Remembering Horace Lunt


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Lawrence Feinberg


Horace Lunt (1918–2010)

During my five years of graduate study (1962-1967) two individuals, Roman Jakobson and Horace G. Lunt, loomed especially large in the Harvard Slavic Department. The department then boasted a number of other eminent scholars: Wiktor Weintraub in Polish; Albert Bates Lord in South Slavic literatures; Kirill Taranovsky in Russian poetic studies; Vsevolod Setchkarev, Renato Poggioli (a joint appointment with Comparative Literature) and Donald Fanger in Russian literature. But at least from my own perspective, Jakobson and Lunt stood out from the rest. Lunt had been Jakobson’s PhD student at Columbia, and when Jakobson moved to Harvard in 1949 he brought Lunt with him as an assistant professor. By the time I came along Lunt was a full professor and department chairman, and he was the one who decided your fate if you chose to specialize in Slavic linguistics. Literature majors as well as linguists were required to take Lunt’s rigorous Old Church Slavonic course during their first year, and the impression he formed of you in that course could prove consequential over the long haul.

Lunt’s close association with Jakobson in the 1940s might lead one to suspect a degree of spiritual affinity; in fact, it would be hard to imagine two more different personalities. Jakobson was a larger-than-life figure. Even when on leave a continent away from Cambridge, as he was during my first two years, his aura was all-pervasive. Whether you were taking a class on the history or structure of Russian, or a seminar on Pushkin’s dramatic verse, his name was bound to come up, usually spoken with reverence. Where Jakobson was intense and inspirational, Lunt was cool and aloof. He was enthusiastic about his scholarly pursuits, but it was a contained passion; rabble-rousing wasn’t his style.  Jakobson could never be confined to any department (or university). While he lent Slavic Languages and Literature his aura, he remained a kind of numinous presence, in the department but not of it.  Lunt, by contrast, was the hands-on steward of the institution, which he oversaw as chairman from 1960 to 1974. Though he lacked Jakobson’s charisma, his learning, sagacity, and confident bearing (understated noblesse oblige), not to mention the power he wielded as chairman, gave him a mystique of his own.¹

Here some qualification is in order. Although Lunt was in most things the prime mover of the 1960s Slavic Department, nothing would have gotten done without the mediation of the able administrative assistants (then secretaries), Ann Chvany and her successor Gladys Hoffman. They were a crucial link between students and faculty. Their primary function, though, was to enable communication within the cenobitic community that was the Slavic half of Boylston’s fourth floor, conveying messages between “Mr. Lunt” and his colleagues ensconced in their separate cells.

The summer before moving to Cambridge I bought a used copy of Lunt’s Fundamentals of Russian, a book with a formidable reputation, which promised “to take the student over the direct but rocky road to Russian […] without sugared pills or fun and games.” I was looking for a rigorous review of Russian grammar before embarking on graduate work, and wasn’t disappointed. I also bought his Old Church Slavonic Grammar, which I looked into without understanding very much. Overall, the image I formed of Horace Lunt from my summer reading was of an erudite but dry curmudgeon. What a surprise, then, when I first met this youthful, genial, and not the least bit stuffy man in his Boylston Hall office. Then and in later meetings he had a way of putting you at ease, for he was seldom at a loss for words and enjoyed telling stories. It didn’t especially matter if you were shy, because you could trust him to do most of the talking.

But the impression I had formed of Lunt sight unseen turned out to be not entirely off the mark. The same man with the relaxed manner, easy wit, and amazing photographic memory for the names of his students would, if he met you outside the classroom or his office, acknowledge you with a grunt and distracted nod.  You tended to take this personally until you compared notes. Some with a closer connection to him have since written of his conflicted relation to his patrician family legacy.² He was emotionally suspended, as it were, between his native turf, the Rocky Mountain West, where he felt truly in his element, and the chill ancestral home where he had been sent to prep school and gone to college, and where now, for better or worse, he worked and lived. That personal history, which few of us knew at the time, puts those awkward encounters in a new light. At such moments it is as though the expansive Westerner contracted to his sere New England roots.

He could be offhandedly dismissive of other scholars’ work, and his published reviews sometimes seemed gratuitously nasty. One that left a particular impression was his skewering of a book by the Cornell linguist Charles Hockett in a review published some years earlier.³ “Hockett loves a gimmick” was his prelude to a take-down of Hockett’s American Descriptivist phonemics. (At the time Lunt’s own theoretical framework was Prague School structuralism). In concluding his review, Lunt wrote that the book’s “entertainment value” didn’t make up for its general awfulness. You had to wonder: if he could be this brutal with a respected scholar, what hope was there for us lesser lights? Well, maybe he might be more indulgent with those just starting out, but the evidence there wasn’t all that encouraging. When I consulted with him to get his approval for an MA thesis topic and his advice on bibliography, I also asked if I needed to hand in chapters individually, or if he would just as soon have it in one piece. He replied that handing in individual chapters made more sense: “What if it turns out to be terrible?” I later learned that he had sent others off on the same cheery note.

