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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: November ::
John William Velz
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0659  Thursday, 20 November 2008

From:        Mike Jensen <
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Date:        Wednesday, 19 Nov 2008 08:44:40 -0800
Subject:     John William Velz

Most scholarly first books are converted Ph.D. thesis, and most are forgotten 
quickly. They rest on the shelves of academic libraries until a future Ph.D. 
hunts them down. Some very few get the attention of the academy and make the 
reputation of the scholar. Such a book was _Shakespeare and the Classical 
Tradition_ by John W. Velz, University of Minnesota Press, 1968.

That Shakespeare knew classical sources was documented in thousands of articles 
and notes in academic and other journals from the eighteenth century, but there 
was no systematic presentation of these articles to coalesce and direct the 
attention of scholars until John Velz wrote his synopsis of nearly 2500 of these 
articles, and published them in one place. His legacy can be seen, perhaps not 
consciously, in the work of scholars working on the classical in Shakespeare today.

When John Velz passed away Sunday, 16 November 2008, he had worked on a second 
volume of _Classical Tradition_ for decades, and feared he would never finish. 
He did not. He was able to use some of that study very usefully, however, as 
co-author of _The Rape of Lucrece_, _Titus Andronicus_, _Julius Caesar_, _Antony 
and Cleopatra_, and _Coriolanus: An Annotated Bibliography of Shakespeare 
Studies, 1910-2000_ for the Pegasus Shakespeare Bibliographies, Pegasus Press, 
2002. The copy he sent to me is nicely inscribed, "For Mike Jensen, who can't 
put a bibliography down." He knows me well. The book was written with Clifford 
Chalmers Huffman.

An earlier project was an edition of essays by James G. McManaway, the founding 
editor of _Shakespeare Quarterly_, titled, _Studies in Shakespeare, 
Bibliography, and Theater_, edited with Richard Hosley and Arthur C. Kirsch, The 
Shakespeare Association of America, 1969. Despite the current allergy too many 
scholars have to reading anything more than seven years old, there is much 
scholarly wisdom in these pages.

Other books include an edition of the letters shared between two men, letters 
full of Shakespearean gossip. John Velz was editor of these letters with an 
ex-student Fran Teague, who has gone on to leave her own imprint on Shakespeare 
scholarship. The collection is entitled _One Touch of Shakespeare: Letters of 
Joseph Crosby to Joseph Parker Norris, 1875-1878_, Folger Books, 1986. There is 
also the edited volume _Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and 
Genre_, vol. 133 in the series _Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies_ (1996). 
I have not seen this, but the list of contributors is impressive.

John Velz was also a medievalist who gave many papers at medieval conferences, 
though his publications here were limited. His most active subject in print was 
the classical tradition, with roughly 25 published articles in addition to the 
books. I once tried to interest John in collecting his articles and chapters 
into a book, even offering to do most of the work when he was reluctant. John 
believed that no publisher would be interested in all that old work. I'm not 
sure if this was modesty--John is not thought of as falsely modest, or a very 
realistic picture of current publishing, but he would not be moved. I live in 
hope that some publisher will think it is a fine idea. There is much excellent 
material.

If his books and articles helped solidify a branch of Shakespeare studies, John 
Velz's teaching is what made friends. While his career was centered at the 
University of Texas in Austin, John spent a lot of time in Germany (he is of 
German ancestry), Poland, England, and around the United States lecturing, 
teaching, researching, and attending conferences. He made dozens on friends in 
North America, England, and Europe. Can one have dozens of friends? Yes, if by 
friends you mean people you love and respect and who stay in touch for years 
after. A marvelous raconteur, John Velz was always good company even when you 
sometimes heard a story before.

One story I heard more than once was that the University of Minnesota Press 
contracted IBM to create a typewriter that could type in Greek for the 
production of _Classical Tradition_. It worked by removing the ball with the 
English alphabet on it, and substituting a ball with Greek characters. The rest 
of the typewriter was the same, including the English keyboard. I know that 
typewriter well, having to use it to type lines from the New Testament while I 
was in grad school. My respect for John Velz only grew. I never got the hang of 
where on the English keyboard the Greek-only letters, accents, and aspirates 
were hidden. I mean, how do you make a Psi or a Xi with the English keyboard? 
John Velz mastered it, and IBM had a new product. Students in classics 
departments and seminaries struggled until the PC explosion made life easier.

John W. Velz will tell no more stories, but fortunately he has recorded dozens 
of them in his new, still warm from the press book, _Exit Pursued by a Bear: 
Encounters with Shakespeare and Shakespeareans_. It is basically a collection of 
dozens of his best stories, including his time spent with some of the major 
Shakespearean scholars of his time, and a couple of encounters with well-known 
Shakespearean actors. Of interest to members of SHAKSPER, are pages praising the 
list and Hardy Cook, with a description of what SHAKSPER meant to John's later 
scholarly life. To the best of my knowledge, the book has no distribution. I 
have read it, and it is a delight: entertaining, charming, occasionally 
insightful, and expressed in a grace of language that I wish more of us could 
muster and master. If Hardy Cook will be kind enough to indulge me, the means of 
getting a copy of _Exit_ has probably changed since John's death. I shall be 
back in touch when that has been sorted out.

