Dr. Noel Polk, a University of Southern Mississippi professor emeritus of English and international expert on the work of Nobel Prize-winning Mississippi author William Faulkner, died Tuesday in Jackson, Miss. He was 69.
A memorial service for Polk will be held Saturday, Aug. 25 at 2 p.m. at the Thad Cochran Center on Southern Miss Hattiesburg campus. Funeral arrangements will be announced later.
Polk was a member of the Southern Miss Department of English faculty from 1977 to 2004, and was editor of the university’s Southern Quarterly. He spearheaded the founding of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, an organization that has honored Mississippi artists and writers for the past 30 years. He also served as editor of The Mississippi Quarterly at Mississippi State University.
“Noel Polk served this university with distinction,” said Southern Miss Interim President Dr. Aubrey Lucas. “His teaching, scholarship and service were truly meritorious and will live on in his students and his publications, which will influence scholars far into the future.”
One of his colleagues and friends at Southern Miss, English professor Maureen Ryan, said Polk was the “embodiment of that old-fashioned ideal – a gentleman and a scholar.”
“Around the world - quite literally - readers and scholars know that Noel Polk was one of the pre-eminent experts on William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Southern literature,” Ryan said. “A more select and fortunate cadre of students, whom he taught in his always-popular courses over a long career, came to know him as a rigorous but caring teacher.
“His colleagues and friends - the group I happily inhabited - loved him for his honest but generous mentoring, his integrity and dedication to the most honorable goals of higher education, and his witty, fun-loving delight in life.”
Another of Polk’s Southern Miss colleagues, English professor Stanley Hauer, described him as “a superb teacher, a dedicated department member and a prince of scholars.”
“Pick up any volume of Faulkner’s works and you’ll find his name as editor,” Hauer said. “His contribution to American literature will remain unchallenged for a century.”
A native of Picayune, Miss., Polk was a highly sought lecturer on the works of Faulkner and Eudora Welty in the U.S. and abroad, including in Europe, Japan and the former Soviet Union. His publications included “Eudora Welty: A Bibliography of Her Work,” “Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner” and “Outside the Southern Myth.”
He also edited Faulkner novels for the Library of America and Random House, and in 2001 he edited the “restored” text of Robert Penn Warren's “All the King's Men” for Harcourt Brace.
Polk’s professional activities included editorial advisor for the Frederick Douglass Papers, Yale University; manuscript reader for University Presses of Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina; and service on the boards of directors for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters and University Press of Mississippi.
His honors and awards included the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award in 2006; Professeur Associé, Université de Strasbourg, France, 1981-82; nomination in 1981 by Gov. William Winter as Mississippi's candidate for the National Governor's Conference award for Outstanding Service to the Arts for his work in organizing the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters; and Professeur Invité at the Faulkner Foundation at the Université de Haute Bretagne, Rennes, France in 1996.
Claire Gerald Brantley of Gulfport, Miss., a 1989 Southern Miss alumna and one of Polk’s former students, said his influence made her proud to be an English major and student at Southern Miss.
“I would go into bookstores looking for the Faulkner section, and then look in the preface of one of the selections to see the note ‘this edition was prepared under the guidance of Noel Polk’ and I would brag to people standing nearby, ‘He's my teacher at Southern Miss. I study with this guy,’” she said. “It might seem silly now, but it meant a lot to 18-year-old me, struggling to find my place in the world.”
The Southern Miss Department of English plans to establish a scholarship fund in Polk’s honor, through the USM Foundation. To support this effort, contact the department at 601.266.4320.