Albert Bates Lord (September 15, 1912 – July 29, 1991) was a professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Harvard University who, after the death of Milman Parry, carried on that scholar's research into epic literature.
Lord was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Boston Latin School in 1930 and attended Harvard College, where he received an A.B. in classics in 1934 and a Ph.D. in comparative literature in 1949. He stayed on as a professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Harvard in 1950 and became a full professor there in 1958. He also founded Harvard's Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, and chaired the college's Department of Folklore and Mythology until his retirement in 1983. His wife, Mary Louise Lord née Carlson, taught classics at Connecticut College and bore him two sons, Nathan and Mark. Lord died of natural causes in July, 1991, at Cambridge, Massachusetts; he was known for his "serenity," "humility," and "generosity."
Lord authored the book The Singer of Tales, first published in 1960. It was reissued in a 40th anniversary edition, with an audio compact disc to aid in the understanding of the recorded renditions discussed in the text. His wife Mary Louise Lord completed and edited his manuscript of a posthumous sequel The Singer Resumes the Tale (published 1995) which further supports and extends Lord's initial conclusions.
He demonstrated the ways in which various great ancient epics from Europe and Asia were heirs to a tradition not only of oral performance, but of oral composition. He argued strongly for a complete divide between the non-literate authors of the Homeric epics and the scribes who later wrote them down, positing that the texts that have been preserved are a transcription by a listener of a single telling of the story. The story itself has no definitive text, but consists of innumerable variants, each improvised by the teller in the act of telling the tale from a mental stockpile of verbal formulas, thematic constructs, and narrative incidents. This improvisation is for the most part unconscious; epic tellers believe that they are faithfully recounting the story as it was handed down to them, even though the actual text of their tellings will differ substantially from day to day and from teller to teller.
Lord studied not only field recordings of Serbian heroic epics sung to the gusle, and the Homeric epics, but also Beowulf, Gilgamesh, The Song of Roland, and the Anglo-Scottish Child Ballads. Across these many story traditions he found strong commonalities concerning the oral composition of traditional storytelling.
Awards and Distinctions
- 1940 - Junior Fellow - Harvard Society of Fellows
- 1949 - Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1956 - Fellow - American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 1959 - Honorary Curator - Milman Parry Collection - Widener Library - Harvard College
- 1969 - Fellow - American Folklore Society
- 1972 - Becomes the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature - Harvard University
- 1988 - Recipient of the Yugoslav Star - Yugoslav Consulate
- 1990 - Awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Novi Sad
- Albert B. Lord, Beginning Serbocroatian (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1958).
- Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960).
- Albert B. Lord, "Perspectives on Recent Work on the Oral Traditional Formula," in Oral Tradition, vol. 1, no. 3 (1986), pp. 467-503.
- Albert B. Lord, "Characteristics of Orality," in A Festschrift for Walter J. Ong, S.J., a special issue of Oral Tradition, vol. 2, no. 1 (1987), pp. 54-72.
- Albert B. Lord, Epic Singers and Oral Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991).
- Albert B. Lord, "Oral Composition and 'Oral Residue' in the Middle Ages", in Oral Tradition in the Middle Ages, ed. W. F. H. Nicolaisen (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1995), pp. 7–29.
- John Miles Foley, "Albert Bates Lord (1912-1991): An Obituary," in Journal of American Folklore 105 (1992), pp. 57–65.
- "Albert Bates Lord, 78, Scholar of Folk Tales," New York Times, August 3, 1991.
- Morgan E. Grey, Mary Louise Lord, and John Miles Foley, "A Bibliography of Publications by Albert Bates Lord," in Oral Tradition, vol. 25, no. 2 (2010), pp. 497-504.
- Beissinger, Margaret Hiebert. In Memoriam: Albert Bates Lord (1912-1991). The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4. (Winter, 1992), pp. 533-536. Online. Available http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0037-6752%28199224%291%3A36%3A4%3C533%3AIMABL%28%3E2.0.CO%3B2-J. Accessed 5 December 2007.