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 Edith Hamilton was out-of-date when I studied classics in the late 20th century: a professor warned us against Hamilton’s sentimental translations of Greek tragedies.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.

Online Life, Comments, & Not My Homeboy/Homegirl

It’s the wolf that knows which root to dig to save itself
It’s the octopus that crawled back to the sea”–R.E.M., “Country Feedback”

exhausted-woman with head down at deskI’m spending less time online and more time reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection.  (I just finished it, and it’s great.)

I still spend a lot of time online.

Here’s a checklist of what I do.

Read email.

Read my homegirl and homeboy blogs.

Read Michael Dirda’s reviews at the Washington Post.

Read the TLS.

Do you read Mary Beard’s A Don’s Life at the TLS?  Beard, a Cambridge professor, historian, classicist, TV celeb, and a classics editor at the TLS, is also a lively, popular blogger.  I very much liked her book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, which I used for a unit on graffiti in an adult ed Latin class I taught.

Oddly, Beard attracts a lot of negative attention.  People criticize her looks (why, I can’t say; she looks confident, which is half  the beauty thing), trash her ideas, and are often bizarrely malevolent in comments and on Twitter.

In her recent blog, she talked about a lead-up interview in the Times to a London Review of Books public lecture she was giving on “The Public Voice of Women”:  she talked about how “women play a higher price than men if they want to make their voice heard.”

Then The Mirror and The Mail apparently lifted and paraphrased the Times interview, and emphasized a few comments she made about the image of Kate Middleton.

The resulting comments at the newspaper were half  favorable, half not, she said.  But here’s the kind of stuff she quoted, which in general is the kind of thing she has to put up with.

Leftist feminists should not comment on the looks of other women but should rather look themselves in the mirror.”, “Who is Mary Beard and who cares what she thinks ?”, “Mary Beard has very little grip on the real world, as reflected in many of her comments. She is cocooned in her safe world of academia”, “These two writers should stick to their typewriters. (They both have a typewriter vintage look.)”, “Mary Beard is to be pitied if she truly believes that she is making any contribution by being unkind for no reason other than envy”, “Cheap publicity for Beard (who does what exactly?)”,  “Mary Beard is a leftie professor who just talks nonsense like all other lefties”, “How I wish that Mary Beard would just shut-up!”

Horrible!  And for God’s sake, is she really that leftist?  I’ve never noticed, and, heavens, I’m an almost-socialist.

I am unlike Beard in all ways, but we also get negative comments here. At my old blog, I went a little over the top sometimes by nice-girl blogger standards, and some of the comments were hostile.

Mirabile Dictu has a similar traffic flow, but in general the comments are nicer.

Sometimes I delete a comment.

I can rarely think of much to say, but I try to support my fellow bloggers by leaving comments at their blogs.  I usually say something like “Nice review!”  which is true, or “I’d love to read this” (which is true), or, in the case of blogs about contemporary fiction, “I’ll skip this one, but good review!”  I wish I were a more fluent commenter.

I have many friends online, and had a wonderful three days last fall with my friend Ellen Moody, the blogger, in D.C.

Nonetheless, I discovered recently that some of my homeboy/homegirl bloggers aren’t entirely on my side.  Recently I discovered a nasty comment about me at a blog.

The truth?  If anyone had left an ill-natured comment about him/her, or any of my friends, at my blog, I would have deleted it.

When I was a freelance writer I never got negative mail. At blogs, however, you sometimes meet with a little craziness.

I must admit, I got my husband to read the negative comment at this blog (and since he thinks all blogs are stupid, he only did this as a favor).

He says, “You’re a better writer than both of these guy/gals and they want to stop you.”

He also said, “Get offline.”

Anyway, it’s good to have spouse support.

And now here’s an R.E.M. video of “Country Feedback,” because if we’re going to be online, we have to put up with some nastiness, and we might as well listen to some good music.

Can a Book Inspire You to Read Latin?

Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens gloria Teucrorum .–Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II

“We were Trojans; Ilium and the great glory of the Trojans are gone.”

Many years ago I read Virgil, Ovid, and Horace in translation.  I was puzzled:  why were these classics?  Somehow the poetry didn’t translate gracefully.  My friends and I gossiped:  “Men romanticize this so much.”  But I had a nagging sense that something was missing.  And so I studied Latin, learned that English and Latin have different structures, discovered I have a Latinate brain, went to graduate school, taught in private schools for a few years (like most of my fellow classicists), and have continued to read Latin poetry for decades.

Not everyone can study Latin, but books can  inspire you to read Roman authors, or to return to them.

Seven Sisters margaret drabbleIn  Margaret Drabble’s extraordinary 2002 novel, The Seven Sisters, I was fascinated by the narrator’s fascination with Virgil’s AeneidThe Aeneid is my favorite poem, and I have tried in vain to get fellow bloggers to read it.  (You know who you are.)

Candida, the ex-wife of a headmaster who jettisoned her for the mother of a student who drowned in a pond on the school grounds, has moved to an apartment in West London.  She is solitary, almost friendless, and far from her family, and the big event of her day is swimming at a Health Club, which has not always been a health club:  it was converted from a College of Further Education that in the evenings held adult classes.  Candida had taken a Virgil class there, which involved not only reading Virgil in Latin but comparing translations by Dryden, C. Day Lewis, and others.

You wouldn’t think you could go to an evening class on Virgil’s Aeneid in West London at the end of the twentieth century, would you?  And if fact you can’t anymore as it’s closed. …Why did I join it?  Because its very existence seemed so anachronistic and so improbable.  Because I thought it would keep my mind in shape.  Because I thought it might find me a friend.  Because I thought it might find me the kind of friend that I would not have known in my former life.

