The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson's celebrated oriental tale, takes the hero to Cairo, where he visits a school of rhetoric One lecturer in particular, a sage who seems to be both "wise and happy," inspires in Rasselas a "veneration due to the instructions of a superiour being". Yet at the end of their encounter, the prince leaves the professor disillusioned by the gap between rhetoric and reality.
Gwin J. Kolb - who spent a professional lifetime editing, teaching, and collecting Rasselas - was in substance what Johnson's sage merely appeared to be. A truly wise and rationally happy man, he translated principles into practice, thereby inspiring admiration and devotion in three generations of students, colleagues, and scholars. Like his friend the writer Eudora Welty, he believed in decorum: as the occasion demanded, he could be correct or quirky, reserved or relaxed, deliver an incisive commentary on William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life or take ribald delight in John Cleland's Fanny Hill. In all things he exemplified and exalted the power of the human voice.
Gwin Kolb grew up in the Deep South during the Depression. Despite the pressures of genteel poverty, Kolb's mother fostered his innate love of learning: as he recounted in later life, she bought The Lincoln Library of Essential Information on the instalment plan, paying for it by selling eggs and milk. The taste for acquiring and imparting "essential information" remained with Kolb throughout a lifetime of scholarship and teaching. At Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, Kolb found both his vocation and his future wife, Ruth Godbold, a devoted companion and collaborator.
The loyalty that marked Kolb's personal life also defined his public career: after serving for three years in the US Navy (1942- 45), he began his graduate studies at the University of Chicago and never left. A newly minted PhD, he joined the faculty of the Department of English in 1949 and rose steadily through the ranks, retiring in 1989 as Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities. During this 40-year period, Kolb served the university in a variety of capacities: departmental chairman, head of the undergraduate Humanities Division, residential master and member of countless committees.
This impressive record of service is also a record of Kolb's costly but endearing inability to say "no". Nevertheless, he found time to begin the transformation …