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The Pacific Northwest Renaissance Conference: A History, 1956-1997

Jean MacIntyre, University of Alberta

The Pacific Northwest Renaissance Conference appears to have begun simultaneously, or almost simultaneously, with the Renaissance Society of America. Its first meeting was organized sometime in 1956 by Quirinus Breen (History) of the University of Oregon, Paul Pascal (Classics) of the University of Washington, and G.P.V. Akrigg of the University of British Columbia. Its modest beginnings are recorded in the earliest programme to survive, that for its April 26-27,1957 meeting at the University of Washington. This was a joint meeting with two other regional societies, the Northwestern Chapter of the American Musicological Society and the Classical Association of the Pacific Coast, Northern Section, and consisted of seventeen papers and two plenary lectures, “Theory and Creation in the Italian Renaissance” by Oscar Budel (UBC) of the PNRC and “Humanism in the Music of the Renaissance, North and South” by Edward Lowinsky of the Musicological Society. Other speakers included A.C. Hamilton, Jean Alexander, and G.P.V. Akrigg, whose paper on the English court seems a foretaste of his Jacobean Pageant (1962).

In April 1958 the PNRC again met jointly with the American Musicological Society and the Classical Association at the University of British Columbia. The programme looks much smaller than that of the year before, only seven PNWRC papers and seven MSA (two late addenda to the programme); Classical Association programmes, however, were being distributed on site, so the programme was probably about the same length as that of 1957. The 1959 meeting was the PNRC’s first solo flight, a one-day gathering at Gonzaga University in Spokane, during which nine papers were presented. Among the presenters were Breen, Pascal, and Fred and Katherine Stockholder.

1960’s University of Oregon meeting (May 20-21) marked an advance in the PNRC fortunes. Whereas the previous programmes had come out of mimeograph machines, this one was printed, and for the first time a distinguished speaker from outside the region was to have been featured. Paul Oskar Kristeller was to have spoken both on the “Aims and Projects of the Renaissance Society of America” and on “The Platonic Academy of Florence.” A last-minute change was announced in the purple ink of hectograph: “The Local Commitee regrets to report that an automobile accident has prevented Professor Kristeller’s attendance.” The printed programme in the PNRC archives shows rapid rearrangements of the papers and the substitution of a paper on “Milton and Perspectivism” by Kester Svendsen for Kristeller’s on the Platonic Academy.

In 1961 the meeting returned to the University of Washington and to a joint conference with the Musicological Society, whose programme dominated the meeting. Frederick Waller of Portland State College presented a paper, and the next year organized the conference. Charles LeGuin chaired a session notable for three distinguished historians, Quirinus Breen, Samuel Kisner, and F.J. Levy. 1963 marked the arrival of the first contingent from the Canadian prairies to meet spring in March at Western Washington State College in Bellingham, and 1964 the attraction of Eugene brought more prairie Canadians fleeing winter. Hilton Landry and Homer Swander came from California and Lawrence Rice from Idaho, and the plenary speaker was A.L. Rowse. This meeting is also the first to record an administrative structure, with Kester Svendsen stepping down as president (the office now called Conference Chair) and an unnamed “president-elect” designated to preside at the conference dinner.

The 1965 meeting moved inland to Central Washington State College in Ellensburg, home campus of the PNRC secretary Larry L. Lawrence. This meeting attracted a number of inland speakers, Baird Whitlock of Wyoming, John Sisk of Gonzaga, Pat Ryan of Eastern Montana, Murray Markland of Washington State, and William Hunter of Idaho, but the location worked against attendance from coastal areas, and for the first time no Canadians appeared on the programme. The first meeting at the University of Victoria remedied this lack in 1966; although the number of papers was small the attendance was not. The most memorable event of this conference was the riveting performance of Middleton’s The Changeling. Those of us who attended boarded the bus to the Empress in overcome silence, and conversation did not resume till we had settled with our drinks in one of the hotel bars.

