In Memoriam: Edward L. Keenan

April 7, 2015
In Memoriam: Edward L. Keenan

Edward L. “Ned” Keenan, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of History, Emeritus, died at his home in Deer Isle, Maine, on March 6, 2015, at the age of 79.  Keenan was a devoted Harvardian, receiving his A.B. degree in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 1957, his A.M. in Regional Studies in 1962, and his Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern Studies in 1965. Granted a tenured professorship in 1970, he went on to become one of the leading Russian medievalists of his generation. 

It was perhaps no accident that Keenan chose early on to specialize in Russian, a dominant language of Eurasian Otherness.  Self-described as “a kid from the boondocks of western New York,” he arrived in Cambridge to begin his freshman year in the fall of 1953 as the world contemplated the potential fallout from the death of Joseph Stalin in March, the end of the Korean War in July, and the CIA-sponsored coup that installed Reza Pahlavi as the shah of Iran in August.  Young Keenan was more taken with Harvard basketball, however, earning a major numeral by year’s end.  After “essentially wasting my freshman year,” he later noted, he was encouraged by his adviser to pursue a language major in light of his earlier demonstrated strengths, and since “Russian was in the air,” he made a life-changing choice. 

Although a Slavic program had existed at Harvard since 1896, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures had been created only in 1949.  The Department featured Russian historian Michael Karpovich as chair and a stellar constellation of Slavic academic recruits: Roman Jakobson, Horace Lunt, Dmytro Čyževs’kyj, Renato Poggioli, Wiktor Weintraub, Albert Lord, and Georges Florovsky (Harvard Divinity School).  Keenan flourished in the atmosphere of this extraordinary intersection of structuralism, philology, linguistics, literature, history, folk culture, mythology, religion, and art, forging for himself an original perspective on the peoples and cultures of the U.S.S.R., Slavic and non-Slavic.

It was here that his legendary linguistic facility, historical acumen, and revisionist skepticism helped him refine the tools of the trade, making him a formidable analyst of the very stuff of East Slavic medieval history, the primary written evidence: paleography, codicology, and textual transmission.  Languages helped to define communities of culture that produced distinctive generic patterns of register, style, grammar, and lexicon.  It was a mastery of these factors that revealed authentic voices of the Muscovite past. His insistence on fixing a text in time and place before hazarding an interpretation of its meaning and contextual history led to his serious reassessments of some of the cardinal texts used to define the cultural identities of Rus’, from ancient Kiev and Novgorod to Moscow and the steppes of Central Asia.  The primary obstacle facing the historian of Muscovy in Keenan’s view was the Romantic nationalism that inflected Russian historiography from the imperial Russian eighteenth century on.

While studying Arabic intensively after his graduation, Keenan became interested in the Turkic minorities of the Soviet Union and spent 1959–61 in Leningrad studying Uzbek and Turkmen.  It was there he came to appreciate that the study of the medieval period of Russian history was not as hamstrung by Marxist-Leninist ideology as the modern period and he shifted towards the former. Returning to Cambridge, he was encouraged to investigate the Turkic elements of medieval East Slavic culture by Jakobson, who had put him in touch with the eminent émigré Turcologist Omeljan Pritsak, then teaching at the University of Washington.  Pritsak had visited Harvard in 1960–61 and had already begun an intensive correspondence with Keenan, directing his study of Chaghatay (medieval Uzbek) and ultimately becoming an outside member of his doctoral committee. Under Pritsak’s supervision Keenan wrote his doctoral dissertation, “Muscovy and Kazan’, 1445–1552: A Study in Steppe Politics,” thus commencing a fruitful academic exchange that opened new dimensions of Keenan’s scholarly inquiry, particularly in the history of Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, and Turkic relations with Muscovy and with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

