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Charles Muscatine (1920-2010), Chaucer Scholar, Had Important Ties to St. Albert College/DSPT

Charles Muscatine in 2006

While well-known for his seminal work, "Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957) and his contributions to education and free speech, Charles Muscatine was also a leader in academic freedom who found solace during the tumultuous McCarthy era in the support from the faculty of St. Albert College (the original name for the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology).

In the summer of 1950, UC Berkeley faculty were called upon to sign an anti-Communist loyalty oath required by the State of California. Claiming that the oath violated principles of academic freedom as well as the U.S. Constitution itself, Muscatine refused to sign. As a result, he and thirty of his colleagues were immediately dismissed. Given the times, such a loss was serious. As Muscatine noted, "And in that particular climate, which was so poisonous, there was always a problem that if you got a reputation for being ‘a Communist sympathizer,' which none of us was, you couldn't get a job anywhere. So it was a very serious situation, fraught with danger for yourself and your family, that came in upon people gradually as the controversy prolonged itself."[1]

That following academic year was one of deep turmoil for the "non-signers," many like Muscatine had young families to support. Others, noted Muscatine, suffered heartbreak and disappointment such as the well-known classics scholar, Ludwig Edelstein, who had survived the traumas of the Nazi era only to have been inflicted with this new hardship.[2] The group banded together for mutual support – both financial and moral. They also found sympathizers outside of their ranks, at the University and throughout the Bay area.[3] One particular group was the faculty of St. Albert College.[4]

Founded in 1932 as the House of Studies for the Western Dominican Province, St. Albert College was dedicated to the preparation of student friars for the preaching apostolate. Like most Houses of Studies of the Dominican Order, St. Albert College was intentionally located near a large university, in this case UC Berkeley.[5] The purpose was two-fold: to allow Dominican students and faculty to avail themselves of the resources of a larger institute, and to provide philosophical and theological academic resources for those who would come to the College.

To this end, St. Albert College also expected to educate lay students, who "shall be admitted to courses in scholastic philosophy and kindred sciences, in order that they may be intellectually fitted to cope with the problems of the modern age."[6]

By 1950, the faculty of St. Albert College were both ready and eager to develop academic relations with their UC Berkeley colleagues. In particular, Fr. Joseph Fulton, Prior Provincial of the Western Dominican Province, used his friendship with Olga Schnitzler, wife of the Austrian playwright, Arthur Schnitzler, as an entree into the UC Berkeley faculty, whom she counted among her friends and professional associates.[7] Through Schnitzler, a number of these professors visited the friars on a regular basis, including Archer Taylor (Dept. of German), and Waclaw Lednicki (Dept. of Slavic Studies), and Joaquin Nin Culmell (Dept. of Music). Charles Muscatine was also among those invited, who "came to dine and talk informally with the students [friars] of the need of medieval English departments for those trained in medieval theology.[8]

The events surrounding the Loyalty Oath moved Fulton who responded by opening the College doors specifically for these outcast professors. As Muscatine noted, "And there were outsiders, as well, in the community, like the faculty of St. Albert's Seminary down in Rockridge, that after we were fired because they wanted to give us a place to exercise our professional status, asked us to give them a series of lectures in our subjects." Recalling the events some fifty years later, Muscatine cited this outreach as "one of the most touching and supportive acts of any of our friends . . . . It reaffirmed our membership in the scholarly and intellectual world."[9]

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned as unconstitutional the Loyalty Oath, vindicating Muscatine and his colleagues. He returned to his teaching position in the UC Berkeley Department of English shortly thereafter, remaining there until his retirement in 1991.

The story of Charles Muscatine is important not only to the history of DSPT but also to its contemporary mission of creating a mutually enriching conversation between philosophy, theology, and the contemporary culture. At times, this mission requires both personal and professional risks in order to ensure that the truth be revealed. At DSPT, we extend our condolences to the family and friends of Charles Muscatine, and we express our gratitude to him and those like him, whose courage on behalf of the truth and willingness to join us as a conversation partner continue to inspire our ongoing efforts.

[1] "Charles Muscatine: Stifling Academic Freedom,", accessed on 29 Mar 2010. (back to article)

[3] "Panel of Faculty Opponents of the Oath," from "The University Loyalty Oath – a 50th anniversary retrospective," (8 Oct 1999), accessed on 29 Mar 2010. (back to article)

[4] Though today known as the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, DSPT was founded in 1932 as the College of St. Albert the Great, and retains that name as the official title for its parent corporation. (back to article)

[5] Christopher J. Renz, O.P., In This Light Which Gives light (Oakland, CA: Western Dominican Province, 2009), 1-4. (back to article)

[6] From a development flyer dated Dec 1932; Ibid., 24. (back to article)

[7] Fabian Stan Parmisano, O.P. Mission West: The Western Dominican Province (1850-1966) (Oakland, CA: Western Dominican Province, 1995), 334-336. (back to article)

[8] Ibid., 336. (back to article)

[9] Martin Snapp, "Snapp Shots: Late professor a hero at and beyond Cal," Contra Costa Times (28 Mar 2010),, accessed on 29 Mar 2010. (back to article)