Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 3, 1997

New Chair Honors Singleton

Italian studies: Great
tradition should attract
distinguished scholar.

Mike Field
Staff Writer

A week or so after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, state troopers guarding a combination railway and highway tunnel east of Pittsburgh stopped a vehicle headed west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was driven by what they took to be a dubious-looking character. He was 32 years old, softspoken and--most suspiciously--bearded.

The driver explained he was headed to Indianapolis from Baltimore to attend something called an "MLA convention." Beside him sat a young passenger, a graduate student at The Johns Hopkins University, where the driver was himself a professor-- Professor Charles Singleton of the Department of Romance Languages.

"The nation was aquiver with apprehension: spies and saboteurs lurking in their thousands," recalled the passenger, Hopkins alumnus Edward Fenimore (M.A. '42), writing in memoriam the year after Singleton's death in 1985. "Charles's beard put him, ipso facto, in the suspect category; but the trooper let us proceed after some close questioning, having taken our word for it that the car contained neither weapons nor explosive devices."

Singleton and his protege made it safely to Indianapolis and back, despite the fact that, to many, facial hair placed the professor squarely in the camp of exotic foreign nationals during the clean-shaven war years. In fact, he was neither, but rather, an American-born scholar of intense curiosity who would become the foremost Dante expert in the country and one of his generation's leading academic lights in Italian studies.

Now the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies has chosen to honor Professor Singleton's academic accomplishments by creating the Charles S. Singleton Chair in Italian Literature, a senior tenured professorship currently being advertised internationally.

"Hopkins has a great tradition in Italian studies, and Charles Singleton was indisputably a giant among scholars in Italian literature," said Provost Steven Knapp. "An interdepartmental search committee composed of faculty of various specialties having an interest in Italian studies has been formed, and we hope to have an appointment made by July."

The board of trustees, during the presidency of Steven Muller, created the chair in the name of Professor Singleton in recognition of his unparalleled stature in the field of Italian literature and humanistic studies. Provost Steven Knapp has now authorized the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies to conduct a search for a distinguished scholar to be the first holder of this chair. This has created a surge of interest in the scholarly community in Europe and North America.

"This is a very prestigious appointment, and there are very few appointments of this type to be offered in the market," said Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies Professor Pier Massimo Forni.

Hopkins has long been renowned for the quality of its Italian studies program. Earnest Hatch Wilkins, a graduate of the program, gained international stature early in the century as a specialist in 14th-century Italian literature, particularly Petrarch and the early lyric poets. Years later, Singleton made his mark in books such as Dante's Commedia: Elements of Structure and Journey to Beatrice, which set him apart as one of the foremost Dante experts of his generation.

When Singleton came to Hopkins in 1939, the great German romance philologist Leo Spitzer had just joined the Department of Romance Languages from the University of Istanbul, in Turkey, where he and a great number of other German intellectuals had fled seeking to escape Nazism. At that time, recalled Fenimore, "the star of the department was unquestionably Professor Spitzer. He bestrode the field, treating practically every aspect of its languages and literatures."

The 30-year-old Singleton would soon make his mark, however, and is today remembered for his scholarship both here and abroad. Villa Spelman, the university's academic retreat in Florence, Italy, was donated to Hopkins in honor of Singleton's accomplishments, and is now known as the Charles S. Singleton Center for Italian Studies.

Recently, the journal Filologia e Critica, one of the foremost critical and literary journals published in Italy, brought out a special issue dedicated to Singleton in memoriam. "Every five years they bring out a volume dedicated to a towering figure of criticism," Forni said, "so it is a great honor to his memory and to our university that Professor Singleton was remembered in this way."

Currently, Forni is the only full-time Hopkins faculty member in Italian Studies. His colleague, Professor Eduardo Saccone, left the university for a post in Europe last year after a 30-year tenure at Hopkins. Since then, the department has used visiting faculty from American and Italian universities to bridge the gap left by his departure. But for a department with an international reputation and a historic tradition of excellence, the need for a major appointment had become acute.

"In 1994, three of our best graduate students landed much-coveted positions, going to Harvard, Columbia and Duke," Forni said, "and this past year our students were finalists at Yale, Duke, Toronto, Bowling Green, William and Mary, Cork and Vermont. In the past two years we have managed to attract to our graduate program the three student candidates at the very top of our list. The program is active and extremely well-regarded, both here and in Italy. But relying upon visiting appointments was only a partially satisfactory solution to our needs."

"It makes sense, owning a villa in Florence, to maintain our leadership position in this field," Provost Knapp said. "That facility was given to us in honor of Singleton, and we have recently begun to include undergraduate students in some of the academic programming there. This appointment will allow us to build upon a strength we already have."

"We clearly see the benefits of having sophisticated scholarly offerings in Italian as the core of the humanities in any contemporary major academic institution," Forni said. "We also believe that the unique historical role played by the Hopkins Italian program in 20th-century American higher education must be treasured as one of the most precious assets of the university. Thanks to the new Charles S. Singleton Chair in Italian Literature, the Italian program will find itself in position to continue to do full justice to its outstanding legacy."

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