Morris Halle: The Soviet Debate on Literature (1917-1925), University of Chicago MA dissertation, 1948

Following his discharge from the Army,  my father Morris Halle enrolled as a Master’s student at the University of Chicago for the winter term of 1945.  Although Morris was by that time fluent in seven languages, his acquaintance with linguistics, the field which would become his primary academic focus would not be made at Chicago.

This was due to the marginal status of linguistics at UC.  Legendary President Robert Maynard Hutchins reportedly took a dim view of the field, making little attempt to hold on to Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir, important linguists who would decamp to Yale well before Morris arrived.  The linguistics classes available to Morris were taught by the Sanskrit scholar George V. Bobrinskoy and these he told me he found relatively uninteresting. It was not until the summer visit to the University of the Princeton Professor Giuliano Bonfante that Morris’s interest in the field would be fully awakened.  In particular, it was Bonfante who would introduce Morris to the work of Roman Jakobson with whom Morris would go on to study.  By then,  Morris had apparently committed to receiving his degree in Russian Literature, completing his Master’s dissertation prior to his departure for Columbia in the fall of 1948.

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The dissertation below will come as a surprise to those who remember Morris. None of his surviving friends I have spoken to had heard of it, and while his interest in Russian literature was apparent to all who knew him, none of us were aware of any writing he had done on it.  For seven decades, it inhabited the most distant point in his home office, the extreme far right of the top shelf just under the ceiling .  It is there where I came upon it following his death in April of 2018.

The discovery raised a minor mystery and some mild suspicions:  Morris’s career was never in any way impacted by his political leanings. He was generally regarded as relatively apolitical-particularly compared to his colleague and friend Chomsky.  Could this perception have been at least partly due to to efforts he made to obscure what had been an embrace of socialism and its core tenets typical of many of his generation?  The relatively even-handed treatment of Soviet Literature in the dissertation was not that of a fellow traveller, though it did indicate sympathy for the socialist project. This would have been unproblematic in the 40s.  But in the Red Scare decade that followed, as Ellen Schrecker has documented, even the mildest defenses of any aspect of Soviet life could attract unfavorable notice and worse.  It would not surprise me if Morris’s consignment of this to a location where it would not have been seen or asked about wasn’t entirely accidental.
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Of course, the simplest explanation for its banishment is that  Morris regarded this as student work in a field he had moved on from.  But it’s highly competent student work, characteristically clear, logical, and even polished- not the slightest trace of Morris having picked up English as his sixth language only a few years before.  At the time, he was documenting events which were of considerable interest to him and to his circles, an interest which remains among those describing themselves as socialists. For this reason, it seemed appropriate to make this public, offering it not just to Morris’s remaining friends, family and former students but to those with an interest in the early Soviet period as it appeared to a perceptive and informed contemporary observer who would go on to make his mark in an unrelated field.

I would very much appreciate hearing any reactions to Morris’s text or corrections, amendments or additions to the story I have related above.

Morris.UChicago.thesis

Download Morris’s thesis:

Morris UChicago Thesis

 

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2 thoughts on “Morris Halle: The Soviet Debate on Literature (1917-1925), University of Chicago MA dissertation, 1948”

  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for posting this. If I had asked Morris about it (I didn’t), I am sure that he would have dismissed it. So it’s great of you to bring it back.

    Bill

  2. “while his interest in Russian literature was apparent to all who knew him, none of us were aware of any writing he had done on it”

    If you meant “Soviet literature”, maybe yes. But his first publication was the discovery of an acrostic in a Russian poem by Deržavin, whose life straddled the 18th and 19th centuries. Here’s Jakobson recalling it:

    http://mitp-content-server.mit.edu:18180/books/content/sectbyfn?collid=books_pres_0&id=4123&fn=9780262511742_sch_0001.pdf

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