BMCR 1997.07.02

Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship

, , Compromising traditions : the personal voice in classical scholarship. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. 196 pages. ISBN 9780203130681. $65.00 (hb), $17.95 (pb).

“I think we will provide better scholarship in the long run if we put all our cards on the table.” Not the manifesto of Compromising Traditions, but Lillian Doherty (Maryland) opening a recent conference on ‘Working Together: Scholarship and Theory in Classical Literature’.[1] Her call to arms might, I think, serve as paradigm for all that is good about the personal voice in classical scholarship. Engaging, accessible and shot through with patent integrity, her paper offered a friendly ‘way into’ the theoretically challenging territory of feminist and narratological approaches to the Odyssey. This seems in part apt homage: feminism is the critical path which has done most to foreground the use of the personal voice in recent years. On the evidence of this occasion, feminism may have it right.

Clearly, however, there is widespread resistance to the new. Apparent even among the bold pioneers at ‘Working Together’ was a rearguard anti-‘theory’ camp for whom Personal Voice scholarship can offer nothing more than a big target. Eminent in this capacity is David West, whose highly entertaining presidential address to the UK Classical Association at its 1995 annual conference urged us to “Cast Out Theory”.[2] His critical basis on that occasion, a warmed-through and hastily accessorised New Criticism, undercut his indignant asides against “theory” with what I would like to see as knowing irony. I’m sure, however, that many young classicists left the conference filled with a new determination to find out what this “theory” thing might be, and to embrace it; West has helped spawn a nation of fashionable hotheads, among whose number I must count myself. As a consequence, many will approach Compromising Traditions as I did: predisposed to like it a lot.

If there is a case to be made against the use of the personal voice (henceforth PV), the “Cast Out Theory” school of criticism has failed to establish it: the task has been left to others. Alessandro Barchiesi (Verona) hinted at one cogent objection when he talked in discussion at ‘Working Together’ of “the mask of sincerity”. If we buy postmodernism’s ideas of the constructedness of self, is a personal voice any more authentic than an assumed impersonality? Less theoretically tricky, but more worrying in practice: is speaking personally always—ever—going to be appropriate, tactful, an apt pedagogical device? By what criteria should scholarship of this sort be assessed?

It is to the credit of the contributors to Compromising Traditions that they do their best to construct the case for the opposition. This determination to be fair shades easily into ambivalence. At times I found myself wondering whether they were still arguing in favour of PV at all. Indeed, one of the authors ends up admitting that—having dipped his toes in PV just the once—he has decided it can never be for him, and won’t be recommending it to his friends!

Nor is always clear what sort of ‘personal voice’ the Routledge book is trying to pin down. We might come at this in either of two ways: is the issue one of speaking from personal lived experience, of acknowledging aloud the ways in which that experience informs our choices and approaches in academic work? Or is it about giving space to our own ways of speaking and writing—about avoiding the impersonal pseudo-objectivity that comes with the office and the desk? Being ready to say a plain old “I think” in place of “one must conclude”?

As for the book itself: if we’re to be stylists from now on, then first impressions must invariably start with the cover: shadowy Rembrandt overlaid on luscious textured red, typifying the fine aesthetic sense and gorgeous palette of Richard Stoneman’s classics stable at Routledge UK. The figure on the price label is gratifyingly small for such a handsome and substantial package.

Looking inside, and beyond the alluring charms of the typeface: of the two editors, Van Nortwick both opens and closes the debate with two short papers. Indeed, most of the items in the book tend to the bijou; the essay ‘Writing as an American in classical scholarship’ by Judith Hallett, Van Nortwick’s co-editor, is by far the longest at 32 pages. Hallett also offers a rousing introductory essay, in which she stresses the pluralistic leanings of the personal voice manifesto and tells the story of how the book came to be. She also explains the feeble play on words which underlies the book’s uninspiring title. (The byline of her own essay, “Doing What Comes Nationally”, is hardly any better.)

What follows here is a blow-by-blow account.

VAN NORTWICK: ‘Who do I think I am?’

