Who are the Edith Hamiltons of the 21st Century?

Edith Hamilton

Who is the Edith Hamilton of the 21st century?

Last November, Donna Zuckerberg wrote an article in the TLS about Edith Hamilton, author of The Greek Way (1930) and The Roman Way (1932), two popular books that inspired millions of readers, among them Robert F. Kennedy, to appreciate Greek and Roman culture. Edith Hamilton was out-of-date when I studied classics in the late 20th century: a professor warned us against Hamilton’s sentimental translations of Greek tragedies.  “Perhaps he was jealous,” a friend later suggested.

But at the (low-paying) posh schools where I taught Latin for a few years after finishing grad school, I sometimes let my students sit and read bits of  The Roman Way (there were old copies in the classroom) after the rigorous exams that jangled their nerves.  They enjoyed The Roman Way, and what’s more, they understood it.  And that is the point, isn’t it?

And so I was wondering as I mused on Edith Hamilton, Who are the popularizers of classics today? I came up with three names.

Mary Beard

1.  Mary Beard, a classicist, professor at Cambridge, critic, and the author of several best-selling books, including Women & Power: A Manifesto and SPQR:  A History of Ancient Rome, is a celebrity.   She is the classics editor of the TLS,  a star of a BBC documentary on Pompeii and a series  on Rome, author of the popular blog “A Don’s Life” at the TLS, and a reviewer at the New York Review of Books, the LRB, and the TLS.

Her books are well-written, intelligent, and clear.  She is known for asking questions about accepted versions of Roman history. She is also often interviewed about politics and controversial issues on TV and the radio in the UK.  And she manages to be both popular and scholarly: that is a feat!  Is she the 21st-century British Edith Hamilton (only she gets respect)?

Bryan Doerries

2.  Bryan Doerries is the founder of Theater of War and the co-founder of Outside the Wire,  two  groups that give dramatic readings of plays for soldiers, prisoners, and health professionals. He also translates Greek tragedies.

I admired Doerries’s All That You’ve Seen Here Is God, a collection of his “versions” of four tragedies:  Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes, The Women of Traxis, and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound.

Doerries explains that he is not interested in literal translation, though he starts with the Greek text.   He writes that he is trying “to build a bridge between the ancient and contemporary worlds.”

He writes,  “Tragedy is an ancient military technology, a form of storytelling that evokes powerful emotions in order to erode stigmas, elicit empathy, generate dialogue, and stir citizens to action.  When you plug a tragedy into a community that is ready to receive it, the story does what it was designed to do.  Like the ancient Athenian audience in the Theater of Dionysus, the war-hardened Marines who gathered [at one of Doerries’s productions] knew the plays, not as representations of war and its aftermath, but as lived experience.”

His translations are spare and accessible, and the traumas of the heroes are vivid and moving to the military audiences.  What a brilliant approach!  I wrote a longer piece about his book here.  He has also written  The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today– on my TBR.

And so he is a 21st-century Edith Hamilton!

Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson, a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first woman to translate Homer’s Odyssey into English.  She is the author of several other books, among them The Greatest Empire: A life of Seneca and Translations of four tragedies of Euripides, in The Greek Plays, Modern Library: Bacchae, Helen, Electra and Trojan Women.

Wilson was the subject of a profile in The New York Times Magazine last fall after the publication of her translation of the Odyssey.  And isn’t that unprecedented? Amazon was sold out of Wilson’s Odyssey after the profile was published.  I know, because I tried to buy it.

So is she a new Edith Hamilton?

Naturally, there are many, many brilliant classicists, but few manage to be both popular and scholarly. Do let me know any of your favorites.  Or if there are celeb popularizers/translators in other languages–French, Russian, German, Italian, you name it!–let me know.

Making Things Better by Anita Brookner

In a recent essay in the New York Times, “In Praise of Anita Brookner,”  Rumaan Alam wrote, “Reading is an intellectual exercise (and as a writer, I can claim it as work) but I binge only when writers offer me pleasure. It’s less graduate seminar than love affair. I endorse this immersive way of reading, especially when it comes to Anita Brookner.”

I am a fan of the Booker Prize-winning Anita Brookner. Her style is elegant and graceful, and I admire her dry humor.  Most of her heroines are single, but it doesn’t matter if you’re single or married:  you can identify, at least on occasion, with the emotions of her solitary heroines. I especially love The Rules of Engagement (which I wrote about here), a novel about two childhood friends who reconnect after they are widowed. They become doubles, much to the narrator Elizabeth’s chagrin.

