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Thomas A. Sebeok (1920-2001)
John Holmes McDowell
Thomas Sebeok, whose very name evokes his calling as "a classic of semiotics," was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1920 and died in Bloomington, Indiana, his adopted home, on December 21, 2001. Among other things, Sebeok was a folklorist, though this facet of his identity tends to be somewhat elided in other obituaries and reminiscences, perhaps in part because Sebeok himself began to move away from folkloristics after a deep involvement during the early stages of his academic career.
Let me recall his folkloristic persona. After becoming a U.S. citizen in 1944, Sebeok received his doctorate from Princeton University, in 1945, commuting to Columbia University to work there with his mentor, Roman Jakobson. Arriving at Indiana University in Bloomington in the mid-1940s, Sebeok became chair of the Research Center for Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics, which became in 1956 the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies. At Indiana University, Sebeok was one of the original fellows of the Folklore Institute, a group of scholars in various departments gathered together by Richard Dorson in the late 1950s to assist him in transforming Stith Thompson's summer folklore institutes into the first full-fledged academic folklore department in the United States.
Sebeok was a fellow of the American Folklore Society and served from 1954 to 1958 as editor of the Journal of American Folklore. He is perhaps best known among folklorists for editing the special issue of the journal called "Myth, a Symposium" (1955), later released in book form by Indiana University Press. This virtual symposium—the contributors never actually came together in person—contains articles by folklorists Reidar Christiansen (on "myth, metaphor, and simile"), Thompson (on "myths and folktales"), Dorson (on "the eclipse of solar mythology"), and Lord Raglan (on "myth and ritual"), as well as Claude Levi-Strauss's original paper on "the structural study of myth."
Sebeok may be most worthy of our affection for the conference on style he helped organize in April 1958 in Bloomington, Indiana. The cast of participants for this conference reads today like a list of the best minds of mid-century America, at least in the humanities and social sciences, and included youngsters, such as Dell Hymes, who would go on to make names for themselves. Sebeok's dissection of a Cheremis sonnet was a fine exercise in structural analysis, and Jakobson contributed his masterful closing statement on "linguistics and poetics," foundational to the performance-centered approach in folkloristics. The papers from this conference and excerpts from the discussions that took place around them were gathered into the important collection, Style in Language, edited by Sebeok and published by the MIT Press (1960).
It is true that Sebeok drifted away from this engagement with the core issues of folkloristics as he pursued his growing interests in various facets of semiotic studies. He no longer attended Folklore Institute faculty meetings by the time I arrived in Bloomington in 1975, but he remained friendly to his folklore colleagues and continued to view folkloristics, I suspect, as a valuable branch of semiotics. Many folklorists published in Semiotica, the journal he founded in 1969 and edited until his death, and he invited folklorists to contribute to his edited volumes such as The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (1986).
I came to know Sebeok during the years we were together at Indiana University, before and after his retirement in 1991. I found him to be [End Page 483] energetic, witty, ambitious, and focused, with a hint of the mad scientist about him. Sebeok was one of the great empire builders of academia, like our own Dorson and Wayland Hand—a type that could hardly flourish, it seems to me, in the bureaucratized system of today. We are fortunate indeed that he counted folkloristics among his interests, because he provided a critical infusion of intellect and enterprise at a formative moment in the history of our discipline.