My Classical Education and Six Books About Classical Educations

My classical education has been a boon and a burden.

Classics has always been about balancing literature and boyfriends.

A 1928 textbook:  still used, because there is  very little available for first-year Greek.

A 1928 textbook

My charming first husband was a language major: give him a language and he could speak it.  I was a School of Letters major interested in dead languages.  Stultified by Lattimore’s lackluster, literal translations of Homer, I signed up for Greek, suffered through Crosby and Schaeffer, the cryptic 1928 textbook written for schoolboys who knew Latin, and then fell in love with Homer, Euripides, and the lyric poets.  I also adored my fellow Greek students.

I was encouraged to study Latin, but had no interest in it.  And yet I turned out to be a sort of Latin savant.  My great affinity is with Latin.  I love Roman poetry. I knew the structure from the Greek, so I didn’t have to waste time learning the grammar.  After a semester I was reading sexy Caesar, charming Catullus, brilliant Cicero (though I thought him a horrible sexist in Pro Caelio about Clodia, who classicists will continue to insist, with very little evidence, was Catullus’s lover, Lesbia), and the irresistible, erotic Ovid.  I won the Latin prize and wanted desperately to continue to study classics.  Just a few more years, I thought…I didn’t want to be a scholar…the idea bored me… I was really more into having boyfriends… I had a new boyfriend (soon to be my second husband) whom I had met in a Latin poetry class…  and I very much wanted to read more Greek and Latin poetry and to postpone getting a job.  I applied to only one graduate school, because I thought the $25 application fee was obscene (I lived on $125 a month) , and then one day in the spring received a letter saying I had an assistantship.

Virgil aeneid williamsGraduate school was also about juggling school and my boyfriend.  I had probably 12 hours of work a day, but I also had a relationship, an an apartment to clean, and cooking. I cut my studying time to eight hours a day.  Despite the graduate advisor’s insistence that we publish before we got out of grad school (publish what?  I wondered, since very few of the students had much of a grip on the languages), I stuck strictly to the languages and translation… oh, and teaching.   I didn’t have time to read articles on eye disease in Aristophanes, or anything that wasn’t written by Bernard Knox, because he was the only  classicist who could write, as far as I could see.  (Oh, and he also wrote about Virgil, my dearest love.)

I got a “high pass” on the Ph.D. Latin exam (I was supposed to take the master’s  exam but I was given the WRONG EXAM.  They were graded blindly and only two of us passed.)  The next year, I worked part-time for the department as a “visiting lecturer”, teaching first-year Latin and an independent study in Virgil while my boyfriend finished his master’s.

Teaching was probably the best thing that happened to me in graduate school.  I knew the Latin by heart after a year of teaching.    I could get a job teaching Latin at private schools anywhere in the country (and did).  Problem:  they paid very badly.  I took editing jobs.  Problem:  they paid badly.  I did freelance work.  Problem: it paid badly.  So I was essentially prepared NOT TO BE ABLE TO EARN A LIVING.

A feminist wife.

Nonetheless, no regrets!  I can’t imagine having done anything else.

Here is a list of six outstanding novels and memoirs about classical educations.


Ignore the cover:this i s actually a college novel.

1. BEST ALL-AGES BOOK ABOUT A CLASSICAL EDUCATON.  Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, billed as retelling of the “Tam Lin” ballad, is not strictly a novel about a classical education.  Janet Carter, the heroine, is an English major at Blackstock College, a tiny college like Grinnell, or the “little” Cornell (in Iowa), or Carleton College in Minnesota (where Carter got her B.A.).   But from the opening pages we know that classics will be important in the novel:  all classics majors are rumored to be crazy, Chase and Phillips (a first-year Greek textbook) was just the right size to wedge the uneven wooden bookcases in the dorm rooms, and a ghost of a classics major haunts the dorm.

Precocious Janet decides to take Greek, after her pushy advisor, a classics professor, pitches it.  She and her roommates spend time with, and date, beautiful, precocious male  classics students who are oddly theatrical and know as much about Shakespeare as Greek (and they have a secret which I won’t reveal).  They constantly quote Greek and English poetry.    Even in the steam tunnels that connect buildings on campus, they find Homeric graffiti:  the first ten lines of The Iliad painted on a wall.

Dean provides us with three different translations of the 10 lines.  One classics major, Nick, translates a few lines, but another classciist, Robin, objects:  “Don’t give me these newfangled translations.”  Robin then recites the first lines of Chapman’s Homer. (Remember Keats?)  And then, when one of Janet’s roommates asks what the translation means, Robin translates it a third time in modern English.

