The 100th Anniversary of Walter J. Ong’s Birth (1912-2003)


Last year was the centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth (1912-1980). This year we celebrate the centenaries of Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), Northrop Frye (1912-1991) and Father Walter J. Ong, SJ (1912-2003). On the relationship between McLuhan and Father Ong, Ong scholar Thomas Farrell last year wrote:-

Walter Ong advanced in his Jesuit training to study philosophy (in Latin) at Saint Louis University (SLU) when the young Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), fresh from studying English at Cambridge University under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, was teaching English at SLU. In addition to completing a licentiate degree in philosophy (roughly equivalent to a Master’s degree), Ong completed a Master’s degree in English, with McLuhan serving as the director of his Master’s thesis on sprung rhythm in the poetry of the Victorian Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. During the years when McLuhan was teaching at SLU (1938-1944), he was working on two big projects: (1) a very creative study of popular culture, which eventually culminated in the publication of his experimental book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) and (2) his Cambridge University dissertation about the history of the verbal arts (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic or logic), which was published posthumously, unrevised but with an editorial apparatus, as The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time(2006). McLuhan has called Ong’s attention to the work of Ramus. As a result, Ong dedicated Ramus and Talon Inventory (1958) to “Herbert Marshall McLuhan who started all this.” The publication of Ong’s Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958) prompted McLuhan to borrow Ong’s thesis and amplify it with material of his own choosing in his experimental book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962). Next, McLuhan his most conventional-looking book Understanding Media: Extensions of Man (1964). 

To celebrate Father Ong’s centenary, Thomas Farrell has recently published the following account of his life and work:-

November 27, 2012: This Friday, November 30, 2012, will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of the American cultural historian and theorist Walter Jackson Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) of Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri. His family name is English; for centuries, the family name was spelled “Onge”; it is probably related to the English name “Yonge.”

I took my first course from Fr. Ong in the fall semester of 1964 at Saint Louis University. In short order, I was hooked on reading his stuff, beginning at that time with essays in his collection titled THE BARBARIAN WITHIN: AND OTHER FUGITIVE ESSAYS AND STUDIES (Macmillan, 1962). But I was also hooked on reading books he mentioned, not for credit in any course I was taking from him, but for the fun of learning more about them. Even though I did not know it at the time, I had found the destiny for my adult life by studying his work and related work for the fun of learning about these interesting topics. 

Over the years, I have helped edit five collections of Ong’s essays (1992a, 1992b, 1995, 1999, 2002), and I have published a book-length study of his work, WALTER ONG’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (Hampton Press, 2000; revised edition forthcoming), which provides a reader’s guide to 11 of Ong’s books. With certain notable exceptions, most of my professional publications could accurately be characterized as Ong studies, studies of different themes that Ong himself discusses in his work. Thus far, I appear to be the most productive scholar engaged in the admittedly under-developed field of Ong studies. So it strikes me as fitting for me to write something for publication at OpEdNews on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Ong’s birth. 

Over several decades, Ong received a mostly respectful hearing from scholars of his generation — the generation that includes Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” — but Ong’s thought was never lionized by scholars or by the press, as was the thought of his friend and former teacher at Saint Louis University Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). 

Perhaps Ong’s thought never will be lionized by scholars or the press. His thought is admittedly multi-dimensional and complicated, as I hope to show briefly in the last part of this essay. But his multi-dimensional thought does offer us a penetrating way to explain the emergence of modernity in Western culture. For Ong examines what are in effect the infrastructures of Western cultural development, the infrastructures that contributed to the historical emergence of modernity. 

How many books have been written about the historical emergence of modernity in Western culture that do not take into account the infrastructures of Western cultural conditioning that Ong examines? For all practical purposes, those many books about the historical development of modernity were written by extraverts preoccupied with superficial details, instead of studying the more penetrating infrastructures of Western cultural conditioning that Ong examines. Continue reading at .

Marshall McLuhan (center) & Father Walter Ong, SJ (right, seated) at Saint Louis University

Hear Ong’s voice on video:-

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