The 1967 meeting at Washington State University proved that a wintry inland location (March 16-17) distant from an airport hub would restrict attendance to locals and those willing and able to drive. Despite the attraction of plenary lectures by Lynn White, “The Virtuousness of Technology in the Fifteenth Century,” and by Linda Van Norden, “’De Fluctibus: Dove or Raven?” and a return to a joint session with the American Musicological Society, attendance was thin, and besides the two PNRC plenary talks and the musical attractions, there were only seven PNRC papers on the programme. That remoteness from an airport, rather than winter conditions, was the main cause was proved by the very large attendance at the University of Alberta’s debut as PNRC conference host in 1968; for the first and I think only time, a speaker came from the University of Alaska. This conference followed the example of Victoria’s presentation of a full-length Renaissance play with Bernard Engel’s production of Jonson’s Volpone. In 1969 Lewis and Clark College extended the tradition with a memorable concert performance of Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One.

The 1970s opened with a new conference host, Seattle University, and an opening address by Virgil Whitaker; despite the meeting’s US location Canadian speakers outnumbered American, and the same thing happened as Portland State (now a university) hosted the meeting for the second time in 1971. This year it was decided that meetings of the PNRC should alternate between a US and a Canadian institution. Accordingly, early in March 1972 members braved the prairie winter for a second time for the first meeting at the University of Calgary. An interesting feature of this meeting, like that at Seattle University two years before, was the appearance on the programme of specialists in American literature from the University of Alberta venturing with some success into the Renaissance. 1973 (at the University of Oregon) introduced concurrent instead of sequential sessions and for the first time imposed the necessity of choice upon the members. This meeting continued the dramatic tradition with a performance of Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.

In 1974 members yet again braved winter (in an extreme form indeed) for the March 15-16 meeting at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan. Despite the cold (severe enough to generate ice fog and sun dogs in the early morning) the meeting was well attended, and well compensated not only by plenary addresses from William Blissett of the University of Toronto and Austin Woodrych of the University of Lancaster, but, especially, by an extempore address, “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Challenge” from G. Wilson Knight, which Geoffrey Aggeler managed to record, at the last-minute starting up a tape recorder, a record which is still alleged to be in his possession. The 1975 return to a more salubrious climate at the southern edge of the conference region in Ashland, Oregon, proved insufficient attraction; again the difficulty of getting to a site without an airport limited attendance and led to a resolution not to hold meetings in such locations again.

Despite the intended return to the University of British Columbia, handy to the Vancouver International Airport, in 1976, for the only time in its history the PNRC meeting was cancelled. This was caused by two unforeseen disasters; the illness of Secretary Reg Ingram might have been coped with, but, as he wrote to the members, the long national postal strike in Canada … prevented useful organisation of a conference in sending out calls for papers and the receiving of them. The strike ended a couple of weeks before Christmas but the rush of seasonal mail hampered the resumption of normal service. Indeed the last three letters enquiring about the PNRC 1976 meeting were dated December 14, December 15, and January 9; the December letters came together on January 16, the third letter arrived January 20.

He promised that despite this cancellation, “every effort will be bent to make the 1977 meeting … as fine an affair as possible to offset this year’s interruption.” This proved true. The conference featured a distinguished set of papers, a concert including original music to renaissance texts, and a postprandial performance of Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.

Throughout the years just chronicled the size of the programme, after a modest growth in the 1960s, remained about the same: a dozen or so papers, one, two , or three plenary lectures. 1978 saw a sudden expansion as the conference met for the third time at the University of Washington. After G.P.V. Akrigg’s plenary lecture, “A Renaissance Monarch: James VI and I” and a single 60 minute session to follow, the rest of the conference divided into paired 90-minute sessions. A second plenary address was delivered by C.L. Barber at the unprecedented hour of 8:30 AM Saturday, and for the first time sessions continued into Saturday afternoon for a total of 26 papers. The next year at the University of Victoria Stephen Orgel, then of Johns Hopkins, gave his first lecture at the PNRC, and the number of papers went down, to eighteen; this conference like many in this decade, brought an increasing number of speakers from well outside the region. Garry Waller of Dalhousie was succeeded in this year by David Galloway of Nw Brunswick and the Records of Early English Drama project.

