Legendary Scholar Ong's Legacy Lives on in New Book
Walter Ong, S.J., a prolific scholar and writer, has a new book out, more than a decade
after his death in 2003. The book, Language as Hermeneutic, A Primer on the Word and Digitization, was compiled from four unpublished drafts that professor Sara van den Berg, Ph.D., and an alumnus, Thomas D. Zlatic, Ph.D. (A&S ’75), discovered in Ong’s archive in
Saint Louis University’s Archives and Special Collections.
Ong is often recognized as a leading figure in intellectual history and for his interest
in the evolution of consciousness and language. He spent his long career at SLU, becoming
a University professor, a title honoring his achievements across disciplinary lines.
The rapid shifts in language and understanding that are occurring now as technology
advances and digitization expands, van den Berg explained, would have fascinated Ong
and made the publication of the book that much more timely.
The publication comes just in time for SLU’s bicentennial celebrations. A number of events have honored Ong and other University greats or will highlight
them as the bicentennial year continues. In April, Yopie Prins, Ph.D., a professor
at the University of Michigan, presented the 10th annual Ong Memorial Lecture discussing
the Sapphic tradition in poetry. In September, John Schloesser, S.J., chair of the
history department at Loyola University-Chicago, will present a joint Walter Ong,
S.J., Memorial Lecture and John Kavanaugh, S.J., Memorial Lecture discussing the legacy
of Ong’s work.
“We believe his current importance is not just to professors of English or communication
but also of interest to people interested in studying the culture of computing,” van
den Berg said. His new book argues that digital communication assumes a closed system,
while language opens this up to interpretation and change.
“Language is necessary to change. Digitization tends to close things down and language
opens it up,” she continued
Ong grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and entered the Society of Jesus in 1935. He
went on to earn multiple degrees from SLU in the 1940s before studying for his doctorate
in English at Harvard University.
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1955, Ong returned to SLU where he would teach for the
next 30 years. Over the course of his long career, he served as president of the Modern
Languages Association, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was made a knight, Chevalier
de l'Ordre des Palmes académiques, by the French government in 1963. Ong published
extensively, including his widely-studied Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word in 1982. Orality and Literacy traced societal shifts when different literacy technologies, particularly writing
and print, entered human history. Ong became well-known for coining the phrase, “Language
Van den Berg got to know Ong after coming to SLU in 2000. While Ong was retired, the
two became friendly at department events. They eventually would share brunch and van
Den Berg would visit Ong or invite him to her home.
“I was able to know and appreciate him as a person, a priest, and as a scholar,” she
recalled. The senior scholar made a powerful impression on her. “He was the most intellectually
curious person I’ve ever met. He had a wonderful, whimsical sense of humor. He was
pastoral and a figure of great renown at SLU because he cared about the University
and its mission – ‘To find God in all things.’”
The Jesuit scholar’s new book lay undiscovered in his vast archives until five years
ago when Van den Berg and Zlatic, an expert on Ong’s scholarship who is also a professor
of English at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, , began to reopen Ong’s folios and files.
An archival note and letter to a press editor explaining the project tipped them off
to what became the book.
Language is necessary to change. Digitization tends to close things down and language
opens it up."
Sara van den Berg, Ph.D.
After reviewing the four drafts Ong left behind, Zlatic and Van den Berg spent years
editing and organizing them into a single manuscript. The two are listed as the co-editors
of Ong’s book and both Zlatic and Van den Berg have commentaries included in the volume.
Zlatic worked on consolidating the four versions of the manuscript into one while
van den Berg helped organize the materials before writing the book’s Introduction.
“We thought he invested a lot of intellectual energy in this,” van den Berg said.
“We wanted to honor his legacy.”
The book was published in late 2017 by Cornell University Press, which had published
other Ong works. Ong’s legacy also lives on through an annual named lecture in his
honor and through the Walter J. Ong, S.J., Center for the Digital Humanities in SLU’s Pius XII Memorial Library.
Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious
Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first
university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers nearly 13,000 students a rigorous,
transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse
community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares
students to make the world a better, more just place.