In the meantime, please accept my apology for flitting back and forth between 
present and past tense in the lines above. I suppose we all do this after a 
loss, and it seemed honest to stop correcting it as I proof read these lines-it 
is a natural way of expressing my feelings for my friend. If anyone wishes to 
read my "Talking Books" interview with John Velz, it may be accessed here: 
www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-3383950_ITM

All the best,
Mike Jensen

Author site:
http://www.geocities.com/mikejensen16/michaelpjensen.html

[Editor Note: Mike Jensen and I had exchanged a few e-mails about our tremendous 
respect and affection for John Velz, both before and after we learned of his 
death this past Sunday. Having been forced to move into a nursing home for care 
after he fell had broke his hip a few months ago, John had been out of contact 
with a computer and had an assistant who monitored his e-mail and carried 
messages and printouts to him.

The older I get the more I find that there are some people who after they die 
appear to be friends, if not close friends, with almost everyone they meet. John 
Velz was one of these people to me, and especially to Mike Jensen.

John and I would run into each other at conferences, and John always had 
something he told me that he wanted to tell me about -- he was a terrific 
storyteller and loved the act of telling those story. But what was always most 
flattering was that he make it clear that he had something that he wanted to 
share with me. For example, once a casual remark on SHAKSPER, the Internet, and 
his detective skills led him to re-establish contact with family members, the 
American Velz's had lost track of after World War II. John could not wait to 
tell me; in fact he told me that same story with more or less details on several 
different occasions at several conferences.

My fondest memories of John, however, are those of our sitting together on the 
benches and chairs in the garden just outside the doors of the Shakespeare 
Institute in Stratford, where he could often be found, as if holding court. From 
this spot, especially over the past few conferences when he had increasing 
difficulty with his mobility, he would listened to the speeches being presented 
a few hundred feet away in the auditorium as he sat smiling, listening, taking 
in the words and the sun of those late summer days in Stratford, a few hundred 
feet away from Guildhall, where 400 years earlier young William Shakespeare 
would have learned his Latin and smattering of Greek and in that second floor 
room he would have read the classical authors who had become so much a part of 
John Velz's scholarly life. In that same space across the street from Mason's 
Croft, the current location of the Shakespeare Institute, young Shakespeare 
would have performed in student productions of Plautus and Terence, would have 
read Seneca, and would have when his father was alderman and bailiff, chief 
alderman and deputy bailiff, sat on the floor next to his father probably 
perched in the master's chair at the end of that long room "hearing" the 
travelling companies during their tours of the providences, presenting the plays 
that were popular 279 miles away in London to the south (according to Google 
Maps, with the satellite view from where I can trace Shakespeare's and my own 
speculations about John Velz's perambulations through Stratford). I see John 
now, sitting in the garden at the Institute with a smile on his face and his 
eyes closed. What would he be thinking? Would he be walking with young Will from 
Grammar School past Guild Chapel and to stop for a moment to look across the 
street at Hugh Clopton's magnificent New Place before walking from Church Street 
to High Street, and turning to the left and to his home to Henley Street with 
its trash heap. Would John follow young Will with his father around the counter 
to the Market at the corner of Rother and Wood Street to sell John's prized 
leather goods. Or would he follow Will from grammar school down through Old 
Town, along the river to Holy Trinity. Or would he go down Chapel Lane to the 
Memorial Theatre to see productions of the RSC.  I will never know, but I will 
remember the look of peace on John's face as he sat on the bench by the door of 
the Shakespeare Institute.

On one of those occasions many years ago, he told of his disappointment that he 
could not get his publisher to come out with a new edition, perhaps a paperback 
one, of his _Shakespeare and the Classical Tradition_. He told me the he would 
often get inquiries from people asking about where they might be able to get a 
copy of this indispensable reference work. I asked him if he had ever considered 
making the work available over the Internet and that many books of a database 
nature were, in my opinion, more effective as Internet editions. I mentioned 
that the Perseus Project was a leader in this area, but that the Internet 
Shakespeare Editions was just getting underway and had the potential of being 
the finest site on the Internet for Shakespeare-related matters, particularly 
those emanating from the texts themselves. I gave him Michael Best's name, 
e-mail account, and the ISE web site URL. And some time later John Velz's 
_Shakespeare and the Classical Tradition_ appeared in the Library section of the 
Internet Shakespeare Editions: 
http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SCT/index.html

I hope that when things settled down that Mike Jensen will be able to work out a 
way so that those of us who would like to would be able to get a copy of John's 
final contribution _Exit Pursued by a Bear: Encounters with Shakespeare and 
Shakespeareans_. -HMCook]


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