The 1980s began with a meeting jointly held by Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington which again saw the number of papers climb into the mid-twenties, and the length extended from one and a half days to almost three. This meeting was notable for the amount of publicity it received in the Tacoma newspapers, and the receipt of an official certificate of welcome from the mayor, the only time so far it has been so distinguished. One innovation was a seminar on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus led by Chester Garrison of Oregon State University. The principal effect of this meeting resulted from a morning-long panel discussion, “Future Diections of the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Conference,” by D.E. Van Tassel who had organized the conference, Ronald Meldrum, the Conference Secretary, and S.K. Heninger, followed by the annual business meeting at which the questions the panel raised were considered. This led to the writing of a constitution and by-laws that provided for a president, a vice-president who automatically succeeded, a continuing secretary, and an elected board. The first officers under the new dispensation were D.E. Van Tassel, President, and R.F. Jones, Secretary, both of Pacific Lutheran University. This meeting also gave the PNRC a recurrent image, that of the Inigo Jones’s design for an antimasque Seller of Mousetraps.

Simon Fraser University hosted the PNRC in 1981. Owing to the lack of adequate accommodation near the Simon Fraser campus in Burnaby, for the first time sessions of the conference were held in a downtown location near the conference hotel, though a bus took the members to the university for the Saturday morning sessions. This meeting was smaller than that in Tacoma, though it attracted presenters from as far away as Texas and New York. Portland State in 1982 revived the tradition of performing a Renaissance play with a production of Rafe Roister Doister. Because the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Ashland was to produce Shakespeare’s Henry V that season, among the sessions devoted to it were a symposium on the play, a lecture “From Text to Stage: Problems of Production,” by its director Pat Patton, with a panel discussion and questions afterwards, and two papers about the play. (The performance that summer showed that the director had not listened to audience critiques of his addition to the script of scenes from Henry IV Part 2.) There were also papers dealing with Renaissance political ideas.

In 1983 the conference returned to the University of Alberta. Thanks to a generous grant from the president of the university, Dr Meyer Horowitz, and assistance from Dean of Arts Terry White, this conference had “lavish means” for the production of John Redford’s Paul’s School play Wit and Science (directed by Patricia Demers, cast including students, staff, and professional actors, original music by Malcolm Forsyth) during the conference banquet. Musicologists were in attendance, though not as a formal society, and “A Musical Conclusion, Parody Technique: ‘Theme and Variations’ of Renaissance Music” by Leonard Ratzlaff and the University Madrigal Singers wound up the conference. At this meeting it was decided that the PNRC should affiliate with the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies (CSRS/SCER) and give financial support to its journal Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme, a support which has continued to this day. The 1984 conference, jointly hosted by Seattle Pacific University and the University of Washington, introduced a new element, “Seminars on Special Topics” on the Saturday afternoon. (The programme for these is reproduced here).1 The 1986 meeting was to be held at Whitworth College in Spokane, but the departure of key staff members at this small institution threatened another cancellation. To prevent this the president organized an ad hoc meeting much earlier than usual, in February, at the Portland Hilton. Despite the “emergency” nature of the organization, this conference attracted over 25 presenters and a fair number of people from the region to listen to them.

The University of Oregon’s third meeting of the PNRC in 1988 almost doubled the size of the largest meeting to date, with nearly fifty papers,2 plenary lectures by Stephen Orgel (Stanford) and Arthur Kinney (University of Massachusetts), and an extremely lively not to say contentious panel discussion of New Historicism by David Harris Sacks, Don Wayne, and William Kerrigan, which opened the conference and in which the historians left little but shreds and tatters of this then newly-fashionable -ism. This seems to have been the year in which an announcement of the next year’s conference first appeared in the programme. In 1990, the Seattle University programme announced the sites and dates for the next two years. This conference saw the return of Pat Patton of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to discuss “The Future of Shakespeare in Performance at Ashland,” but, perhaps owing to the major effort of two years before, the programme was not very extensive, although there were quite a few split sessions and many of the papers were of considerable distinction.

1992 at the University of Puget Sound initiated the arrival of many new members to the PNRC, including one undergraduate and several graduate students, in an especially varied programme that included a “work in progress” session on Renaissance women, following a plenary lecture by Hilda Smith (Cincinnati) on “Women’s Citizenship in Early Modern England.” This was the first showing of women’s studies at a PNRC conference, and generated lively debate. The second plenary speaker was the art historian Michael Baxendall of the Warburg Institute and the University of California. The following year the University of British Columbia’s wonderfully interdisciplinary conference committee set a theme for the conference, “The Reader, the Subject, and the Self in Early Modern Europe” and for the most part received cooperation from those who submitted papers for an unusually varied group of sessions -- more than forty papers, including the innovation of the papers in one session being delivered in Italian, a precedent that was to be followed two years later. The conference committee designed an exceptionally handsome programme containing many Renaissance images printed in red on white, arguably the most beautiful yet created for a PNRC meeting. The increase in the number of papers made multiple concurrent sessions a regular feature of the PNRC. In 1994 there were only 33 papers (one jointly written and delivered) but three sessions at a time ran nonetheless.

For the 1995 meeting the University of Calgary innovated, first by joint sponsorship not only with another Calgary institution, Mount Royal College, but with the rival University of Alberta, and still more by holding the meeting not on the host campus or even in the host city, but in Banff. The three dozen papers were, as usual, distinguished by variety: a session of papers delivered in Italian, full sessions on Italian art and Spanish literature of the Renaissance, and. for the first time, a presenter from a German university, Eckhard Auberlen of the University of Tübingen. Probably the most memorable feature of this gathering was the lecture-recital given by the lutenist Victor Coelho of the University of Calgary. The meeting, held in early April, was lucky in unseasonably warm weather that allowed some participants to go swimming in the Upper Hot Springs pool while those without bathing suits looked down in envy. Seattle University again was host for the 1996 meeting, and at this meeting, for reasons involving its legal incorporation as a society eligible for charitable status, it was, with regret, agreed to rename the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Conference the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society.

Although the PNRC has been an affiliate of the Renaissance Society of America ab urbe condita, there is little evidence of contact between the national society and this regional conference. Professor Kristeller’s intended visit in 1960 was prevented by circumstances beyond his control. The next document relating to the affiliation is letter of December 1970 from the RSA Executive Director that asks the then secretary, Robert I. Williams. of Portland State who would be the delegate from the PNRC to the national Council’s meeting in New York at the end of January 1971. My recollection of what followed was that there could be no delegate because there was no financial aid for anyone to cross the continent to attend. In September 1980 President Van Tassel invited the RSA “officers to consider meeting in conjunction with the PNRC in the near future,” but there is no record of what answer he received. When as PNRC president in the 1980s I attended the RSA convention in Chicago (having university support to do so) I was one of only three persons at either the meeting or the Council from west of the Mississippi. Well in advance of one PNRC meeting, the then PNRC president, James Black of Calgary, did invite the RSA to hold its annual meeting in Banff concurrently with the PNRC. He received from an RSA officer what appeared a favorable enough reply to let him approach the Banff Springs Hotel about a meeting site, but the encouraging letter proved chimerical. The RSA joint meeting with a regional association took place elsewhere. When Professors Budra and Sandler made their transcontinental journey to issue the PNRC’s invitation to the RSA, this was only the second time a delegate from this region is recorded as attending an RSA Council meeting.

In the early years of both societies, distance, cost, and surface travel militated against any close association. When the PNRC began the Pacific Northwest was remote and inaccessible to most of North America. This remoteness, along with the easy communication between British Columbia and the American states to the south, has meant that the PNRC has always been an international association, meeting regularly (since the 1970s alternately) in both the US and Canada, and promoting much interaction between scholars in the Western states and provinces for the past forty years. As air travel has grown cheaper and more convenient, the isolation of the region from scholars from east of the Cascades and the Rockies has almost disappeared, and it is usual to find at least one or two presenters from as far east as Halifax and Boston on every PNRC programme. The same ease of travel means that members of other regional societies are also PNRC members, and PNRC members of other regional societies. It is to be hoped that after nearly forty years of affiliation, the number of PNRC members who are also members of the RSA will increase, and that communication and joint meetings of the two societies will not have to wait another forty years for the next occasion.