SID SALTER: Noel Polk was an uncloistered scholar, writer

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – The death of Noel Polk – professor, literary scholar, writer, world traveler, and arguably the world’s preeminent scholar on the writings of fellow Mississippian and Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner – should be remembered as the passing of one of this state’s most brilliant and beautiful minds.
For pure intellectual horsepower, Polk had few equals not just in the literary world but in the world at large. But unlike many who are blessed with that kind of intellect, Polk did not choose to live a cloistered life surrounded by his books and his ideas.
It has been my privilege to know several Mississippi men and women of letters – writers like Willie Morris, John Grisham, Barry Hannah and others. I had fun chasing the Marcus Dupree story with Willie, have shared a love of Mississippi State University and politics with Grisham, and shut down a few Oxford watering holes with Hannah.
All of them were extremely kind to my daughter, Kate, when she was growing up. While a student at Ole Miss, Kate was fortunate to come to know Hannah as one of her English professors. She came into Noel Polk’s orbit at Mississippi State while earning her master’s degree in English at State, where she now teaches English Composition.
“Dr. Polk was at all times a teacher, whether in the classroom or in the aisle of a grocery store,” Kate told me this week after Polk lost his battle with cancer. “He was very opinionated, but always had respect for the opinions of others. He was loved and respected by his students and his colleagues in the MSU English Department.”
After a long and distinguished 27-year career at the University of Southern Mississippi, Polk joined the faculty at MSU in 2004 as a professor of English and editor of The Mississippi Quarterly.
Unlike Morris, Grisham or Hannah, some of Noel Polk’s best and most passionate writings were not published in books or popular magazines. And despite Polk’s status as a renowned scholar of the works of Faulkner, Eudora Welty, or Robert Penn Warren, his writings were reserved solely for books of literary criticism or for the pages of the literary journals he edited.
Noel Polk, literary scholar, was also an inveterate writer of letters to the editors of newspapers. Polk offered letters sharing his opinions on the issues of the day in countless Mississippi newspapers, but most often in The Clarion-Ledger or The Starkville Daily News. Like the rest of his work, Polk’s letters were incisive, thoughtful, and pointed.
On most issues, Polk was an unabashed liberal and he enjoyed thrashing his conservative targets in print. In the process, Polk supported public education, tolerance, diversity, public health care, religious freedom, academic freedom, and respect and equal rights for women. He opposed mixing politics and religion, former USM president Shelby Thames in his battles with the faculty there, and the use of cell phones on airplanes.
To say that I liked and admired Noel Polk would be an understatement. We disagreed on many matters of politics, but I admired his willingness to get in the public arena, state his beliefs forcefully, and then await the storms that were certain to come.
Gentle yet abrasive, brilliant yet accessible, and always analytical, Noel Polk is the kind of professor that students remember and appreciate more and more with the passing of the years. I will greatly miss his enlightened, passionate, and reasoned rants on the editorial pages as much as the literary world will miss his respected and unparalleled criticisms.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com