Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. MC

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Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr.

Death: 1979 (83-84)
Immediate Family:

Son of Francis Peabody Magoun and Jeanne C. Magoun

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About Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. MC

Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. MC (January 6, 1895 – June 5, 1979) was one of the seminal figures in the study of medieval and English literature in the 20th century, a scholar of subjects as varied as soccer and ancient Germanic naming practices, and translator of numerous important texts. Though an American, he served in the British Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) as a lieutenant during World War I.

Early life and military career

Magoun was born to a prosperous family in New York City. His parents were Francis Peabody Magoun (1865–1928) and Jeanne C. Bartholow (1870–1957). He received his primary education at the St. Andrew's School in Concord, Massachusetts, and at the Noble and Greenough School in Boston. He took his bachelors degree at Harvard in (1916), and in February of that year signed on with the American Field Service. From 3 March – August 3 he was a volunteer ambulance driver.

After a brief return to the United States, he went to London and enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps (to become eligible for service in the RAF, he lied and said he was Canadian; he claimed that he was from a town there where all birth records and other vital statistics had been lost in a fire). On July 4, 1917, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to 1 Squadron on November 14, flying Nieuport biplanes (later replaced by SE5a biplanes) against more maneouverable Fokker triplanes. He downed his first enemy aircraft on February 28, 1918, near Gheluvelt, another on March 10 fifteen miles (24 km) east of Ypres, and a third on March 15 in the vicinity of Dadizeele. His fourth was on March 28 near Quiery. He was wounded in action while strafing enemy troops on April 10, but returned to his squadron in October and became an ace on October 28, downing a Fokker D.VII near Anor for his fifth victory.

Magoun was awarded the Military Cross (MC) in June 1918: "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When engaged on bombing work he attacked and shot down an enemy machine, with the result that it crashed to earth. He has also engaged massed enemy troops and transport with machine gun fire from low altitudes, throwing the enemy into the utmost confusion and inflicting heavy casualties. His work has been carried out with consistent keenness and tenacity." (MC citation, Supplement to the London Gazette, June 22, 1918)

Scholarly career

Upon his return to the United States, he was appointed instructor in Comparative Literature at Harvard (1919); during this period, he completed his Ph.D. in philology at Harvard University with his 1923 dissertation, The gest of Alexander: Two middle English alliterative fragments, Alexander A and Alexander B, translated from a J2-recension of the Historia de Preliis.

At Harvard, he was made Instructor of English, and proceeded through the academic ranks thereafter (Professor of Comparative Literature, 1937; Professor of English, 1951). His tweedy figure was familiar on campus; he was rumored to have no office, and it was said he could only be spoken to while walking.

He was distinguished by a longstanding interest in popular antiquities. Along with Alexander Haggerty Krappe, he was the first scholarly translator of the folktales collected by the Brothers Grimm into English. But he was also developing a theoretical and methodological framework for his eclectic interests. David Bynum, in his history of English studies at Harvard, affirms Magoun's importance as a link between the pioneering work of George Lyman Kittredge in folklore and ethnomusicology (as they related to literary history) and the work of Milman Parry; Magoun took inspiration from Parry and Lord's field observation of the oral poetry of the guslars of Serbia (which they had compared to the Homeric poems), and extended their methods to the study of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The 1953 article on Beowulf, "The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry," published in Speculum, was of particular importance in the view of Albert Lord (for whom Magoun served as dissertation advisor; he was also one of Walter Ong's teachers). Magoun argued that written Anglo-Saxon poetry was essentially a transcription of traditional oral performance, and furthermore, heavily imbued with pre-Christian ideas and values. The position has implications for how Anglo-Saxon poetry should be approached for purposes of literary criticism. His ideas sparked ongoing controversy among medievalists, with some accepting his view, others arguing for a written poetry inspired by traditional idiom and methods (and a complex layering of Christian and pre-Christian influences), and still others insisting that the entire Anglo-Saxon corpus consists of individually authored, written texts with an exclusively Christian matrix of belief. The essay has been anthologized many times.

In late middle age, he undertook to learn the Finnish language in order to explore another area of oral tradition, and exercised considerable influence upon Finnish studies; contemporaries remember the growing library of Finnish texts in his house on Reservoir Street. His 1963 prose translation of the Kalevala remains a standard, and he was awarded the Finnish Order of the Lion of Finland in 1964 for his contributions to the study of Finnish culture.

He retired from Harvard in 1961, and he was honored at the close of his career with a well-regarded Festschrift: Franciplegius; medieval and linguistic studies in honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., edited by Jess B. Bessinger and Robert Payson Creed.

In a legend circulating among medievalists, Magoun is said to have been the model for the character Mr. Magoo. However, there is no evidence that artist Hubley knew the scholar.

Family life

Magoun married Margaret Boyden on June 30, 1926, in Winnetka, Illinois. Their children were Francis Peabody Magoun III (1927–1999; m. Faith Gowen); William Cowper Boyden Magoun (born 1928; m. Patricia Lavezzorio); Margaret Boyden Magoun (born 1932; m. Guido Rothrauff); and Jean Bartholow Magoun (born 1937; m. Ward Farnsworth).


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