Archer Taylor, German: Berkeley


1890-1973
Professor Emeritus

To write of the life and honors of Archer Taylor within this narrow compass and yet to do justice to his career is not only impossible, but superfluous. For his name is a byword in academic circles. A graduate of Harvard, he began his career as an Instructor of German at Pennsylvania State College; seventeen years later, he was chairman of the Department of German at the University of Chicago, having broadened his area of interest meanwhile from German literature in the narrower sense to medieval literature and folklore. In 1939 he came to the University of California, where he assumed the chairmanship of the Department of German the following year. As his copious publications in the most divergent fields began to appear, so also did honors and recognition come to him, the latter obviously the result of the former. His works on fairy-tale motifs in the late Middle Ages, his publications on folklore of many nations and varieties, his several collections of riddles, his landmark book on problems of research in German Renaissance literature, his authoritative work on bibliography and the bibliography of bibliography all brought with them the title of Ehrensenator of the University of Giessen, two Guggenheim Fellowships, an honorary D.Phil. from the University of Kiel, an LL.D. from the University of California, honorary membership in the Finno-Ugrain Society, the Finnish Literary Society, the Norwegian Science Society, the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, the German Society of Folklore--the list could go on and on. As vice president of the Modern Language Association in 1933 and 1950 and president in 1951, vice president and fellow of the Mediaeval Academy of America, and president of the American Folklore Society, he became well-known for his wise decisions and for his considered policies based on prodigious experience and knowledge. But such honors are a testimonial only to that which needs no documentation, his distinguished scholarly career. More important to his memory is the witness of Archer Taylor as teacher and colleague.

Generations of students from Harvard to Berkeley were privileged to experience the broad sweep of Archer Taylor's encyclopaedic mind.


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He ranged freely over the entire field of folk literature and folk customs and popular art forms, from the inscriptions on the walls of Pompeii to the Meistersingers in sixteenth century Nürnberg, from the tales of classical antiquity to the narrative store of nineteenth-century realism. He was never guided by a need for self-assertion and display but by an overriding concern that precious facts from history might be lost. He pitted his phenomenal memory against the lengthening shadows of oblivion.

For his students he set an example for research by his simply phrased insights, which revealed to the discerning students a rare intuition of what is essential in the historical setting and in the methods of his field. He was a firm believer in honest statements, and he was quick to see through pretense. A historian of legends and folk tales, he became a legend in his own lifetime. He knew it and he delighted in hearing anecdotes about himself. Any student who took flight in fanciful, theoretical statements he would call back by saying: “Now tell me what you just said in your own words.”

Archer Taylor inherited a strong constitution and a keen mind. His Quaker background rendered him frugal, diligent, and righteous; he went his quiet unassuming way, and he left behind treasured memories of an exceptional human being and a vast heritage of accomplishment. He was a rugged pioneer in body and in mind. He was a man as much at home on the land as in the lecture hall and in the library. He tended his orchards and garden in the same unhurried and methodical manner in which he expounded in the classroom and pursued his research in the stacks. He planted his share of trees, built his own home, and wrote his many books. His was an exemplary interplay of vita contemplativa and vita activa.

He was a down-to-earth person, rarely ruffled by people or circumstances, and never given to ostentation or impressed by pretentiousness. He accepted his many honors casually and gracefully, and rarely without an honest touch of surprise. His broad smile was contagious and his candor invited trust. To his children he was a gentle father, to his wife an understanding and considerate companion, to his associates a loyal and helpful friend, and to his many students a patient, encouraging teacher, and a scholar to be emulated. Following his retirement, his ranch in Napa Valley became a veritable mecca for his many friends and fellow scholars.

Working in his garden, reading the books in his library, teaching his students, and writing his books and articles were but different facets of one activity which will be remembered after his death because it was simple, significant, and creative at the same time.

Joseph Mileck Frederic C. Tubach Blake Lee Spahr