What Makes a Celebrity Classicist?

Mary Beard, celebrity classicist

Portrait of Mary Beard by Adrian Peacock

Years ago, there was no such thing as a celebrity classicist.

Although Greek and Latin were briefly the center of my world, no one outside the field knew my brilliant professors.  Roger Hornsby, author of an excellent textbook, Reading Latin Poetry,  lined up his cigarette butts on the chalk tray while we translated Catullus (perfectly, because if we made a mistake he mocked us).  Erling B. Holtsmark, author of a book on the influence of classics on Edgar Rice Burroughs, could be heard clomping down the hall in his clogs, but inspired us to read Greek lyric poetry, and line-edited our papers. Betty Rose Nagle, a translator of Statius and Ovid, quoted Caesar over pizza. (We thought this touching and sweet.)  Eleanor Winsor Leach, an unusually graceful writer and an expert on Roman painting and poetry, did her best in her seminars to create a comfortable atmosphere.

But there is only one celebrity classicist.

If you read the TLS, LRB, or The New York Review of Books,  you know it is Mary Beard.

Mary Beard, 59, professor of classics at Cambridge, is an author of several books, most recently Laughter in Ancient Rome.  She is also the classics editor of the TLS (along with Peter Stothard, the editor of the TLS),  a star of a BBC documentary on Pompeii and a series  on Rome, author of the blog “A Don’s Life” at the TLS, and a reviewer at the New York Review of Books, the LRB, and the TLS,.

I used her excellent book on Pompeii as background for a brief unit on graffiti I taught in an adult ed Latin class.   Shortly thereafter I  began reading A Don’s Life, her blog.  She posts about a range of subjects from Twitter, where she is often trashed, to her progress on her latest book to defying critics of her appearance to making plum pudding.  (The latter was a bit like Hillary’s having to pretend she made chocolate chip cookies.) Beard’s writing has a quick, tossed-off feeling, and one gathers she is blogging between numerous activities that make me tired even to contemplate.  Her blog is a very popular feature at the TLS:  many comments are keeping it afloat.

Now Beard has become a classicist celebrity in the U.S.  In the September 1 issue of The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead, who is far from their  best writer (read My Year in Middlemarch and you’ll see what I mean), has written a rather hackneyed profile of Beard.  Instead of concentrating on Beard’s work as a historian, Mead writes about her plucky feminist battles against misogynists in the press and on Twitter. Beard has suffered more than her fair share of attacks in the media and social media:  a TV critic said she was too old to be on TV, a man posted a repellent photo of her face superimposed on a vagina, and she has received death threats on Twitter.

Mead writes,

…in recent years, and somewhat to her surprise, Beard has found herself cast in the very public role of a feminist heroine.  Through her television appearances, she has become an avatar for middle-aged and older women, who appreciate her unwillingness to fend off the visible advancement of age.  Beard does not wear makeup and does not color her hair.  She dresses casually, if rather eccentrically:  purple-rimmed glasses, gold sneakers.  She looks comfortable both in her skin and in her shoes–much more preoccupied with what she is saying than how she looks as she is saying it.”

Since Beard has created this feminist persona, I hardly think she is surprised.  And, as far as eccentric dress and comfort go, she is exactly like every academic I’ve ever known.

Mead goes on to say, “Beard, in her unapologetic braininess, is a role model for women of all ages who want an intellectually satisfying life.”

Although I am sure she is a role model for students at Cambridge, I hardly think she is a role model for middle-aged women.  Indeed, after a certain point, we become our own role models and reinvent ourselves.   Those of us of the Second Wave of feminism spent our teens reading books like Sisterhood Is Powerful!, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique,  Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and Doris Lessing. We also read underground feminist papers.   Is there sexism out there?  Yes.  Is it new?  No.

This week, Beard is in the headlines because she is now writing recommendations for a former troll, a man who called her “evil.” Now I hate to say this:  but doesn’t this sound a bit like self-promotion on Beard’s part?  It’s a little like Amazon trying to make a deal with Hatchette by giving the writers a break.  Beard befriended the troll after he told her why he was really upset:  something about going to Spain and health care.  It made little sense to me.

Why is Beard helping him?  She told The New Yorker, “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name, this is what comes up.  And although he was a silly, injudicious, and at that point not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”

It is very cool–I wish my cat had sent a disgruntled rough draft of an email to Beard instead of my boss:  my boss didn’t  believe for a minute my cat had jumped on the return button, and this really happened.

On the other hand, I am not completely in Beard’s corner. Why, frankly, be on Twitter at all?  It is an infantile marketing device. Perhaps Beard has to be on Twitter to keep in touch with her students.  But, honestly, it is an attention span interrupter, and if she wants to be a better role model, she should eschew it altogether.

A celebrity has to be  a self-promoter.  Otherwise there’s no fame.

Beard is a brilliant historian.

She is the first celebrity classicist.  The first one I know.

But I’ll have to read her new book to judge her.  This constant junk about the junk of Twitter tells me nothing.

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Celebrity Classicist?

  1. Good points there, Kat. If you court the media circus you must expect what you get – I’ve no sympathy for these poor so-called celebs who flaunt themselves all over the place then whinge when they don’t like the publicity. However, Beard is an odd case and I wonder why she engages with this kind of stuff. After all the nasty negativity you’d think she’d just want to ignore it and get on with the serious things i.e. her work. Most odd!


  2. I became aware of Beard when I was preparing a lecture on Athens and saw a reference to her book on the Parthenon. I knew so little about her that I confused her with the _other_ Mary Beard (American historian) and wondered that she had written such a book. The book is modest in dimensions, readable and perfect in its recounting of the history of the building.

    I don’t color my hair and I don’t wear makeup. My clothing is not eccentric, but it is certainly relaxed and comfortable, especially the shoes. I remember that my grandmother wore lace-up shoes and, as an arrogant teenager, I was embarrassed by them and resolved never to do anything similar. Hah! Live and learn.


  3. Karen, yes, the celebrity circus is a strange place for Mary Beard. She says she wants to fight, but she goes about it in a splashy way, fighting battles that will never be won, because not every troll is going to need her recommendation. I can see writing about this a couple of times, but we all face it online occasionally.


  4. Yes, her books are easy references, and I certainly as a teacher appreciated her Pompeii book. I am interested in her latest book on Roman laughter, but will wait for the paperback.

    And, yes, she hardly invented the not coloring hair and no makeup bit! The way Rebecca Mead goes on, this is a first for women. Many women choose this look; sometimes it is a statement; sometimes it is about convenience. My grandmother had the same shoes yours did, except on special occasions. I was a bit embarrassed in London by my clunky walking shoes; on the other hand, I was actually able to walk in them!


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