Washington People: Joseph Loewenstein

English professor re-introduces Spenser to the 21st century


David Kilper

Joseph Loewenstein, PhD (right), professor of English in Arts & Sciences, speaks with Matthew Rickard, a junior majoring in English literature and mathematics, both in Arts & Sciences, in a computer lab in Eads Hall. Eads Hall is the home of the Humanities Digital Workshop, where students examine different editions of the works of Edmund Spenser to discover and record discrepancies in the text.

Many modern copies of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto IV include the phrase “glitter and light” when describing the beauty of Queen Lucifera. But is that the phrase Spenser intended to depict the self-proclaimed monarch?

This is one of many questions that Joseph Loewenstein, PhD, professor of English in Arts & Sciences, tackles as an editor of a new Oxford Edition of the Collected Works of Edmund Spenser.

Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, published toward the end of the 16th century, tells the story of Prince Arthur’s quest for Gloriana, a fairy queen modeled on Queen Elizabeth I. The poem is set in the time of Arthur, so Spenser used deliberately antiquated phrasing — sometimes confusing his printers, who, in some editions, may have taken it upon themselves to correct a perceived error.

“Since Spenser self-consciously imitates medieval English verbal forms, we have to stop and ask whether he wrote ‘glitter and light’ or ‘glitterand light’ — for ‘glitterand’ is a rare form that can mean ‘glittering,’ ” Loewenstein says.

With the help of both graduate and undergraduate students in the Humanities Digital Workshop and tools developed by its staff, different editions of Spenser’s works are examined for variations in the text. Any discrepancies — such as “glitterand” and “glitter and” — then are analyzed by the students and Spenser scholars, such as Loewenstein, to determine which version is likely closest to Spenser’s true intent.

“These things keep me up at night,” Loewenstein says. “I love it when they start to keep my students up at night.”

In search of the right balance

Loewenstein was a budding actor in school in Charleston, W.V., appearing in plays and musicals and, as he got older, poring over works by Renaissance playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

“What knocked me out was the patterning of dialogue as verse,” Loewenstein says. “It seemed to be what the modern plays I had acted in were missing.”

Loewenstein continued to act as a college student at Wesleyan University, even though he was “terrible at it,” he says with a laugh.

He also tried directing, but he ultimately decided his interests lay less with performance and more with the writing upon which it was based. After graduation, Loewenstein headed to Columbia University to earn a master’s degree in English and comparative literature.

While at Columbia, Loewenstein decided his program was “too literary, not historical enough,” so after graduation, he spent a year studying Renaissance intellectual history at the Warburg Institute in London. Finding that not literary enough for his liking, he enrolled in a doctoral program in English at Yale University.

“I’ve never found the right balance,” Loewenstein says. “It’s something I’m still working on.”

Bridging the gap

Loewenstein arrived at WUSTL in 1981 as assistant professor of English, was promoted to associate professor in 1986 and became professor in 2001. He served as chair of the English department from 1992-95.

“Washington University has been a fantastically good place to work,” says Loewenstein, whose research focuses on Renaissance literature and book culture. “I’ve had very stimulating colleagues, and even more stimulating students.

“It’s a good place for people who want a various academic career,” he says. “I’ve gone through phases when my focus has been on research, then on teaching — especially undergraduate — and there have been times when administrative work was a big part of my job.”

One such time was 1999-2004, when Loewenstein served as chair of the Arts & Sciences Curriculum Implementation Committee. As chair, Loewenstein worked closely with James E. McLeod, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, to improve and update the Arts & Sciences undergraduate curriculum.

“When we got that squared away, Ed Macias, PhD, then dean of Arts & Sciences and now provost, pulled me aside,” Loewenstein says. “He said he wanted to do something special for the most ambitious students in the humanities, and he wanted it to be interdisciplinary. Jim McLeod added that he wanted something that would inspire them to academic careers.”

Loewenstein was intrigued. He gathered about a dozen WUSTL faculty members in the humanities with reputations as both excellent researchers and teachers. In 2002, after six months of discussion and planning, the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities (IPH) was born. Loewenstein was named inaugural director.

The IPH program aims to prepare students for scholarship in the humanities by requiring proficiency in a foreign language, independent research projects, comprehensive exams and a senior thesis. Students take courses in common as a base for their research but can tailor electives and research topics to their interests.

Courtesy photo

Joseph Loewenstein, PhD (right), with wife, Lynne Tatlock, PhD.

“We ask a lot of the students,” says Loewenstein, who continues to serve as director. “But we’ve had very good luck in placing them in the best humanities graduate programs in the country.”

Nell Cloutier, who graduated from the IPH and music programs at WUSTL in 2009, now is a doctoral student in musicology at the University of California, Berkeley. She says that IPH was “hard, but rewarding,” and that her interdisciplinary background was a good foundation for graduate school.

“When taking seminars in other departments, I’m comfortable working with texts and with students and professors from other disciplines who have different approaches,” Cloutier says. “Working with my fellow students in IPH gave me practice bridging that gap.”

That WUSTL offers a program like IPH is important for the preparation of future scholars, McLeod says.

“There’s a long history in higher education of certain texts, traditions, ideas, values and principles that occupy big space in our thinking and practices,” McLeod says. ”One of the things this program does is provide a context to preserve some of these texts while also calling them into question.

“For our undergraduates who are beginning their higher education, it’s important that there be a place for this to happen.”

Bringing Spenser to a modern audience

In 1998, Loewenstein received a call from colleague David Miller, PhD, then at the University of Kentucky. Miller wanted to know what Loewenstein thought a new collection of Spenser’s works would look like.

The last major Spenser collection had been published in the 1940s. The commentary was out-of-date, Loewenstein says, and the text was based on what seemed to current scholars a shallow examination of the earliest editions.

Spenser was ripe for an update, Loewenstein told Miller, but he wanted the update done in a way that would re-introduce Spenser to modern audiences.

“Spenser is a very learned poet with huge breadth of literary, philosophical, art and historical references, and you can’t have a print edition that provides a sufficiently rich commentary because it would be too long to be economically printed. No press in its right mind would do it,” Loewenstein says.

Loewenstein suggested a print edition that would be an abridgement of a richer, digital version. The digital version would include commentary, artwork, images, maps, architectural photography and audio files.

It was, and still is, a big project. Some Spenser manuscripts had never been transcribed. Fresh commentary would need to be written, and early editions collated. But with the help of Spenser scholars across the globe, graduate and undergraduate students and staff in the Digital Humanities Workshop, and support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the first of three volumes is about a year away from being shipped to Oxford.

While the new Oxford edition has been a group effort, Loewenstein should be credited with leading the project, says Miller, now with the University of South Carolina.

“Loewenstein has patience, stamina and a cooperative spirit,” Miller says. “Like all of us, he can be highly opinionated, but he is always ready to defer to the majority if he can’t persuade the rest of us. He’s learned and very smart, which helps when you need advice.

“Working with him on this edition over the course of the past 12 years has been one of the singular pleasures of my scholarly life. I would not trade it for fame, fortune or a date with Angelina Jolie.”

Fast facts about Joseph Loewenstein

Born in: Charleston, W.V.
Education: BA, theater and in the College of Letters, 1974, Wesleyan University; MA, English and comparative literature, 1975, Columbia University; PhD, English, 1982, Yale University
Family: Wife, Lynne Tatlock, PhD, the Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences. The two met at a reception at WUSTL for new faculty in 1981 and married in Graham Chapel in 1988.
Hobby: Coffee. The secret to making great coffee, Loewenstein says, is roasting — but not over-roasting — and freshly grinding your own beans.