Popularizing Literature: A Revival of Edith Hamilton & an Unfortunate Review of a Roman Classic

Norton has reissued two books by Edith Hamilton, a popularizer of Greek and Roman culture.

In my thirties and forties  I reviewed for (mostly now-defunct) book pages,  but I have enjoyed blogging far more than reviewing.   My goal as a blogger/book journal writer is to popularize neglected classics, as well as an occasional striking new book.

Alas, critics seldom respect popularizers or bloggers. The received wisdom  is that bloggers’ opinions do not matter because they do not know the language of criticism.  But as book review publications change direction or fold  (and  as a lifelong reader of reviews, I’m very sad about this), critics have more to worry about than the competition of bloggers.  I am disturbed that  two of the daily critics at The New York Times,  Michiko Kakutani and Jennifer Senior, have recently resigned and transferred to  “longform journalism” (whatever that may be).  And in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, the review of David Ferry’s new translation of the Aeneid was written by April Bernard, a poet who does not know Latin.  Mind you, she is enthusiastic–a popularizer?–but the review is riddled with errors–and bullshit.  The NYRB usually assigns such reviews to classicists, among them Mary Beard and Daniel Mendelsohn.

On the positive side, I am  enthusiastic about an excellent article in the TLS about the revival of Edith Hamilton, a classicist who popularized Greek and Roman culture in her books.  And, by the way, the reviewer, thank God,  is a classicist, Donna Zuckerberg.  (N.B. At the end of this post I will write more about Hamilton.)

But first let me rant about the NYRB review of David Ferry’s translation of the Aeneid.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s good to establish your lack of credentials.  Bernard cleverly does this. She writes,

My own Latin education, which came too late to stick, required me to construe some lines from the Aeneid before a frowning, and then sarcastic, doorkeeper to a graduate program in literature. He seemed to regard my poor performance as no better than could be expected, and passed me on with a sigh. My point is that I am no scholar, and like the vast majority of readers I gratefully apprehend the likes of Virgil and Ovid through their English translators.

This is not false modesty–it’s hubris. It’s an attempt to get readers on her side.  Bernard manipulates readers into forgiving her ignorance, thinking, Oh, classicists are so stuffy!  But I would guess that quite a few classicists will read this  and wonder, as I did, How on earth did she get the job?

Bernard writes at length about poets influenced by, or responding to Virgil, and she does that very well.  But she has problems when she actually looks at Ferry’s translation and waffles unconvincingly about Virgil’s Latin.  She spends much time marveling at Virgil’s use of the “historical present,” a substitution of the present tense for the past tense.

If she knew more Latin, she would understand this is common usage. Roman writers frequently employ the historical present, i.e., present tense, instead of the  past  to emphasize the immediacy and vividness of the action, or even just to fit the meter of a poem.  Poets, prose writers, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Livy:   all use the historical present.  In many languages this is common usage: think of the  present tense of the short stories of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

She illustrates the use of the historical present in the following passage from Book VI, when the Sibyl leads Aeneas travel  to the Underworld, guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog.

Ferry writes in his translation

Huge Cerberus, crouching there in the dooryard of
The cavern he was watchdog of, made all
The regions round reverberate with the loud
Barking of his three heads. Seeing the serpents
Bristling around his neck, the Sybil throws him
A drugged pellet of meal, drowsed with honey.
He catches it in his ravenous triple gullet,
Wolfs it down, and at once his monster body
Relaxed, and he sank down….

What Bernard doesn’t understand is that the shifting of tenses from past to present at which she marvels is not a literal translation.  The past tense of “made all reverberate” is Ferry’s own, not that of Virgil, who consistently uses the present in the passage (Book VI, lines 417-423, in the Latin.)  So when she writes the following, it is bullshit.

What results from this shuffling of tenses is a strange, accordion-fold relation to time. We sit far away, even farther away than the gods, since we in the future know that what Fate has decreed will come to pass. And yet much of the time we are “on the ground,” in the thick of the action in the present tense. Moreover, events from this historical present are constantly “predicting” the future—in addition to being given yet another famous shield covered in predictive panoramas, Aeneas is also peppered with auguries, omens, and more casual guesses, promises, and threats of consequence throughout the epic. His job, of course, is to see Fate realized in the most honorable of ways, to make his person serve as vehicle for the story that is so much larger than himself.

Oh, by the way, the present is also sometimes used for the future–but we won’t go there.

In Book IV, the monster Rumor walks.  Virgil describes Rumor  as a horrendous monster with feathers all over her body, and with as many eyes, tongues, mouths, and ears as there are feathers (the eyes, tongues, mouths, and ear are under the feathers),  Bernard translates  tot linguae, “so many tongues,”as “these tongues.” And she fudges about the reasons for Ferry’s modifications in translation, as so often, by comparing it to Latin she doesn’t know.