“I have to admit I was being cute with my title.” (16) The opening sentence of this opening essay, an exercise in wry self-assessment, establishes a good-humoured ‘true confessions’ tone. Van Nortwick is an experienced practitioner of PV academic writing, and has a long familiarity with what he calls his “bullying censor”—an internalised tyrant “driven at bottom by fear” which urges safe impersonality. This is a voice that many of us will recognise. Van Nortwick’s own agenda is to seek a relationship between his classical studies and the changing circumstances of his wider life (about which he speaks with considerable courage) such that each valorises and helps make sense of the other. The notion may seem idealistic, but I suspect a lot of that reaction is down to the conditioning we’ve all experienced. At least Van N.’s proposal supplies a forceful answer to the question of why we should be reading these texts in the first place; or telling anyone else to read them, or to fund us to do so. And this agenda of engagement is one that he has carried through into teaching as well, seemingly very productively: “I ask my students: do you have any friends like Odysseus? Do you want any?” (18)

Van N. is fully aware of the difficult objections that must be answered in evaluating PV scholarship: “what am I offering the reader? Are these essays about literature, or about me? How is such work to be evaluated?” (17) And, a question that bothers him considerably: even if the readings thus produced are valid as far as they go, can they ever be useful in routine academic situations? Can you teach from them? As someone who has tried PV on for size from time to time as a pedagogical gambit, I can attest the value of the caveats he raises here.

Appropriately, Van N. is also concerned to follow through on the consequences of PV in terms of personal as well as professional development. His account of how his readings of the figure of Odysseus—liar, emotional shell, survivor—have at different points in his life supplied developing “paradigms for me as a man” (21) is insightful: Van N.’s own story makes him take the hero of the Odyssey seriously as a character, and to interpret the hero’s story in a fresh and convincing way.

The Odyssean theme is further developed in Van N.’s thoughts on whether it is appropriate to expose students to unconventional ideas such as PV and perhaps adversely affect their grades and subsequent career: “Are we damaging our students if we encourage them to behave in a way that does not maximise their chances for climbing that ladder? Is winning everything? Do they want to be Odysseus?” (22) The concern of what the use of PV might do to your students’ grades is one that will recur in other papers here. Van N. brings to it some serious consideration of values.

DE LUCE: ‘Reading and re-reading the helpful princess’

De Luce’s essay takes as its point of departure the recurrent theme of the woman who abandons her roots to help the hero, only to be abandoned by him. The author sees this theme as emblematic of the position of women of her baby-boomer generation, caught on the cusp of feminism—”torn between the assumption (inculcated since childhood) that we must defer to the male’s quest, and the less familiar need to pursue our own.” (31) Her upbringing, with its stress on ‘feminine’ self-denial and sweetness, initially predisposed her not to find anything odd or problematic in the tales of Medea, Dido or Ariadne: women were there to be used. More enlightened now, she sees the abandoning of the helpful princesses as furthering an ideology which is not just patriarchal but also xenophobic.

Overall, the paper comes across disappointingly slight, inadvertently revealing a potential pitfall of PV: if you don’t have that much to say to begin with, saying it with the mask of soporific impersonality removed will make this more obvious than might otherwise have been the case. For one thing, more of your audience/readership will be fully awake. I enjoyed the tour, but I don’t think I learned anything here about princesses that David West couldn’t have told me.

BRAUND: ‘Personal Plurals’

I read a couple of pages of Suzanna Morton Braund’s ‘Personal plurals’ in the bookshop, and bought Compromising Traditions then and there on faith. This probably says more about me than about the paper. I will say that it’s forceful, lucid, and elegantly written; what’s more, I found the author’s use of imaginary dialogues stylistically quite exciting. However, her basic point doesn’t stand up as well as she might wish it to.

