Leonard honoured for lifetime of Milton work

By Adela Talbot
March 13, 2014

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LeonardAdela Talbot, Western News
Western English professor John Leonard, renowned scholar in studies of poet John Milton, has been named the 2014 Honoured Scholar of the Milton Society of America. The honour, established in 1948, represents a lifetime achievement award.

It’s all in a life’s – not a day’s – work for John Leonard.

The Western English professor and renowned scholar in studies of poet John Milton has been named the 2014 Honoured Scholar of the Milton Society of America. The honour, established in 1948, represents a lifetime achievement award. Leonard is the sixth Canadian – and third Western professor – to receive this honour.

“Winning this award makes me feel like I’m doing my bit,” Leonard said.

Among the previous scholars elected by the Milton Society of America are some of the most prominent names in English literature, among them William Empson, C. S. Lewis and Northrop Frye. Leonard joins fellow Western professors Arthur Barker and Balachandra Rajan – “two of the greatest Milton scholars” – among the society’s ranks. Barker and Rajan received the honour in 1973, and 1979, respectively.

“It’s so nice to be continuing a tradition I’m proud to be a part of, and it’s great to be here at Western, following in their footsteps,” Leonard continued.

While he has been on the receiving end of many accolades and awards for his work and teaching throughout the years, Leonard, who has been at Western since 1987, speculates his most recent publication, Faithful Labourers: a Reception History of Paradise Lost, tipped the scale. At nearly 1,000 pages, Faithful Labourers is the longest single-author book on Milton’s Paradise Lost ever written. Writing it consumed 14 years, Leonard said.

Bryce Traister, English and Writing Studies chair, called Leonard Western’s own “faithful labourer.”

“It is crucial that the research university remains a place where achievements like John Leonard’s are made possible, where they are, in fact, encouraged and supported appropriately. Ten, 20 years from now, his work on Milton will remain definitive. Deep, penetrating, and enduring scholarship is what separates great from merely good universities,” he continued.

This time-consuming dedication is worth the honour, not only for its recognition of a talented Western scholar, but especially given the climate surrounding publication in today’s academic landscape, Traister said.

In his office, you’ll find a bookshelf, home to the departmental faculty’s monograph publications throughout the years, a collection he anticipates won’t continue to grow as fast as it once did.

“The idea of spending six, seven, eight or 10 years on a patient, profound work of scholarship is viewed as a luxury, and one that is becoming more difficult to indulge as researchers come under pressure to show more frequent ‘output,’ so that the university is able to justify its expenses and increase its ‘inputs,’” Traister said.

“This isn't really anyone's fault; it is simply the reality of continued underfunding by governments obsessed with ‘skills training’ and tax breaks for the rich.”

It all comes down to numbers – as faculty members are ranked numerically every few years in teaching, service and research categories, so too are their publications counted for productivity. In turn, departments are ranked in similar fashion, resulting in corresponding funding allocations. To fill a new tenure-track position within a department, more funding is needed. To get tenure, faculty members should publish a significant monograph. But the luxury of time to accomplish the task is not available to those without tenure, Traister said. It’s an unfortunate cycle that seems to see no end.

And Leonard is fully aware of all this.

“There was a bit of a sacrifice. If you take 14 years to write a book, you do take a hit – year by year – in rankings,” he said. “Every kind of writing where there’s a ranking of an individual faculty member’s research, or ranking of a department’s or a university’s output, tends to have a narrow time frame, and that does discourage the commitment to a long project,” Leonard continued.

“The (book) has to be a labour of love. In the case of Faithful Labourers, it was. How nice to get recognition at the end of it.”

Leonard’s previous distinctions include two of the Milton Society’s James Holly Hanford Awards, as well as Western’s Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Western’s D. B. Weldon Library boasts one of the best Milton collections in the world: the G. William Stuart Jr. Collection of Milton and Miltoniana, without which Faithful Labourers would not have been possible, Leonard said. His volumes now add to Western’s rich collection of Milton’s scholarship, to the shelves at Weldon, and those in Traister’s office.


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