This is a wonderful novel about an undergraduate education.
the Secret History2.  Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  I adored this novel about classics majors who commit a murder, though Publishers Weekly was less enthusiastic.  Here’s an excerpt from the PW review:  “Despite their demanding curriculum (they quote Greek classics to each other at every opportunity) the friends spend most of their time drinking and taking pills. Finally they reveal to Richard that they accidentally killed a man during a bacchanalian frenzy; when one of their number seems ready to spill the secret, the group–now including Richard–must kill him, too. The best parts of the book occur after the second murder, when Tartt describes the effect of the death on a small community, the behavior of the victim’s family and the conspirators’ emotional disintegration. Here her gifts for social satire and character analysis are shown to good advantage and her writing is powerful and evocative. On the other hand, the plot’s many inconsistencies, the self-indulgent, high-flown references to classic literature and the reliance on melodrama make one wish this had been a tauter, more focused novel.

3.  Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.  Jude is a stonemason who wants to study classics.  He struggles with Greek and Latin textbooks on his own.  I would love to reread Jude, but it can’t be done.  Two words:  “Father Time.”  (Jude’s son, Father Time, murders his siblings and kills himself.)  I love Thomas Hardy, but this one goes too far for me.

4.  David Grene’s Of Farming and Classics.  Grene was a classics professor at the University of Chicago, a translator of Greek, and editor with Richmond Lattimore of a series of translations of greek tragedy published by the University of Chicago Press.  (I haven’t read this yet, but it is highly recommended.)

5.  Peter’ Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Nights of
.  Much of this brilliant book is a memoir of Stothard’s classical education, and his fascination with Cleopatra, the subject of his obsession, is rooted in it .

Fields without Dreams6.  Victor Davis Hanson’s Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea.  Hanson, a classics professor and fifth-generation raisin farmer, has written an elegy to the American farm in this brilliant memoir.  He is so far right (a neoconservative who is a registered Democrat) and I’m so far left (I would vote socialist if I weren’t a little bit conservative) that we almost (but never, never will) agree.   Amazon review:  “Classicist, professor, and farmer Hanson chronicles the decline of small-scale agriculture in the Central Valley of California. He takes his classics seriously, likening the raisin farmers of Modesto to Aeschylus’ ideal virtuous man, who “did not wish to seem just, but to be so.” He takes modern cultural dictates less seriously: “Is it not odd,” he writes, “to rise at dawn with Japanese-, Mexican-, Pakistani-, Armenian-, and Portuguese-American farmers and then be lectured at noonday 40 miles away on campus about cultural sensitivity and the need for ‘diversity’ by the affluent white denizens of an exclusive, tree-studded suburb?” Hanson relates the life stories of his farmer neighbors, writing that their way of life will likely soon disappear, thanks in part to a federal system of agricultural subsidies that favors large-scale, industrial farm corporations over individual “yeomen.” This is a sobering and eye-opening book.”

6 thoughts on “My Classical Education and Six Books About Classical Educations

  1. The only one of these I’ve read is “The Secret History” – which I loved. But you have rather made me want to read the rest…


  2. I like The Secret History but found Jude the Obscure too depressing. Tam Lin sounds like something I should read.

    I had a high school friend who studied Greek in college. She wanted to become an archeologist and study the Indians of the American Southwest. When she told her adviser that she wanted to do archeology he told her that of course she would need Greek. What did she know! She took Greek and loved it but departed after two years for a school in New Mexico where they knew about Indians.


  3. I enjoyed this very much. Izzy read Tam Lin’s book. I do think the classical theme — the yearning for such an education and the values it instills is central to Jude’s tragedy. I loved the classics in translation and love the imitations of the 18th century.

    One place one can make enough money to live is teaching high school Latin in public schools. Many have dropped it altogether, but if you are lucky, have some good connections, and can endure it all day long (you’d be the only teacher of Latin), it’s secure and a living wage. TC Williams where both my daughters went had a thriving Latin program with one teacher; both girls took it. Candid truth: it put those who took the language is a cohort which was more academic, more middle class and so parents went for it. Universities nowadays hire one person to teach both classics and another language (say Italian — because in our modern world people couple them).


  4. Kaggy and Nancy, I loved The Secret History and only wish I could find more like it.

    Nancy, much as I love Greek, I have to laugh, because yes for the Indians of the Southwest it wasn’t QUITE the thing. We classicists want everybody to study classics!

    Ellen, I SHOULD reread Jude. I know it’s a very great book.
    Yes, public-school teaching does pay well, but the standards differ in every state, and in one—I am not making this up!–you only have to have three semesters (not years, semesters) of Latin and then dozens of education classes (which are crap). But it is a good job if one wants stability (I didn’t value that enough back then). My friends and I all got out of teaching.


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