Dennis Tedlock

Published August 23, 2016

Dennis Tedlock, SUNY Distinguished Professor, James H. McNulty Professor in the Department of English and distinguished ethnopoeticist, translator, linguist and poet, died June 3. He was 76.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 17 in 306 Clemens Hall, North Campus.

A world-renowned scholar of Mayan culture and the arts of indigenous people in the Americas, Tedlock is perhaps best known for his definitive translation of “Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings,” for which he won the PEN Translation Prize.

Steve McCaffery, David Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters in the UB Department of English and director of the Poetics Program, tells the UB Reporter he first met Tedlock in the late 1970s, in part through a joint friendship with Jerome Rothenberg, an American poet, translator and anthologist noted for his work in the fields of performance and ethnopoetics — the study of poetic language across cultural and linguistic boundaries.

“I respected Dennis tremendously as a Mayan scholar and as the co-founder (with Rothenberg) in the late 1960s of ethnopoetics, a confluence of poetics and ethnology,” McCaffery says, noting he particularly admired Tedlock’s “staunch advocacy of an American, continental pluralism: a poetry of the Americas, rather than American poetry.”

Cristanne Miller, SUNY Distinguished Professor, Edward H. Butler Professor of Literature and interim chair of the Department of English, praised Tedlock’s work in ethnopoetics and Mayan culture and mythology. “UB was privileged to have a scholar of his originality and significance on its faculty, and he will be missed,” she says.

Tedlock was raised in Albuquerque and Taos, New Mexico, and received a BA in anthropology and art history from the University of New Mexico. He went on to earn a PhD in anthropology from Tulane University.

He joined the UB faculty in 1987 after holding academic appointments at Boston University, at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and at Yale.

He also held a position as research professor of anthropology at UB and was a co-founder — with Charles Bernstein, Robert Bertholf, Robert Creeley, Raymond Federman and Susan Howe — of the university’s Poetics Program.

He conducted most of his field work over three decades with his wife, Barbara Tedlock, UB professor emeritus of anthropology. While they made periodic visits to Zuni and did research in Nigeria, Brazil and Mongolia, the Tedlocks conducted most of their field work among the Mayan peoples of Guatemala and Belize. While living among the Quiché (K’iche’) Maya in the highlands of Guatemala, they underwent formal training and initiation as ajq’ij or “daykeepers,” learning ancient methods of divination and dream interpretation.

Dennis Tedlock’s extensive scholarship includes 10 books and more than 100 articles, pamphlets and reviews. His “The Dialogic Emergence of Culture” (edited with Bruce Mannheim, University of Illinois Press, 1995) has been credited with transforming the way ethnographers approach their work.

And when one of his most recent books — “2000 Years of Mayan Literature,” the first fully illustrated survey of two millennia of Mayan texts  — was published in 2010 by the University of California Press, literary critics, cultural scholars and aficionados of the Mayans called it “stunning,” “astounding,” “groundbreaking” and “literally breathtaking.”

Tedlock edited three journals in his field, including American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association for which and his co-editor, Barbara Tedlock, were awarded the association’s President’s Award.

Tedlock’s research, writing and editing was supported by grants and fellowships from the National Institute of Mental Health, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright Commission, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks museum and library in Washington, D.C.

Besides the AAA’s President’s Award and the Pen Translation Prize, he received awards from the American Folklore Society, the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, the Society for Humanistic Anthropology and the Association of American Publishers.

Tedlock is survived by his wife, who resides in Santa Fe.