Ladislav Matejka


Ladislav Matejka, emeritus professor of Slavic languages and literatures, passed away at the end of September at the age of 93.  

Professor Matejka was born and educated in the former Czechoslovakia, his schooling interrupted by the Nazi occupation.  He received his doctorate in Slavic literature from Charles University in Prague in 1948, by which time he had already become the culture editor for the liberal Prague daily newspaper Lidové noviny (The People’s News).  A neo-Stalinist political coup in February 1948 put him in jeopardy and soon led to his exile. After teaching for several years at the University of Lund in Sweden, he went on to earn a second Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in Slavic linguistics in 1961, where his thesis was directed by Roman Jakobson.  He joined the faculty at Michigan in 1959 as an assistant professor of Slavic literature and linguistics and rose quickly to the rank of professor in 1965.  

In 1962 he helped found Michigan Slavic Publications and became its general editor.  With little funding, but with an enormous investment of time and energy, he built this Slavic department press into a prominent publisher of scholarly works in Slavic languages, literatures and cultures.  It soon became the leading source of works of Russian Formalism (Shklovsky, Tynianov, Jakobson and Eikhenbaum), Prague School Structuralism (Mukarovský) and Soviet Semiotics (Lotman, Uspensky), issuing seminal works both in Russian and in English.  Two decades later, Professor Matejka founded  the journal Cross Currents:  A Yearbook of Central European Culture, which for over a decade published works by leading dissident East European authors (Havel, Klíma, Hrabal, Kundera, Škvorecký, Vaculík, Milosz,  Herbert, Michnik, Zagajewski, Kiš, Konrád), whose works were often banned in their home countries.    Cross Currents was hailed by The Times Literary Supplement as “the leading English language forum for literature and criticism from central Europe.”

Professor Matejka was a scholar with broad interests, author of five books and scores of articles.   He published in the fields of historical linguistics, old Russian literature, Old Church Slavonic, history of Russian and of other Slavic literary languages, Czech and Russian grammar and syntax,  Czech Structuralism and Russian semiotics.  While at Michigan, he was the recipient of Fulbright, Ford and Guggenheim Fellowships.  

Professor Matejka taught Old Church Slavonic, comparative Slavic linguistics, and an array of courses on literary theory.  He was an intellectual leader in the field whose inspiration and mentorship helped launch the careers of many who now teach in universities and colleges all over the country.  He was much respected and loved by his students for his dedication, intellectual energy and wit.  He retired from active teaching in May 1988, but he continued his scholarly work and his publishing activities.  In 1989 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lund and a year later was elected a corresponding member of the Assembly of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts.   In the 1990s and 2000s, Professor Matejka edited and published three volumes of the correspondence of the famous Czech actors of the interwar Liberated Theater in Prague, Voskovec and Werich, from the years 1945-1980 (Voskovec had emigrated).  In 2007, the second book in the series was named “Book of the Year” in Prague.  In 2009, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic awarded Professor Matejka the prestigious Gratias Agit Award for his “promotion of the good name of the Czech Republic abroad.”

Herbert J. Eagle, Chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures