Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Esperantist Professor Leaves University for Literary Life

George B. Viles
Nia dua prezidanto
The American Esperanto Association made a point in response to claims that they were wholly a Boston organization that their president, George B. Viles, was a professor at the Ohio State University. But in all truth, OSU couldn’t claim that their Professor of Germanic Language and Literature was a native son of the Buckeye State. Professor Viles was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, not far from Boston.

It’s not clear if the founders of the American Esperanto Association knew they had elected a fellow Bay Stater as their head. Viles had graduated from Harvard in 1892, receiving an A.M. in 1896, and from there went on to receive his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1902. He then spent two years studying at Leipzig, before beginning at Ohio State University in 1904. He was at Leipzig at the same time that Wilhelm Ostwald was at the greatest point of his enthusiasm for Esperanto, and at a time when Ostwald was preparing for his trip to the United States, where he would lecture at Viles alma mater, Harvard.

And yet, with fewer than six years under his belt, Professor George Viles announced that he was leaving the academic life. This was reported in the Marion Daily Mirror, of Marion Ohio on March 31, 1908:
Has Tendered His Resignation.
Columbus, O., March 31.—Dr. Geo. B. Viles has resigned as associate professor of Germanic languages and literature at Ohio State university and will devote his attention to literary work. His resignation will take affect at the close to the present school year. Dr. Viles is serving his second term as president of the American Esperanto association.
Dr. Viles would be the third and last president of the AEA, since it was soon to be supplanted by the EANA. His predecessor was Richard Geoghegan, the Irish linguist who produced the second translation of Zamenhof’s Unua Libro. Amerika Esperantisto It seems likely that it would have come up that Viles was a Lowell native, but by the time he could have possibly learned Esperanto, he had moved away from Massachusetts. As noted above, he was at Leipzig at a time when Ostwald was enthusiastically promoting the Esperanto.

In writing about his departure from OSU, Amerika Esperantisto gave a different story:
Prof. Viles, who recently resigned from the faculty of the school, will spend two years in the Latin countries of Europe studying their languages.
Which is good, because the only book-length work I can find for George Viles is A Comparison of Bodmer’s Translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost with the Original, and that’s actually his thesis from Cornell. (It seems like an odd subject for a doctorate in German; weren’t there enough important works composed in German on which to work?) In any case, it is clear that he did make frequent trips to Europe, presumably to study languages. (And study he must have. One source notes that he was teaching a class in Old Norse.)

He didn’t stay out out the academic world for long. His habit of taking academic positions for a short term is exemplified by what he wrote for his graduating class at Harvard for the Eighth Report of the Class of 1892 (1922):
I spent part of 1916–17 in Florida and Cuba. I filled the position of instructor of French and Spanish at Williams College 1917–20. Resigned and spent Winter of 1920–21 in travel and study of dialects in South American countries, down west coast, across the Andes, and up the east coast. I am acting professor of Romance Languages at the University of Richmond, Virginia, for the session of 1921–22, and have been offered the professorship for 1922–23.
Before that, he was the acting head of the German department at the State University of North Carolina from 1909–10, and then became an associate professor in the department (which seems a rather large leap down). After that, though he had been offered a professorship at the University of Richmond, he did something different:
and in 1922–23 accepted a professorship of modern languages (German, French, Spanish) at Rhode Island State College, Kingston, R. I., and remained there two years. Then spent two years in travel-study. I came to Colby College as substitute German teacher during second year of 1927, and am now in charge of the department of German.
For his publications, he states “various newspaper articles on linguistics and travel,” and the only club or society he lists is the Modern Language Association of America. There is no reference to him in the Esperanto literature of this period. After the dissolution of the AEA, he doesn’t seem to have made the jump to the EANA.

Clearly a restless man. It should be no surprise that 1930 Census has him unmarred at 61 (and probably planning another trip). No death notice has come to light for him. He should not be forgotten by American Esperantists. Though his involvement in the Esperanto movement seems to have been a brief one, still, he was the first real president of the first national group in the United States.

Correction: I initially listed Professor Viles as the second president of the AEA, when in fact he was the third. The president for the 1905 term was William Gray Nowell. 1906 was Richard Geoghegan. And from 1907–1909, George Viles. Of the three, it was under Viles that the AEA seemed to take off and make something of a (short-lived) success.
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  1. Why was Dr. Viles the first real president?

    1. Because Richard Geoghegan dropped out of being president when he realized he couldn't fulfill the duties. That's when George Viles stepped in. Yes, Geoghegan agreed to take the position, but Viles was the one who not only took the position, but actually worked in the interest of the organization.


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