And so, mesmerized by the New York Times,  I went to my bookcase and took out my copy of Brookner’s 2002 novel, Making Things Better.  It is a perfect novel, but it is relentlessly grim.

The Jewish narrator, 73-year-old Julius Herz, is an uninteresting hero, and yet every detail of his day is made interesting by Brookner.  He has been dutiful, always lived with his parents, and devoted his life to “making things better” for his family.  After they left Nazi Germany and came to England, they lived like mice.  He and his father worked in a music shop. When their employer-landlord asked them to leave the big flat for a tiny flat above the store, they obeyed, but Julius’s wife moved out.  And now he has retired, and the time goes slowly. He takes walks, sits in the park, reads Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (he prefers Buddenbrooks).  visits the National Gallery, and goes to bed very early.  He enjoys his routine.

He has never had a great passion, though he and his wife had good sex. And now, quite suddenly, he falls in love with his new neighbor, Sophie, a beautiful young financial advisor.  When he accidentally lets her know–a slip of old age, a blurring of boundaries–it is disastrous. He does not understand quite what sexual harassment is.  He goes into hiding,  curtains closed, emotions shut down, leaving the flat only after she has gone out, and feeling hunted.   The lease on his flat is running out.  Could he escape to Switzerland and live in a hotel with his cousin Fanny, who rejected him long ago?  And he realizes, finally, that he has lived his whole life as an exile.

He remembered, almost with impatience, the humble gratitude he had felt when he first took possession of the flat, the amazed delight with which he had furnished it, added to it, his timid pride at being a householder. Now that very timidity saddened him.  He saw that he had lived his life as if it were under threat, as if he still bore the marks of the original menace and of the enormity that might have been his. This, he was convinced, made transience the only option, exile, impermanence, the route indicated for him so long ago.  And it had taken a lifetime for him to understand this!  At last he would take his place in history.  In making his home in a country famed for its neutrality he would be obeying ancestral impulses.  In that direction lay the safety he might yet come to desire.

Making Things Better is brilliant and Thomas Mann-ish, but I miss Brookner’s humor.  And yet why should I expect humor?  This is truly one of the saddest novels I have ever read.

I do love Brookner, but it might be good to drink some cocktails with  little umbrellas in them to cheer you up while you read this.

Wild Poets in Horace’s “Ars Poetica” (“The Art of Poetry”)

Why do we think poets are mad, wild, and disheveled?

Did it begin with Horace?  I have been reading Horace’s  Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), a  witty guide to the history and composition of classical poetry.  A little more than halfway through this charming didactic poem, Horace mocks unkempt Roman poets who affect madness. Horace’s hexameters are labyrinthine and his expression of thoughts so interwoven with abstruse ancient culture that English translations are unclear without notes:   if you don’t read the Latin, good luck to you.   Here is my rough, mostly literal prose translation of this passage, with notes in parentheses.

Because Democritus [“the laughing philosopher”]  believed  talent was a luckier advantage than [knowing] the wretched art, and excluded sane poets from Helicon [a mountain sacred to the Muses], most poets do not bother to cut their fingernails, nor their beards; they seek seclusion and avoid the baths.  For a man will obtain the esteem and name of poet if he never entrusts his head– which couldn’t be cured of insanity in the three Antyricas (three towns where hellebore, used to treat insanity, was grown]–to a barber.

This satiric passage seems very modern. Certainly we have met our share of disheveled poets at poetry readings, though I mostly see professor poets these days. Some modern translations of this passage, however, make it more difficult than it already is.   In Smith Palmer Bovie’s 1959 translation, he substitutes Swiss psychiatrists  for the three Antyricas towns where  hellebore grows.  He writes,

For surely the name
And the fame of the poet will attach itself to that dome
Which has never entrusted itself to the shears of Licinus,
Which trips for treatment three times as many
psychiatrists
As even Swiss harbors have failed to set straight.

Bovie’s translation is clever but too coy for my taste. Swiss psychiatrists in a Roman poem composed in the first century B.C.?  I  finally remembered “dome” used to be slang for “head.”  But it was only after I read the Latin that I realized Bovie was trying to update the Latin passage  for a 20th-century audience.