The most immediate reason for my taking to Braund’s position here is her impassioned attack on what she sees as the stifling ideological uniformity of ‘Oxbridge’ classics. As an odd sort of classicist at Oxford, I have frequently had it brought home to me what the party line is; the presence of honourable token exceptions, more or less comfortably accommodated, does little to deconstruct the inertial monolith that is Oxford classics. In this context, Braund’s combative appraisal of the work of John Henderson at Cambridge could equally be applied to Don Fowler in Oxford. Both are first-rate scholars with a flair for theory; both court controversy—from a position of safe respectability. I think Braund is more or less right in saying that individuality of expression within Oxbridge is policed as a privilege of the tenured. I’ve observed that if minority or ‘dissident’ elements attempt to voice their difference publicly, they are met with hostility or—far more commonly, in fact with depressing predictability—stony silence. I find this phenomenon precisely echoed by Braund’s account of the reception of a paper by Vanda Zajko at Exeter: “The challenge that she thus threw down, by this attempt to connect the personal and the professional, was not taken up in discussion … it is my guess that those present who could not believe their ears … were able to dismiss her paper in a way which in fact precisely re-enacted the marginalisation of which she was complaining.” (41) Clearly the leaden ideologies of which she complains exist outside Oxford and Cambridge too. On the other hand, and speaking again from personal experience, I found it hard to agree with B.’s broad-brush approach to characterising Oxford classics. There are progressive people here, and not just among the faculty members she may have met at parties: there are students (admittedly a minority) who are not afraid to speak up and take the resulting flak. On a critical second reading, rather than being carried away by the force of B.’s impassioned rhetoric, I began to see the paper as falling into precisely the trap it complains of—that of restating and thus reinforcing the Oxbridge monolith. Braund’s view of the Oxbridge stranglehold is essentially conspiracy theory. Furthermore, her party trick of filling out slim conference papers by scoring points off professional rivals is, for this reader, wearing thin.

ZAJKO: ‘False things which seem like the truth’

“The euphoria of the originary moment of discovering personal voice theory did not last indefinitely.” (54) Zajko, who has been actively using PV for six years, has an acute eye for potential sticky patches; her paper is an attempt to offer a sophisticated reading of her own earlier naivete. She documents the “sense of injustice”, the growing awareness of disenfranchisement, bodily disquiet and double standard that impelled her to explore PV, and tells how she came to terms with the constructedness of what (quoting Jardine) she terms “the mythology of pure knowledge”. (56) Looking back, Zajko reads the choices she made in her early career—what to study as well as how—as determined by a developing feminism which faced formidable obstacles: “Within classics … the approaches which had been utilised by feminists elsewhere to expose the fraudulence of the scholarly subject position which claimed gender neutrality, had been kept resolutely at bay.” (59) Z. armed herself with post-structuralist ideas which complicated her feminism, and which remade the very ideas of the body which had started her along this path.

This is a thoughtful and stimulating paper, certainly one of the best things in the book. Particularly provocative is the observation that the two main paths which lead interested parties into PV—feminist and postmodern theories—cannot cross paths without creating profound difficulties for one another. And for any poor scholar caught in the crossfire.

MARTINDALE: ‘Proper voices: writing the writer’

M.’s account is impressively supported by an obvious breadth of reading within theory. There are welcome echoes of cultural materialism in his exploration of the idea that “we can’t talk about Horace and sex without also taking a position, consciously or unconsciously, within the sexual politics of our own day… Reading and interpretation are one significant area where values are contested”. (75) (By way of an aside, I’m fascinated to observe that David “facts are facts” West is M.’s prize specimen here.) By this view, the mask of objectivity represents “an occlusion of the personal in the interests of constructing authority … a rhetorical strategy, even if an unconscious one.” (76) Similarly, the supposed transparency and self-evident naturalness of the default academic voice is dismissed as myth, which to me seems no more than the obvious truth. But, asks M.—playing devil’s advocate—does the postmodernism that typically goes hand in hand with these ideas of rhetoricity not entail the constructedness of all voices, even the ‘personal’? (This brings to mind Barchiesi’s hints on “the mask of sincerity”.) Broadly speaking, M. thinks we can get around this by “play[ing] fair with the reader”; but it would be nice to have a clear statement of, yes, personal opinion on this—as on the other issues he so thoughtfully and ‘impartially’ weighs up. M. lurks behind assumed impersonality until the third part of his paper, where, like the other contributors, he gets autobiographical about getting autobiographical; and then the news is not good. M.’s day-trip into PV helped him explore a new literariness, but he also encountered resistance, for good reason: “to write oneself is almost inevitably to write others”. (94) The downbeat tone of the piece shouldn’t lead us us underrate M.’s warning: no one of us is an island, and the skeleton in my closet is someone else’s own living body.

