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.
…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.