His skepticism about specific sources led Keenan in the late 1960s to challenge the authenticity of two texts frequently cited to characterize Muscovite relations with the Mongol steppe.  He claimed as a forgery the Iarlyk of Akhmed-khan to Ivan III, commonly used as a textual basis for asserting ultimate Muscovite independence from the Mongols (the “Tatar Yoke”) in 1480.  He branded the putative sixteenth-century Kazanskaia istoriia (The History of Kazan’) as a seventeenth-century fabrication. But his most famous forays into mystification came with his ascription of the much-heralded correspondence between Tsar Ivan IV and Prince Andrei Kurbskii to the pen of seventeenth-century writer Semēn Shakhovskoi (The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha: The Seventeenth-Century Genesis of the “Correspondence” Attributed to Prince Andrew Kurbskii and Tsar Ivan IV, 1971), and the epic twelfth-century Tale of Igor’s Campaign to the late eighteenth century invention of the great Czech Slavist Josef Dobrovský (Josef Dobrovský and the Origins of the Igor’ Tale, 2003). 

Keenan’s scholarly conclusions generated considerable reaction among specialists in the field, resulting in numerous articles, reviews, and even entire books, mostly critical of his claims and the generalizations he derived from his close textual readings and his positing of a specifically Muscovite, non-Western, political and cultural “grammar.”  Yet there is no question that he stimulated vigorous debate about the reliability of source materials and the need to peel away the layers of anachronistic patriotic interpretation that have clouded the understanding of medieval Muscovite culture in the larger context of East Slavic historical development.

Keenan’s take on Muscovite court culture was also controversial from the start. He replaced the top-down model of the all-powerful autocrat with a “trickle up” pattern that projected the interactions of peasantry clan structure onto the culture of the court.  With the grand prince, later tsar, acting as referee at the center of a concentrically radiating power structure, marriage and clan alliances determined placement in the Muscovite power network. Keenan’s earliest writings in this area appeared in the form of small-circulation reports and mimeographed handouts, samizdat editions that were then copied and recopied for his increasing band of official Harvard students and unofficial students, including pre- and postdoc visitors from other American universities and from abroad.  The most influential of these early essays, his “Muscovite Political Folkways,” was published only in 1986. 

Keenan’s devotion to Harvard is marked by his extraordinary range of administrative service to the University, in some cases with partially or completely overlapping terms.

The first such post on his curriculum vitae is that of junior varsity basketball coach (1957–58), a nod to his earlier prowess as a Harvard athlete.  He continued as teaching fellow in General Education (1962–63), instructor in History (1965–68), and lecturer in History (1968–70).  He took time out during the summers of 1962–64 to deliver lectures on Russian history in impeccable Russian at the Indiana University Slavic Workshop, creating texts with annotated vocabulary that provided advanced Russian-language students with a stimulating historical and cultural narrative, part of their preparation for a six-week language program in the Soviet Union.  Finally filmed in 1964, these lectures were viewed in subsequent years by generations of American graduate students in Russian studies before they traveled to the U.S.S.R. to conduct dissertation research in the exchange program run by the Inter-University Committee on Travel Grants (IUCTG), later renamed the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX).  This was only the beginning of his service to the field.

Tenured as professor of History in 1970 with a Guggenheim Fellowship in hand, he began a five-year term as master of North House (now Pforzheimer House), adding on the position of associate director of the Russian Research Center (now the Davis Center of East European and Eurasian Studies) from 1973 to 1975 before assuming the directorship for an additional two years.  During his time at the helm he established the first fund-raising drive to permit the Center to expand its programs. 

In 1977 he became dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, over the protest of a highly vocal element of the Harvard community unhappy with his membership on the Board of Governors of the newly founded Reza Shah Kabir University in Iran, a graduate school funded by the oppressive regime of the shah.  Keenan refused to leave the Board, asserting that an American-style graduate school in Iran would provide the greatest opportunity for bright young Iranian students to advance the cause of human rights and unrestrained academic pursuits from within the country but vowed to abandon his membership if the Iranian secret police began to undermine the operations of the university.  He remained dean for seven years, overseeing major changes in curricular development and coping with considerable loss of federal research funding during the Reagan administration. 

In 1975 he was instrumental in establishing the National Council for Soviet and East European Research, serving on the Board of Trustees from 1981–87, the last three years as chair. It was during this latter period that he was instrumental in establishing the infrastructure for the scanning and dissemination of archival materials and rare books among major academic institutions and libraries in the Soviet Union and the United States, taking full advantage of modern digital technology.

