Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.4.08


Ellen Greene (ed.), Re-Reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Pp. xiii, 254. $40.00. ISBN 0-520-20602-9 (pb). ISBN 0-520-20603-7.

Contributors: Harriette Andreadis, Joan DeJean, Susan Gubar, Elizabeth D. Harvey, Glenn W. Most, Dolores O'Higgins, Holt N. Parker, Yopie Prins, and Erika Rohrbach.


Reviewed by Michele Valerie Ronnick, Department of Classics, Greek, and Latin, Wayne State University Detroit, MI, mronnic@wayne.edu.

Ellen Greene has put together a sort of book that would never have been assembled, let alone published in earlier decades. for its epistemological approach and the methodological "tools" used to support or explain that approach are broadly based and relatively new to the scene. A wide range of feminist theory is represented here which has been set against a background of classical scholarship, and sustained by elements from the field of comparative literature and the subfield, the classical tradition. Greene is to be congratulated for this assemblage. The nine essays here gathered provide not only an over-view of trends in research concerning Sappho per se, but also reveal many aspects of scholarly inquiry that currently pervade most areas that are said to belong to the "liberal arts."

The book itself has been handsomely produced. The hard cover edition is well-bound in maroon boards. Its attractive, readable typeface has been printed on a good stock of paper with an eye towards a long and acid-free life on library shelves. On the dust jacket, which was designed by Ina Clausen, is a beautifully colored reproduction of the well-known white-ground lekythos painted by the Achilles painter around 445 B.C. from the Staätliche Antikensammlung in Munich. The image on the dust jacket is itself a "gateway" to understanding the nature of the printed text. The vase shows a pair of Muses from Mt. Helicon who are posed in profile and are turned toward each other. The one on the left stands looking down in observation of the other on the right, who is sitting with kithara in hand. In such a way does our gaze fall upon the pair, as outsiders following along in the manner that both the general reader and the professional scholar have looked upon and listened to Sappho over the centuries. This sort of layering in terms of vantage point and in terms of interpretations based upon that vantage point form the substance the book. Furthermore, it is a work which should be considered, according to its editor, sui generis, standing as it does as the "first collection of essays that deals solely with the topic of Sappho['s] reception and transmission" (4).

Although Re-Reading Sappho is meant to be a companion to an earlier volume also edited by Ellen Greene, namely Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) which comes from the same series, (Classics and Contemporary Thought) and is edited by the same editor (Thomas Habinek), neither volume is dependent upon the other. The first volume treats some of the interpretations written in the past thirty years about Sappho as a cultural phenomenon, and as a "test-case (xii)" for issues "concerning gender and culture," sexual orientation and the ability to write words that endure. The second volume deals with Sappho's Nachleben in general. Here the reader may also be informed about her Überleben, that is, her vigorous and sustained life in the form of translations which have long outnumbered and overshadowed studies of her actual words in Greek. In this regard Sappho is like Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives have actually "lived" most of their years in different translations from the French of Jacques Amyot in 1559 to the English versions of Thomas North in 1579 and Dryden in 1683, and finally to that of Arthur Clough in 1859.

The volume's nine essays vary (like the Muses?) in range and extent. They range from Dolores O'Higgins' 11 page essay "Sappho's Splintered Tongue: Silence in Sappho 31 and Catullus 51," to the 38 pages written by Holt N. Parker entitled "Sappho Schoolmistress." All are preceded by a forward written by the series editor, Thomas Habinek, and an introduction by the volume's editor, Ellen Greene. Notes have been placed at the bottom of each page. References have been arranged alphabetically in a single list at the end of the book. These are followed by an index that is, sad to say, more slender than comprehensive. The articles also differ in terms of date, and previous exposure. Only two of the nine are entirely new efforts. Two others were given as public lectures in various places, and the remaining five have already been published elsewhere during the years 1984 and 1993.

This is the only aspect of the book that gives one a moment of pause. Because more than half of the book's contents have enjoyed an earlier circulation, the title of the collection might better include some indication of this, e.g. Re-Reading Sapppho: The Best of the Decade's Research. On the other hand, the editor is perhaps having a little joke, for some of us are, without a doubt, 're-reading' Sappho, both literally and figuratively. Each essay is a self-contained entity. All are stimulating in their own measure and should provoke further questioning. Indeed, the collection's interdisciplinary scope should draw readers from a number of fields. The book is not, however, for the complete novice. A reasonable knowledge of some scholarly approach, whether it be classical philology, feminism, English and/or American literature, the classical tradition or comparative literature is needed as an anchor. For Sappho is, as Jean DeJean said, a "legendary figure," one who has been both the cause and the effect of her own transmission over the centuries. Suffice it to say, there is much to be considered when one undertakes a study of her. To find out about these points, how she came to be the "Rorschach ink blot test" that Jack Winkler called her, or to simply catch up on recent observations on her, I wholly and happily recommend a reading of Ellen Greene's collection of essays.

If the book is to see another edition, or to be issued as a reprint, the following small errors should be corrected, however. Among the typographical errors are: 1) p. vii, lines 8 and 10 which list the names of Glenn W. Most and Yopie Prins in the Table of Contents are set in type smaller than the names of the other essayists, 2) p. xiii, line 4 undeniable not uindeniable, 3) p. 16, line 8 a space is needed before "Sappho," 4) p. 30, line 9 a space is needed after the question mark, 5) p. 131, line 11, a space is needed after "hand," 6) p. 222, line 15 a space is needed after "Carey," 7) p. 238, in line 13 under the second entry by M. L. West, a period, not a comma, should end the line. Among the editorial mistakes are 1) p. 82, the statement "James Holstun has recently alluded to the ..." made in the essay by Elizabeth D. Harvey in regard to an article Holstun had published in ELH in 1987 should perhaps leave out the word "recently," 2) p. 85, footnote 17 mentions Richard Lanham's book The Motives of Eloquence (New Haven: Yale UP, 1976), yet this work does not appear in the bibliography.