She quotes a passage from Ferry’s translation about Dido’s suicide.  Dido explains that she wants to die.  And then she stops speaking, and her companions see her  actual death, that she has fallen on the sword.

Then Bernard decides, for some odd reason, to show off her  inability to translate Latin.  She writes,

Here is an opportunity to compare translations. The Latin original, for those last five lines after Dido’s speech, is:

Dixerat, atque illam media inter talia ferro
conlapsam aspiciunt comites, ensemque cruore
spumantem sparsasque manus. It clamor ad alta

Literally, and clumsily, this translates as:  “Having spoken, in the midst of all that, her retinue sees/saw [Dido] fall/having fallen on the blade, the sword making a geyser of gore, hands awash in blood. The clamor rose to the roofs of the palace.”

Alas, Bernard is not skilled enough to write a literal translation. She confuses the pluperfect verb,  dixerat (‘she had spoken,” translated in English narrative as “she spoke,” perfect tense), with a past participle (“having spoken).” Since I am a classicist, let me share a literal Latin translation with you:   “[Dido] spoke, and in the midst of such words her companions saw her fallen on the sword, and the sword foaming with blood and her hands bespattered.  A cry goes up to the roofs.”

Bernard also waffles about fatum, “fate,” and does not understand the complicated attitude of the sophisticated literary Romans of the first century B.C. toward the concept.  Even the etymolology of the word “fate” is fascinating:  it comes from the Latin  fari, “to speak,” and literally means  “that having been said.” It comes to mean “prophetic declaration,” “oracle,” and”prediction.”  Does anyone feel up to writing about fate.   I do not.

Bernard does not know enough about classics to write the lead review for the New York Review of Books.  A much shortened form of this review might work in a lesser publication, even in The New York Times (barely), but never in the  NYRB, one of the most intellectual publications in the U.S.

And, by the way, I will blog about Ferry’s translation eventually.  It is absorbing, and I love it.  But honestly? For our Virgil readalong in January, I will read Robert Fagles’ or Mandelbaum’s translation.  They are closer to the Latin, and that matters to me.

Are you ready to move on?  In this week’s TLS, the classicist Donna Zuckerberg  has written a fascinating article about  Edith Hamilton, the author of  The Greek Way and The Roman Way,  which inspired generations of readers, including Robert F. Kennedy, to appreciate the classics and Greek and Roman culture. I became interested in Hamilton last summer when I read Yopie Prins’ Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedy,  a fascinating book about  Victorian women classicists, writers, and poets who translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf,  and Edith Hamilton.  (I wrote about this stunning book here.)

I was particularly interested in Edith Hamilton, an American classicist who dedicated herself to popularizing Greek and Latin. We never read her at the university,  because she wasn’t strictly scholarly,  but I’ve known people who became interested in classics through Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

Donna Zuckerberg in the TLS considers  Hamilton’s  The Greek Way and The Roman Way  classics. Norton has reissued these two books, and she says with good reason.   She writes,

Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way and The Roman Way, originally published in 1930 and 1932, are classics in their own right. Praised for their lucidity and accessibility, her books served as an introduction to classical antiquity for the general American public for much of the twentieth century. Although less well known in Europe, Hamilton achieved such popularity in the United States that, when I tell people that I study Classics, most people over the age of fifty who are familiar with the subject tell me that Hamilton was their entry point. The Greek Way was a favourite volume of Robert Kennedy, and – he claimed – a text that helped him process his grief after the assassination of his brother. Hamilton’s works underlie one traditional American approach to the Classics. Do they deserve re-publication?

Hamilton herself is a figure about whom much has been written lately (for example, the excellent chapter by Judith Hallett in the volume Women Classical Scholars, 2016). She had two distinguished careers, first as headmaster at Bryn Mawr, then as a writer about the ancient Mediterranean. It is tempting to compare Hamilton to her British contemporary Jane Ellen Harrison, but while Harrison’s work on Greek mythology became the foundation of scholarship on the subject, Hamilton’s work on mythology and classical civilization was unapologetically popularizing.

I did read a bit of The Greek Way last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it, though it is a bit dated.  Good for the TLS for writing about this now neglected writer.

11 thoughts on “Popularizing Literature: A Revival of Edith Hamilton & an Unfortunate Review of a Roman Classic

  1. I’m not too familiar with NYRB but would they normally have a reviewer that can read the original language when they review translated works in general? Wouldn’t that rather limit the books they are able to review? I completely agree that you shouldn’t bullshit about languages you don’t understand but skipping that I wouldn’t mind a review on how a translation works as literature. For a journal such as NYRB perhaps that means that if they wanted that outsider perspective they should have done two reviews, at least one of them by a classicist.