Are modern poets mad?  Certainly  many have had depression or manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder):   Edgar Allen Poe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ezra Pound,  Robert Lowell,  Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, to mention a few.    Some believe madness is part of creativity. Personally, I think it must have hindered their work.  Think of how brilliant they would have been without that pain.

Who are your favorite mad poets?  And what is your theory?   Does madness enhance or obstruct creativity?

In Praise of Free Ebooks: Two by Monica Dickens and One by Howard Spring

‘It was a real scroller. I couldn’t put down my screen.’

A headline caught my attention last month at The Guardian: ‘Ebooks are stupid’, says head of one of world’s biggest publishers.”  Arnaud Nourry, CEO of Hachette Livre,  told a publication in India:  “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.”

What a confusing description of the e-book!  If it’s “exactly the same as print,” why is it “stupid”?  The gist of the article is that e-books are unprofitable for publishers.

I love books, but I also love e-books.  Personally, I think the e-reader is a very “smart” product. We now enjoy access to out-of-print titles for free in e-book form at the Internet Archive.

Here are three stunning free e-books you can download at Internet Archive!  Monica Dickens and Howard Spring are two of my favorite middlebrow authors.

Two by Monica Dickens.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, a brilliant novelist and memoirist.

The heroine, Louise Bickford, a  57-year-old widow, is a superfluous woman.  She is unwanted, shunted from one daughter’s house to another’s. Her winters at  a friend’s hotel are equally stressful, because her friend moves her out of a nice room into an inconvenient  corner for the sake of a customer.  And then one day in London,  Louise is at a tea room and meets Gordon, a kind, obsese man who writes her  favorite pulp mysteries.  Their friendship inspires her to become more independent.  It takes time:   her daughters will not let her apply for a job at a department store.  The book is charming, realistic, and comical!

The Nightingales Are Singing by Monica Dickens.  Set in post-war London and Washington, D.C., this fascinating novel is part domestic comedy, part  analysis of a marriage.  The unmarried 34-year-old heroine, Christine, head saleswoman of the  book department at a department store, is known as “the estimable Miss Cope.” She “moved calmly about the alleys between the bright new paper jackets, knowing that book customers liked to take their time, unlike the thrusters who stampeded through the Notions with never a moment to spare.” She finally meets a man, an American naval commander who wants to marry her.  He gives her family much-appreciated food that Americans have access to.   Christine does not particularly like him but she does not want to end up like Aunt Jo, a spinster.  In Washington, D.C.  she must adjust to her  husband’s conservatism and a new culture.

Parts are screamingly funny.  When they move to a new house, Christine gets scammed by a charming vacuum cleaner salesman, but she insists  to her husband that the vacuum is first-rate.  She takes sewing lessons from a woman who cannot thread the machine. The marriage has ups and downs, sometimes comical, sometimes very sad.  Dickens has written an insightful domestic novel.

One by Howard Spring.

My Son, My Son by Howard Spring.  The Welsh writer Howard Spring wrote several spellbinding novels. In his brilliant, partly-autobiographial novel, My Son, My Son,  he explores the influence of a successful writer’s poverty-stricken childhood on his later relationships–especially the bond with his golden, tragically ruined son, Oliver.

In clear, simple prose, Spring relates this heart-rending story of filial love, success, and ruin.  The narrator, William Essex, is looking back at his life. His childhood was Dickensian:  his mother took in washing;  Bill was taunted and beaten up when he picked up the laundry bundles. When he is 12, a  minister, Mr. Oliver, teaches him to read and gives him a job. When Bill commences work as an office boy, he meets the most  faithful friends of his life: he rooms with the O’Riordans, who read Dickens aloud after dinner, and their son, Dermot, an Irish radical patriot who has never been to Ireland,  dreams of making handmade furniture as beautiful as that of William Morris.  Eventually, Bill marries for money and becomes a writer.  But when Dermot carves wooden toys for Bill’s son, Bill suggests they go into the toy business together.   And so both men make a fortune, and at the same time have time to perfect their arts, Bill in writing and Dermot in furniture-making.

Bill and Dermot want their sons to help them fulfill their fantasies, but Bill spoils Oliver, who becomes a liar, cheater, and general ne’er-do-well.  Dermot raises his son Roray as an Irish radial and perversely ships him to Ireland when he is in teens.

This well-written, well-crafted fast read creates a believable world–and, yes, it makes you cry, so be prepared to wallow!