Candida, who is obviously depressed, is obsessed with Book VI of The Aeneid, which describes the descent of Aeneas into the underworld, and dovetails with her own obsession with death.  Eventually she is inspired to organize a Latin class reunion and a life-affirming Virgilian trip  to Italy.

Drabble’s book influenced me to consider teaching again.  We had moved to a lovely, quiet city that “had no culture,” as I was told.  It definitely had no Latin.  I had no job.  I was hanging around the house, reading all of Virgil, when I wasn’t alphabetizing the books at a very messy used bookstore.  (I was paid in books.)

Why not get out of the house and teach adult ed?  I wondered.  And so I taught a very traditional Latin class, using Wheelock’s Latin as the text. We also translated a short Latin passage from The Aeneid every week, with a great deal of help from me in the form of vocabulary lists and worksheets.

How to Read a Latin Poem William FitzgeraldI believed my idea of reading Virgil in Latin with students who knew little or no Latin was original (or perhaps I had borrowed from Drabble). But after reading Roy Gibson’s review of William Fitzgerald’s new book, How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet in this week’s TLS, I discovered that other classicists are doing this kind of reading.

Roy Gibson, the reviewer, is a classicist, who likes Fitzgerald’s book and is mostly positive.  He writes,

…it has a serious purpose:  to give the reader with little or no knowledge of Latin or the classical world a feel for the character of Roman poetry in the original language.  We are offered word=by-word analysis and translation of classic texts, with deft explanation of how meaning gradually emerges from a language which (unlike English) does not depend on word order to create sense. This is a necessary task.  Some ancient poets translate rather well into English (Catullus, Ovid), but readers who have encountered Virgil or Horace’s Odes only in translation can feel justified in wondering what the fuss is about.  Fitzgerald proves an inspiring guide to the richness and (rarely emphasized) strangeness of Virgil’s Latin.  He also offers stimulating asides on the stark juxtapositions of vocabulary that are inevitable in a language which dispense with definite and indefinite articles and has no need of many of the prepositions which litter English.

He says, however, that Fitzgerald glosses over the amount of work involved in reading Latin.  Professionals use commentaries and dictionaries, and some passages remain controversial or ambiguous.

Of course I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book, but it is the kind of thing I would give to friends to help them understand Latin poetry.

Alexandria peter stothardIn Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Days and Nights of Cleopatra, a  brilliant memoir of his fascination with Cleopatra, he writes a few pages about reading Latin poetry with those who don’t know Latin.  Stothard, a classicist and the editor of the TLS,  chaired a panel on how to read a Latin poem, saying it is “the kind of appointment that come to an Editor of the TLS with interests in the ancient world.”  The panel read and discussed an ode by Horace addressed to Plancus, a shrewd man of middle rank  who was devoted to Marc Antony until the tides of politics changed. Stothard had extensively researched Plancus for his book about Cleopatra.

Stothard  writes:

The choice of poem was not mine.  Plancus followed me by purest chance.  ‘Laudabunt alii‘ we all began at 10.00 a.m.  A light-pointer identified each word:  ‘will praise’ was followed by ‘other men.’  Laudabunt alii claram Rhodon aut Mytilenen aut Ephesum bimarisve Corinthi moenia:  Others will praise bright Rhodes, or Mytilene, or Ephesus or the walls of Corinth on its two seas. The audience had come to read it in Latin–and it was my task to help them do just that.

Then there is classicist Mary Beard’s blog, A Don’s Life. She recently wrote a very interesting post about participating in a debate on The Future of Latin.

What came over most clearly — and clearer than I had ever seen it before — was the way we have projected onto Latin so many of our anxieties about privilege in education, teaching quality and the personality of the traditional teacher, ideas of utility, the control of the curriculum etc. Latin in other words is so much of a symbol that it is hard to discuss it without getting involved in series of much bigger debates, only symbolically connected with Latin.

Cicero EverittAntony Everitt’s Cicero:  The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician is a fascinating biography of Cicero, and a very clear, accessible history of the politics of the first century B.C.

Everitt writes in the preface:

With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figure….

…nearly two thousand years after his time, he became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives.   For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of Tully (as his name was anglicized) were the foundation of their education.  John Adams’ first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.

Professor's House catherLet me also mention Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, which is not about Rome but nonetheless describes the life of Tom Outland, a student Latinist.   Professor St. Peter, a disenchanted historian of early Spanish explorers, camps out one summer in the old empty house, too depressed to follow his very conventional family to the new house they have built. And he often remembers his student Tom Outland, who died young; we learn in the middle part of the novel that during a summer in the Southwest Tom read all of The Aeneid in Latin.  St. Peter’s conversation with a greedy colleague who is about to benefit from Outland’s research causes him to connect Tom with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony.

 The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man.  Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that:  a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings of revolution.

He brought himself back with a jerk.  Ah, yes, Crane; that was the trouble.  If Outland were here tonight, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men.

I recommend the Fagles translation.

Finally, let me recommend Virgil’s Aeneid in translation. This stunning epic poem about the founding of Rome is translated beautifully into English by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald, and this cannot be said about very much poetry in any foreign language.  This classic poem describes the fatigue of the depressed hero, Aeneas, forced by last-man-standing fate to lead the refugees from Troy, the allure of a foreign queen, Dido, who is really Cleopatra and Medea combined, and the gods that force him to continue his trip to Italy, which leads to yet another war.