personal comments on Allen Walker Read (LONG)
abatefr at EARTHLINK.NET
Sat Oct 19 10:50:33 UTC 2002
Replying to Grant Barrett's request for personal comments on Allen Walker
I knew of him before I first met him, as he was a mentor (at Columbia) of
Larry Urdang. Larry always spoke of him in the most glowing terms. Then at
the DSNA in Ann Arbor in 1985 I had the pleasure of meeting him, as we were
both on our way to a paper. We had a pleasant conversation, and he seemed
happy to hear about Larry and the work we were doing. I was in awe, because
of what Larry had told me, from the fact that I knew he had written the
entry on dictionaries for Britannica, and from his record of scholarship.
For his part, he was as gracious and friendly to me as if I had been an old
acquaintance. Allen was "just folks".
Over the years I ran into him again at various meetings, or heard him
deliver papers, even if I did not have a chance to actually say hello. As
for his papers, he had an inimitable style. His delivery was fairly dry,
but every once in a while he would throw in a zinger, and coming from that
sort of style, it was even funnier than otherwise. His papers were also
very clear and pointed, and backed by full evidence. He would deliver a
paper from a set of large index cards, onto which he taped clippings he was
going to use, with his own comments scribbled around them on the cards. It
worked. I was so impressed by the eminent practicality of this approach
that I have tried to adopt it myself, though I will never be in Allen's
league as regards delivering a paper.
One particularly memorable paper Allen gave was at an ADS meeting in NYC one
year, where he was invited to give a special address. He re-read as a paper
a story he had written about his waiting to receive his degree from an
Oxford college. He had written this shortly after he took his degree at
Oxford, in the late 20s, I believe. The story won an award at the time he
first published it. To hear him read it was a great pleasure. The room at
ADS was packed, and dead silent throughout, except for several interjections
of laughter at the funny lines. This is one of the best paper experiences I
can recall, and I expect others who were there would agree.
That paper at ADS, as well as many others Allen wrote over the years, are
now published in the volume just completed by ADS, edited by Richard Bailey
and prepared for the printer by Charles Carson. If you don't have this
book, get it. Many of Allen's papers here collected had never been in print
It is worth noting that Allen is cited in the **very first** footnote of all
in Mencken's groundbreaking study _The American Language_; see p. 3. The
paper cited was published in 1933. That is by no means his earliest paper,
however, and he continued to produce papers until just a few years ago.
Some 70+ years of scholarship from one man -- what an astounding legacy of
Finally, I had the enormous privilege of visiting the Reads at their
apartment near Columbia, about two years ago. I was invited along by Dick
Bailey, who was in NYC for a conference, and was going to visit the Reads to
discuss the work (ongoing then, now complete) on two collections of Allen's
papers, one on American names and the other on American language (noted
above). At this meeting, I was able to see the enormous amount of collected
material Allen and Charlotte had in their apartment (which they had been in
since the late 1940s), basically the raw materials for scores of papers and
other work over the decades, not to mention what appeared to be thousands of
books. Charlotte, too (who died a few months back), was a noted scholar,
and much of the material was hers. The Reads, who did not know me well at
all, were very kind. I was able to take a few photos of them on that day.
Allen was in poor health, but still flashed that grin. Also, Allen seemed
quite proud of his recent listing in "Who's Who in Hell", a collection, then
just out, with brief bio entries on noted folks who had openly expressed
utter rejection of various forms of spiritualism and religion.
[aside to Grant -- can you post photos? I have several of them scanned, and
can send files in the format you require.]
There might be more if I think further, but those are the high points that
come to mind.
Ave atque vale, AWR.
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