In 1981 began a two-year stint as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, then serving as acting director in 1986–87, and again in 1993.  In 1987–88 he provided historical perspective to the United States Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition.  He was chair of the Department of History from 1988 to 1991, at which time he was named the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of History. With his involvement, an endowed chair in Turkish Studies was established at Harvard in 1997.  

Keenan was a member of the first Standing Committee on Ukrainian Studies that saw the founding of the Ukrainian Research Institute in 1973 with Omeljan Pritsak as director and Ihor Ševčenko as associate director.  He and Horace Lunt joined them that year in a weekly HURI seminar on the Pověst’ vrěmennyx lět (The Tale of Bygone Years) to discuss Lunt’s translation of this major East Slavic historical source before a large group of graduate students and visitors who hung on every word. The seminar continued for the next six years.  He remained a member of the HURI Executive Committee and the Editorial Board of Harvard Ukrainian Studies until 1997. 

In 1997 Keenan moved to Washington, D.C., to assume the directorship of Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, an institution dedicated to supporting scholarship in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian Studies.  He oversaw an overhaul of the its administrative apparatus and an ambitious capital renewal project that included the building of a new five-story library, partly underground, designed by Robert Venturi and completed only after a storied battle with environmentalists and historical preservationists to secure necessary permissions.

Keenan was a superlative teacher at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His remarkable philological skill turned seminars into exciting workshops of common enterprise, with current discoveries launching many new research projects.  His talent for building community is no better demonstrated than in his establishment of a weekly informal lunch gathering for medievalists—students, faculty, visitors—to talk about recent discoveries, share research insights, and discuss current publications in the field.  He taught students life lessons in building an argument from the ground up, relying on evidence that was thoroughly vetted for authenticity and based on the recognition of systemic patterns (grammars in the Jakobsonian sense) that could be constructed through analyses of language, history, and cultural context.  He devoted considerable time and energy to his students, official and unofficial, inside and outside the classroom.  Perhaps his greatest legacy as teacher and mentor was to inspire and train many young scholars who have gone on to build prominent careers in medieval Russian, Ukrainian, and Turkic studies.  

Humor was an ever-present feature of Keenan’s engaging and charismatic personality. His audiences delighted in the ironic juxtaposition of medieval and modern: the shifting clan alliances of the Muscovite political elite, for example, found common ground with the Mafia, whereas the fantastic image of Ivan the Terrible in the European imagination made him the Elvis Presley of his time.  In a poignant obituary for his Doktorvater, Omeljan Pritsak, Keenan demonstrates his remarkable talent for telling a story by marking a graduate student’s angst—his own in this case—with a flash of ironic Gogolian triviality.  Seated for his three-hour written Ph.D. qualifying examination, Keenan froze when his committee chair, Hamilton Gibb, opened the sealed envelope from Pritsak for the Turkic portion of the exam and announced that Professor Pritsak has misunderstood his instructions and had sent a three-hour doctoral exam in Turcology, instead of a 30-minute field question.

My heart sank. Gibb, mercifully, proposed that I write what I could in 30 minutes and that he explain to Omeljan that there had been a misunderstanding. By picking and choosing among the questions, I was able to generate a couple of answers and a swatch of translation from the Chaghatay version of the Bâburnâma, but I lived for weeks in fear that I had failed disastrously.  Eventually Omeljan appeared in Cambridge, and we agreed to meet over breakfast, “to talk over your exam.”  Forty-two years later, I still remember the overcooked institutional fried eggs I had that day in Quincy House dining room.  Omeljan was…patient and forgiving, but without a hint of encouraging laxity. 

The ability to align the arcane with the mundane was vintage Ned Keenan, only one facet of his vivid, open-hearted personality.  He was most definitely a true Harvard original.

He is survived by his second wife Judith, his sons Ted (Edward L. Keenan, III), Christopher, and Nicholas; and her daughters Alice and Juliet.  A fourth son, Matthew, predeceased him. His first wife Joan G. Keenan died in 2012. 


Michael S. Flier
Harvard University