works in the form of books and articles, however, the Northwestern Interpretation faculty performed them out loud—­ viva voce, as it were, or with “the living voice”—­ in their office-­ studios, fitted with lecterns for that purpose, and on auditorium stages, for the better edification of interdisciplinary listeners. While their colleagues in English literature located across the courtyard in University Hall performed on the pages of PMLA and Tri-­Quarterly, the oral interpreters gave recitals .3 In an unpublished address to the Speech Association...


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