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World & No Time to Spare

Last year the Library of America  published two volumes of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish stories and novels. I was not familiar with  her early work:  I began reading her in the 1990s.  My favorite of her books is The Birthday of the World and Other Stories.  I also admire her famous novel, The Left Hand of Darkness.

I recently finished her first novella, Rocannon’s World, a simple, endearingly awkward effort that does not, I must stress, presage her later brilliance.  It is an uncomplicated swords-and-sorcery fantasy, albeit with an anthropologist hero, primitive races in need of the future’s help, and a queen who wastes years traveling in a spaceship to recover a stolen necklace. It isn’t a bad book; it’s just not something I would ordinarily read.   If you don’t know her work, you should start with two of her SF Classics,  The Left Hand of Darkness, which won  the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1970, and The Dispossessed (both in this volume). And then you’ll understand what she tries to do in her first book.

I also recently read her last book,  No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters, a collection of writings from her blog. She writes in the preface that she was inspired to write a blog after reading Jose Saramago’s blog, which was published in the U.S. as The Notebook.

Some of her blog entries are brilliant.   In the first blog, “In Your Spare Time,” she  asks questions about aging, the future, and the bland prevarications of the Harvard establishment.  She writes analytic answers to an alumni questionnaire she received from Harvard before the 60th reunion of the class of 1951. Le Guin graduated from Radcliffe, which is affiliated with Harvard, but Harvard sent the silly questionnaire.  She points out how shallow the questions are.  Question 12 asks how her grandchildren have done, “given your expectations.”

Actually, I don’t exactly have expectations.  I have hopes, and fears.  Mostly the fears predominate these days.  When my kids were young I could still hope we might not totally screw up the environment for them, but now that we’ve done so, and are more deeply sold out than ever to profiteering industrialism with its future horizon of a few months, any hope that coming generations may have ease and peace in life has become very tenuous, and has to reach far, far into the dark.

She comes right out and says what she thinks, not softening it.  She can sound a bit cranky, as she summarizes her political views in the coded language of sociology–and I don’t always agree with what she says–but what she says is always thought-provoking.

She is incensed by the imprecise language on the questionnaire, and what she sees as right-wing assumptions.  And then there is the lack of knowledge about old age.  She writes,

But it was Question 18 that really got me down. “In your spare time, what do you do?  (check all that apply).”  And the list begins:  “Golf…”

She asks, Do people in their eighties have “spare time”?   She writes about how people nowadays are programmed to be on a treadmill of activities, but her  generation grew up with time to read, write, and daydream. She says her time is fully occupied:  she embroiders, writes, shops for groceries, cooks, washes the dishes, construes Virgil, and reads Krazy Cat.  She says Harvard relegates her writing of poetry and prose to “a creative activity.”  As more and more of her time is devoted to body maintenance, an aspect of aging that none of us likes to think about, she finds Harvard’s questions absurd and infuriating.

“The Sissy Strikes Back” is also about aging.  She paints a realistic picture of what aging really entails:  it is not “You’re as old as you feel.”  There is pain,  arthritis, the slowing down, needing rides to the grocery store, and luck and money may or may not prolong life: it is not about positive thinking or fitness.

She writes many charming blogs about her cat, Pard.  If you’re a cat person, you’ll love them!  I loved them.  She finds the constant repetition of the word “fucking”  in movies and books boring. Proverbs like “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” make no sense to her.  She also rages about the lowering of educational and moral standards.

Since our betrayed public school system can no longer teach much history or reading, people may find everyone and everything before about twenty-five years ago unimaginably remote and incomprehensibly different from themselves.  They defend their discomfort by dismissing people before their time as simple, quaint, naive, etc.  I know Americans sixty-five years ago were nothing of the sort.

I agree with so much here.  She is eloquent: I kept marking pages with post-its.  In “About Anger,” she admits on a personal level to jealousy, hatred and fear. She says anger is a mixed blessing in political activism:  necessary but nursed too long it can be destructive.  She hopes “our republic survives this orgy of self-indulgent rage.”  She thinks that the “prolonged ‘festival of cruelty’ in our literature and movies is an attempt to get rid of repressed anger by expressing it, acting it out symbolically.”  (It makes her sick and scares her.)

Her writing is sharp, not quite as polished as her essays, but that’s the nature of the blog.  These are quick, pointed, interesting, and always astute. I

Shut up! or Don’t Shut up?