In my time at Harvard, the department had roughly 40 students at various stages of their graduate careers, about evenly divided between literature and linguistics. There were maybe two or three among the linguists whom Lunt treated almost as younger colleagues. While conscious of his own worth, he was also modest about the limits of his knowledge and always open to learning from others and being challenged intellectually. The downside to being in that select club, as we later learned, was that you might suddenly fall from grace.  There was something to be said, after all, for starting out, as most of us did, with minimal expectations on his part — showing you could at least “do the work,” as he liked to say—and trying to work your way up in his estimation.

One-upmanship was rife among us, but there was also much mutual support, particularly welcome at a time when faculty tended to keep their distance. The gulf that then existed between students and faculty may be hard to imagine from the perspective of today’s academic culture, where faculty are expected to act as nurturing role models for their students, who in turn regularly evaluate their professors. (It may be equally difficult to imagine a time when so much depended on one individual.) But this was a stern, male-dominated world, and strict hierarchy was the rule at Harvard and other elite institutions—somewhat less so elsewhere. Lunt’s remoteness wasn’t that exceptional for Harvard; it was the odd negative tropisms that really set him apart.

My department chairman in college had been on the overbearing side. While I might have welcomed a more engaged mentor in graduate school, it felt good for once to have a little breathing space. For his part, whatever else he thought of me, I suspect Lunt appreciated my willingness to work independently and not make too many demands on his time. I did a reading course with him in Macedonian, in which I received a grade of Satisfactory on the basis (if there was any) of nothing more than one very perfunctory meeting. My MA thesis was a fairly traditional (theory-free) study of participles and adjectives in modern Russian, a compact paper written entirely without supervision. A week or so after I turned it in, I was on my way to his Old Russian class when he stole up behind me on the path to Siever Hall:  “Well, I picked up most of your points.” So (gulp), did he want me to come in and discuss it with him? “Nope.” We walked the rest of the way in silence, but I was walking on air. I don’t remember feeling I’d been shortchanged.

Lunt was stinting with his praise, and seldom complimented (or for that matter criticized) people to their face; you had to rely on oblique signs to know if you were in or out of favor. It is hard to overstate how insecure most of us were. Each spring we awaited news whether our Harvard Graduate School or National Defense Fellowship support had been renewed for the coming year. With so many other pressing concerns, it was nice not to have to worry about tuition and basic living expenses. Just as important, though, was to know that we were still in Chairman Horace’s good graces or at least not beyond the pale. The great fear we all had was of failing to clear one of the major hurdles: the MA thesis (then a gateway to the doctoral program) and especially the PhD general examination. I had made it through the first checkpoint, which only momentarily allayed my anxiety, for I had now entered pre-doctoral limbo. News that yet another of our peers would have to retake the written or oral exam sent shudders through our ranks. Linguists were expected to cover an extensive reading list, which, as of the mid-60s, ran from Meillet’s Le slave commun to Morris Halle’s Sound Pattern of Russian. (The latter and Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures were, for the moment, the only representatives on the list of emergent Generative theory.) It was obviously impractical to try to read everything on the list end to end, but, apart from the grapevine, we had little concrete guidance on what to emphasize. If you approached Lunt, he was typically non-committal. But since he was the one solely, or primarily, responsible for making up and evaluating exams, I figured I could do worse than try to suss out the issues that were especially on his mind at the moment, paying close attention to his classroom presentations, with their many informative digressions and asides. Through some combination of good strategy and sheer luck, I made it through generals. Lunt even wrote a brief note of commendation on my exam book, which I never actually saw; Mrs. Chvany passed the compliment on to me. In those days just making it through writtens and orals on a first try was sufficiently ego-boosting, though the high didn’t last long.

In Lunt’s classes you admired the range and depth of his knowledge as well as his scrupulous attention to detail. His copious handouts summarized the essential facts and were helpful in studying for exams. But if you were looking for guidance on this or that thorny issue you were often disappointed. Posing questions came more naturally to him than handing down definitive judgments. Just when I thought I had a handle on, say, the Slavic neo-acute accent, he would pull out some detail from Slovene dialects and everything would revert to a muddle. (He himself could sometimes get lost in the welter of details.)

What made Lunt unique among Slavists of his generation — this has become clearer in hindsight — was that he was in nearly equal parts philologist, linguist and historian. Though a generation behind Jakobson, he was much more of a bridge between nineteenth- and twentieth-century Slavistics. His scholarship ranged over Slavic paleography; descriptions of OCS, Macedonian, Slovene and East Slavic; diachronic Slavic phonology; and explorations in Slavic cultural history and onomastics. In my time at Harvard he even ventured outside Slavic, working on a description of the West African language Gha, and he would later write on Guaraní, an Amerind language of Paraguay.  He was fascinated by American dialects and had made a thorough study of his own Midwestern speech. To illustrate a point in OCS phonology, he would sometimes go around the class, having us pronounce a word in our various regional accents (I was his New York informant).