    • If the reviewer doesn’t know Latin, she doesn’t set herself up as a person who can do even literal translations! Michael Dirda at the Washington Post wrote a brilliant review of the translation, and does not rely on blarney. He writes about the Aeneid in the context of Western culture and does not provide any homey scraps of incorrect Latin, though I suspect he might actually have studied it at some point.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I completely agree with these points, it appears to have been a very poor review. I just got the sense that you meant that no one who can’t read latin should review a translation of it (instead of just not doing the type of review that requires an understanding of the original text). As I believe that translated works in general are under-discussed that bothered me . I realize that I’ve been picking on a minor point which you may not even have wanted to make, sorry about that!


  2. Oh dear, the snobbery of the non-speaker…it does seem odd that a non-classicist who didn’t read Latin in any meaningful way would be asked to review a poetry translation.

    I mean, I could see having a review by someone who flat out says that they’re not reviewing it as a translation, but if you’re going to judge the quality of the translation, you have to be able to read the original.


    • Yes, why on earth does she pretend to be able to read the Latin? In this culture few know it, and so she gets away with it. Michael Dirda wrote a brilliant review of Ferry’s translation in the Wash Post. No blarney there!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating post. Poetry itself is so difficult to translate that having a non-speaker of the language reviewing the translation seems odd. I would never presume to go into detail about the specifics of the Russian renderings I like best, I just give my response to them – but them I am just a blogger and not a high-end reviewer! :))


    • Reading in translation is wonderful! And you and I both read it, and write about it, but we never pretend we know Russian, French, etc. I have read some splendid reviews of Ferry’s translations by non-classicists!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Truly excellent essay-review. I am a blogger myself and have (naturally) the greatest respect for bloggers. “Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions … From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers” (Austen, NA). Also out of rivalry.

    That said, reading paid bloggers on entertainment sites, especially where they are re-capping or spouting the required words for the day for this or that “trending topic,” can be demoralizing and much of it is debasing. I don’t know how closely different genres are related, but I put down to the spread of such popularizing (especially the recaps instead of reviews) less respect for all texts. I notice most recaps of film adaptations make no pretense of ever having looked at the book, much less read it.

    That, perhaps less reviewers as the profession becomes more and more “gigs,” and not a paid salary, someone on a staff protected by a union, it’s harder to find competent people, and space must be filled …

    Then the attitude to translation — it is improving but not enough.

    Bernard’s translation is laughable. As someone who has translated much, I know when the sentences don’t make sense, I’ve got it wrong. Rewording it to “Is that a fish in your ear” (a joke) doesn’t help. She doesn’t know this as she hasn’t tried translation.

    I love translation work and moving between two languages, and if I could get myself to take on less assignments, I’d go back to my Italian or French and read away. Last year for a time I was reading _War and Peace_ in the Maud English text against a French translation by Elisabeth Guertik (the one sold in Le Livre de Poche): it was fascinating.

    I wish you joy of your Aeneid. I am one of those who bonds with Dido.


    • Ellen, I cannot imagine any editor being this careless with assigning a review of a book about, say, Shakespeare or Milton, but I suppose it happens. There would be far too many people saying, Gotcha! Perhaps readers will buy Ferry’s translation, because they will remember it is the lead review, and won’t have absorbed anything she said anyway. I did admire and enjoy his translation, and it’s a pity Bernard was unable to do justice to it.

      I don’t know the TV and film blogs, but it does seem like a different world. We were looking up something about “Closer” last summer and did find some very slick blogs. No amateur blogs came up: where are they?

      I love Dido, too.


  5. Fascinating – OK, review it for the poetry of the translation, but don’t pretend you know Latin!! The mixing of tenses is interesting though (in your proper translation, for example!) as it reminds me of the way the Icelandic sagas do that, a lot.

    The info about Hamilton sounds very interesting, too. When popularising is done well, it’s such a gateway to a lifetime of pleasure in a topic. I loved the Everyday Life in Roman (etc) times as a child, and I’ve very much liked the look of Neil Gaiman’s book of Norse mythology, which is doing the job for a new audience today.


    • Yes, I have no problem with her reviewing it, if not for all the bullshit!

      Hamilton is very enthusiastic, and her language is very direct. I can see how she inspired the Kennedys! Although Mary Beard is scholarly, in some ways I see her as an Edith Hamilton. She inspires so many people to take a second look at classics… And her books appeal to pop audiences as well as hsitorians.

      Liked by 1 person

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