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In Memoriam Edward L. Keenan

Posted On March 18, 2015 | 13:50 pm | by lainw | Permalink

Edward L. Keenan died on March 6, 2015. Known as “Ned” to intimates and colleagues, he served as the sixth director of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, from 1998 to 2007, and as the fourth consecutive to be appointed from the ranks of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Keenan’s multifarious contributions to Dumbarton Oaks include a thoroughgoing capital renewal project that resulted in a five-story library, a central heating and cooling plant, and a building for the gardening staff, as well as renovated quarters for administration, facilities, security, the museum, publications, and most other departments. With equal measures of pride and melancholy, Keenan joked that the library would likely be the last built in North America. The architect for the multiyear project was the celebrated Robert Venturi, and obtaining the permissions necessary for its fulfillment was a story that Keenan told vividly in an oral history interview preserved in the virtual archives of the Dumbarton Oaks website. Keenan also acquired for the institution a former home of Elizabeth Taylor, which replaced as the director’s residence what is now the refectory. Keenan’s projects and acquisitions brought the research center into the twenty-first century, and fellows, staff, and directors of the institution will benefit from his foresight for countless decades to come.

Keenan arrived at Dumbarton Oaks with a long rap sheet of administrative experience at Harvard, where he served as associate director and director of the Russian Research Center, master of the present-day Pforzheimer House (then called North House), dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, among other posts. He fulfilled most of these roles in phases of wrenching transitions, and he handled them all with great skill. Upon taking his final assignment for his alma mater at its elegant outpost in Georgetown, he deployed this background to excellent effect by rationalizing a reporting structure that in his words had resembled “a bowl of spaghetti.” After retirement, in 2008, he moved primarily to Deer Isle, in Maine, where he lived with his wife Judith (“Judy”), who survives him, as do his sons and her daughters.

Within the large and famous university of which Dumbarton Oaks forms but a small and remote part, Ned Keenan was a consummate Harvard man—but in his own distinctive fashion. Born on May 13, 1935, he resided in Cambridge continuously as an undergraduate (with a 1957 honors AB in Slavic Languages and Literatures), graduate student (PhD in 1965), and junior and senior faculty member (tenure in 1968), except for a couple of years in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, until he took up the directorship of Dumbarton Oaks. While he was Harvardian through and through, he clung proudly to his background as an outsider, originally from western New York.

Keenan’s craft was history, and his specialization was medieval Russian history. Within his field he became prominent and controversial for various studies that sought to analyze and ultimately to disprove the supposed authenticity of major sources in East Slavic history. Two books, published more than thirty years apart, argue that two texts were not medieval at all, but were, in fact, from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, respectively: The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha: The Seventeenth-Century Genesis of the “Correspondence” Attributed to Prince A. M. Kurbskii and Tsar Ivan IV (1971) and Joseph Dobrovsky and the Origins of the “Igor Tale” (2003). He also authored a number of seminal articles. His first article appeared in 1958, and his bibliography had already extended to twenty-two pages by 1997, when he joined Dumbarton Oaks.

Ned Keenan’s linguistic abilities were renowned, notably his native-level fluency in Russian, but also his facility in Spanish, an early love of his in foreign tongues. Beyond languages, he was also known for belonging to the first generation of early adaptors to digital technology, since he switched to using personal computers long before many of his colleagues even reached the point of asking secretaries to do the same instead of them.

A memorable raconteur, Ned expressed himself colorfully. Often he came forth with formulations that sounded proverbial. In fact, his interest in paremiology reached back to his undergraduate thesis on Russian proverbs. All the same, listeners might often be nagged by uncertainty as to whether the original of his wording was Russian, another foreign language, or his own creation. Ned Keenan was himself an original, with strong and shrewd convictions that he expressed with memorable wit, and he will be much missed by all those who had the occasion to benefit from his skill, erudition, and humor. With his death we have lost a person who not only liked to talk about where the dog lies buried, but who also knew the exact location of many such canine skeletons that will now pass forgotten.

—Jan Ziolkowski, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin, Harvard University, and Director of Dumbarton Oaks