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Famed university scholar Polk dies

August 22, 2012


Mississippi State University representatives confirmed that Noel Polk, a renowned literary scholar, journal editor and professor emeritus in MSU’s English department, died Tuesday.

Polk was known around the world for his studies of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and other Southern authors. During his career, he wrote more than 25 published books, taught at both MSU and the University of Southern Mississippi and served as editor for journals at both universities. He was 69.

Rich Raymond, head of the MSU Department of English, said Polk was not only an asset to MSU, but also to the community. He said he will dearly miss his colleague and friend.

“The last time I saw Noel was in November before I traveled to Kosovo. I was in Europe for six months. Noel wanted to have dinner with my wife and I,” Raymond said. “I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I saw him. While in Kosovo, I found myself praying for his recovery. We’ve all been grieving.”

Born in Picayune in 1943, Polk earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi College before earning his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina.

Nancy Hargrove, a professor emeritus and lecturer in MSU’s Shackouls Honors College, said she has known Polk since attending school with him in South Carolina.

“We actually retired the very same summer, just a few months apart,” Hargrove said. “He was a very humorous person who had a wonderful, dry wit and a great sense of humor. He was a terrific Faulkner and Welty scholar and a brilliant person. As a colleague, he always did his part and more. He was really a perfect person.”

Polk spent 27 years as an English professor at USM and editor of “The Southern Quarterly,” a USM-published arts journal. Raymond said Polk then joined the MSU Department of English in fall 2004. Polk also became editor of MSU’s own scholarly journal, “Mississippi Quarterly,” maintaining the position after retiring from teaching.

“To get someone like Noel was absolutely amazing,” Raymond said. “I was amazed at how widely known he is around the world.”

In the summer before Polk came to MSU, he was the featured speaker at an international conference on William Faulkner sponsored by the Japanese William Faulkner Society in Tokyo. He was also named a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Lodz, Poland in 2005, lecturing for five weeks on the works of Faulkner and Eudora Welty.

“He’s lectured in many countries all over Europe and Asia, but he was very generous with his time here locally, including his time with Starkville Reads,” Raymond said. “A lot of eminent scholars like that are not available for local folks, but that was not the case with Noel. He was a kind, unassuming man who didn’t have an arrogant bone in his body. He was simply a great man.”

Polk was a founder of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters and a member of Starkville Reads’ board together with Hargrove. She said Polk loved Starkville Reads, bringing in several different presenters.

“He was very much involved in the everyday life of his community and state,” Hargrove said. “He always had something to say, and he wasn’t a person who backed down from his beliefs. He was not afraid to take a stand for what was right and what he believed in, even if he knew it wasn’t a popular stand to take. He had a lot of people who admired him for those qualities.”

In 2006, Polk won the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award for his body of work. Welty herself was a past Wright honoree, along with Willie Morris, John Grisham, Margaret Walker Alexander, Shelby Foote and retired MSU history professor John Marszalek.

Polk was also a co-editor of a recent Folio Society edition of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” Released in summer 2012, this limited edition uses color-coded text to track the book’s shifts in time, a feature Faulkner wanted to implement in the book’s original edition but could not due to publishing technology limitations.

Polk’s published books include “Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner” (1996), “Eudora Welty: A Bibliography of Her Work” (1993), “Outside the Southern Myth” (1997) and “Walking Safari or, The Hippo Highway and Other Poems” (2012), the last of which won the 2011 Texas Review Press’s Southern Poetry Breakthrough Series: Mississippi.

News editor Carl Smith contributed to this report.

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