Didn’t we have a lot of hair?

A LOST PHOTO.  My husband recently returned from his parents’ house with several vintage photos of ourselves.  We have always been indifferent to photos, and don’t have many, but his parents documented our breif visits with rolls of film.  Here we are in our twenties at Niagara-on-the-Lake, hanging out with his family after our first year of teaching.  Isn’t he adorable? I was so tired:  my lips are weirdly puckered . “Maybe you were  tired of hanging out with my family,” he says.

Wasn’t my husband cute?   I was cute when I wasn’t puckering into the sun.

THE BLOG. I love reading.  I love writing my blog.  I don”t write reviews; I write up my notes and consider this my book journal. Even so, I occasionally offend writers. Writers don’t like criticism, and who can blame them?  I have written favorable reviews and made friends of writers.  I have written bad reviews and made enemies of writers. I have written good/bad reviews and made “frenemies” of writers. The best way not to offend writers?  Shut up!

I also like to rant about what I perceive to be problems in publishing.  I am  upset about dumbing down, whether it is the New York Times reviewing romances,  or Webster’s Dictionary defending the use of the non-word, “irregardless.” This kind of issue always gets to me.  Not long ago, after I read something that seemed particularly “dumb”at one of the dozens of publications I read, I wrote a brief letter to the editor.

And in today’s world, I got an email response from the editor.  Oh, no, I thought.  That wasn’t what I intended at all.  I didn’t want to write to THE editor; it was just “a letter to the editor.” Surely what I wrote couldn’t have been that upsetting?  Cranks write letters to the editor, and there was a slight indication they thought I was a crank. I wrote back what I hope was an appropriate response, praising the publication and repeating my criticism more mildly.

Dumbing down is a minor issue in today’s world.  There’s war, climate change, famine…  In retrospect, I really should NOT have written that letter to the editor.

Shut up? Don’t shut up?

Boundaries, Kat!  There are no boundaries on the internet.

And that’s why I prefer to read and write about dead writers!

The three “B’s”: How to Behave on a Trip to London

I learned three “B’s” on a recent trip to London:

  1. Be safe.
  2. Bring your own book.
  3. Don’t bother with ticketed museum exhibitions at peak times.

The first “B.”  At different ages, we view the concept of safety differently.  One night when I was a young woman, I went out and screamed at the noisy junkies in the alley behind our house.   May  I just say, Thank God they ignored me! I didn’t understand the situation. Still, you can find yourself in that situation again.

The hotel in London was seedy.  (The pictures lied.)   I arrived at midnight, too tired to find another hotel, and checked in with great trepidation.  I looked incredulous when the  desk clerk told me I had to go outside to another building.  He escorted me, but was obviously terrified of the people on the street:  a sensible reaction.  I wanted to say, “Don’t show fear!”  And I was sorry that he had to trek back by himself.

How unsafe was it?  I thought, well, it’s only for a few nights. But the next night someone climbed the stairs at midnight and pounded on the door.  I sat very still and hoped he’d go away. Eventually, he did.

The next day I schlepped my suitcase on the tube and went to a relatively “luxurious” hotel where I had stayed before.  I enjoyed the rest of my trip.

The Second “B.”  Bring your own book, or e-reader. When the weather is slushy and you tire of looking at portraits of the Tudors, go to the British Library and look at the manuscript of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I was thrilled. Then sit down (if you can find a chair) and read it on your  e-reader.  (N.B.  The terrace in front of the British Library was cordoned off like a crime scene because of the snow.  Being an American, I thought this was funny.)

Though I brought my own books, I also went to bookstores  My two favorites are  the flagship Waterstones in Picadilly; and next door is Hatchards,  founded in 1797.

I finished five books in London, a record for me.  (The weather was bad, so I had lots of reading time!)  I read Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire (her best book), Virginia Woolf’s A Common Reader, Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene, Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is on the Landing, and Annette Williams Jaffee’s Adult Education.

The Third “B.”  London has the best art museums.  But you know what? I often enjoy the free exhibits more than the ticketed ones.  That’s because the paid  exhibitions are crowded.  On a quiet weekday I enjoyed Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits at the “Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, but the Royal Academy of Arts was so crowded on a weekend that  I couldn’t get close enough to see the paintings in the  “Charles I:  King and Collector” exhibition.

What I learned?  Pick your times. Meanwhile, see many of the greatest paintings in the world for free.