Lunt prized order but respected complexity. He was always happy to hit on some principle that would encompass a mass of unruly data. Yet the historian in him wanted above all to discover the truth— the way things actually were— and he was impatient with any effort to shoehorn the facts into some preconceived scheme. If he could be merciless in his evaluations of others, he was equally unsparing of himself; hence the articles and monographs with their excursuses, appendices and voluminous footnotes (each statement elaborately hedged), which somehow concluded without ever reaching closure.

By the mid-60s the structuralism that Lunt had imbibed at Charles University in Prague, and later with Jakobson at Columbia, no longer satisfied him, and he was moving in the direction of MIT phonology, with its abstract underlying representations and ordered rules. By 1970 he had overcome all his initial doubts and was firmly in the Generative camp. (My PhD qualifying exams in 1965–66 may have been the last in Slavic philology.) This new theoretical orientation, in particular the influence of Halle and Theodore Lightner, would be reflected in the later editions of his OCS grammar and in much of his published research over the next 30-plus years.

In choosing a topic for my dissertation I briefly considered doing something with Czech, but in the end decided to work on Russian poetics with Jakobson (by then officially retired) and Taranovsky. This way I managed to complete the PhD in three years; the alternative path was uncertain at best.  But when it came time for me to defend, Lunt served as my fourth reader and also chaired my defense committee. While he confessed to having no interest in poetic language, he gave my work (an architectonic analysis of Boris Pasternak’s poem “Gamlet” which may have set a record for brevity) a thorough reading, asked some pertinent questions and offered sound practical advice. I was a little jet-lagged that day and not at the top of my form, so I was lucky the inveterate gadfly had relaxed his sting.

There were those who dismissed Lunt as a cold technician. Some years ago, while rooting around in Columbia’s Bakhmeteff Archive as part of my research into the history of American Slavistics, I came across an astonishing document. It was a 1954 letter from Poggioli, then chairman of Comp Lit, to his counterpart in Slavic, Michael Karpovich, urging (no, imploring) him not to grant Lunt promotion to associate professor with tenure. The gist of the letter was that Lunt was indifferent to literature unless it was in the form of an old manuscript. Fortunately, Karpovich seems to have been unmoved. It is true that, once he embraced linguistics as his calling, Lunt tended to keep imaginative literature at arm’s length. It came as a surprise to his students to learn that, as an undergraduate German major at Harvard, he had written his senior thesis on Hermann Hesse. Even so, his mature work was bracingly literate (he had particular scorn for bad writers), and there were glimmers of a humanistic sensibility even in his most austere scholarship. At the very least, he was a humanist by virtue of his Socratic bent and devotion to his scholarly vocation.

I didn’t see much of Lunt after I left Harvard, but I remember in particular two occasions  when he visited the provinces. The first was in 1969, when he stopped off in Boulder with his wife and two young daughters on route to their nearby summer retreat, a visit that happened to coincide with a reception for Slavic summer faculty at CU. The second was in 1983, when he came to Chapel Hill to confer with one of my colleagues on Balkan Slavic and several of us took him out to dinner.  By then he had noticeably mellowed. His pride in those he had helped shape professionally was muted but unmistakable. We all felt fortunate to have known and worked with him.


1. While Jakobson and Lunt respected each other, one heard there was also some tension between them. Among other sore points, Lunt apparently didn’t like Jakobson to serve on PhD committees because he could be too lenient with the examinee. It was the familiar story of the withholding father and indulgent grandparent.

2. See Jan L. Perkowski, “Horatius at the Bridge.” Studies in Honor of Horace G. Lunt on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday. Pt. 1 (= Folia Slavica 2.1-3, 1978). Ed. Ernest A. Scatton et al. Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1978.  22-28 (see esp. pp. 26-27).  Michael S. Flier, Introduction to Philology Broad and Deep. In Memoriam Horace G. Lunt.  Ed. Michael S. Flier et al. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2014. 1-6 (see esp. p. 3).

3. Horace G. Lunt, review of Charles F. Hockett, A Manual of Phonology. Word 11 (1955): 618-21.

4. By the late 1960s, a time of widespread student unrest, the Slavic department’s grad students had begun demanding more guidance from the faculty. I had already left by this time and was teaching at the University of Colorado. There may or may not have been an actual sit-in in the main office, but I was reliably told that a delegation did visit Lunt, whose response was: “Nobody held me by the hand when I was in grad school.”

5. Since my colleague didn’t drive, I agreed to take Lunt to the airport to catch his early- morning flight back to Boston. By accident or design, I’d left my copy of the recently published Stankiewicz Festschrift in my car. He had scarcely strapped himself into the passenger seat when he was recalling what it was like to deal with “Ed.” Then, flipping through the volume, he took off after the contributors (“How does he know it happened that way?”). When we got to the airport he hightailed it into the terminal with a hastily muttered thank-you and goodbye. It felt reassuringly like old times.


Lawrence Feinberg is Emeritus Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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