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Legendary Scholar Ong's Legacy Lives on in New Book

by Amelia Flood on 05/09/2018

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 The book, Language as Hermeneutic, A Primer on the Word and Digitization, was compiled from four unpublished drafts that professor Sara van den Berg, Ph.D., and an alumnus, Thomas D. Zlatic, Ph.D. (A&S ’75), discovered in Ong’s archive in Saint Louis University’s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.

Walter Ong, S.J.

Walter Ong, S.J., was known for his intellectual curiosity and prolific writing on language and consciousness. Photo courtesy of SLU'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.

Walter Ong, S.J.
Ong  helped build SLU's collection of rare books and taught for decades in SLU's English department. Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections

“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 structures consciousness.”

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.

Sara van den Berg, Ph.D.

SLU professor Sara van den Berg, Ph.D., co-edited Ong's newly-published posthumous book. Photo by Amelia Flood

“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.