MOYER: ‘Getting personal about Euripides’

M. opens with an astute summary of the way ‘originality’, and in particular ‘objectivity’, can be situated in New Criticism’s attempts early this century to carve a path for Eng.Lit. analogous to that of the sciences. “We have begun to distrust the denial of the personal, to find danger lurking in elegant abstractions” (106)—abstractions that can mask racism, homophobia, misogyny. M. sets out to show how the choices translators and adapters make can enable them to “get personal” and pursue committed agend as even while working within a narrow ambit.

HALLETT: ‘Writing as an American in classical studies’

Like America, this seems to go on way too long. From start to finish, it is driven by unabashed anger, which could have been good. Unfortunately, the result is frankly a terrible read; doubly a shame, given Hallett’s obvious abilities (I saw her perform at the 1997 Classical Association meeting, and she was terrific). H. starts with an alarming picture of entrenched sexism in the American academy of decades past; the animus is swiftly transferred to the favouritism she perceives to be extended within the same system to classicists who have spent time outside America. H. sees this inferiority complex mirrored in European snobbery against the American system, quoting Hugh Lloyd-Jones (although to what end seems unclear; L.-J. as quoted by her credits the USA with “a vast contribution to classical scholarship” (123), regretting only the relative weakness of its language programmes). She alleges that biased statements of this sort (whatever is meant by that) are more common in written references and the deliberations of American appointment committees … both of which, alas, she is prevented from citing by considerations of confidentiality. The vicious belittling engineered by us filthy Europeans is internalised by Hallett and “[her] fellow Americans” (124) and gives them problems of low self-esteem. Luckily, H. “[has] refused to be complicit in this self-abasement process” (125) and can thus blow the whistle on the conspiracy: unwashed immigrants, living half a dozen to a faculty, are taking decent Americans’ jobs and stealing their women. It all sounds too much like hard work to a degenerate Continental like me.

On the positive side, H. stresses the merits of the American system, dwelling particularly on the way it lends itself to limited interdisciplinary approaches. She wishes to celebrate, not shamefacedly whitewash, the differences between US and European outlooks—all of which is commendable, and an eye-opener for outsiders who may not have given it much thought before. There are moments of sharp self-awareness, too. In her Afterword, H. asks wryly: “By adopting this self-centred approach … am I not guilty of unseemly ‘whining’?” (132)

To which, my answer must be: yes, and a moment of archness can’t change that. H. must have her reasons; but, as it stands, her paper is an object lesson in the defects of a personal voice deployed on the sort of bad day we all have: charmless, petty, and ultimately dull as hell. To borrow Elaine Showalter’s sassy typology of PV, H.’s performance here is neither sensationalism nor meditation, but jeremiad.[3]

BEYE, ‘A response’

Beye’s response to the issues raised by H. is short, dignified and moving. B. enlists memories of a grimly schizophrenic postwar American classics to suggest that “more than anything else my generation’s dislike of personal voice theory stems … from a profound need to use classics as a place to hide.” (154) Looking at the debate now, he laments the de-emphasis on issues of class. In the space of a few pages he makes twice the case that H. did on the problem of European imports (among which he wittily includes trendy theory!). Non-native scholars, he suggests, are dangerously ill-equipped for the particular demands of teaching in the States, and show little motivation to adapt. They typically cannot make head or tail of what ‘America’ (a culturally diverse and highly complex society) wants from Classics. This is a strong and startling assertion—does B. think we Europeans aren’t diverse?—but the author’s disarming candour demands our engagement and makes it unreasonable to take offence.

WILTSHIRE, ‘The authority of experience’

A beautifully written exploration, autobiography-driven, of PV as a strategy for reconstruing ‘authority’. W. tells how, through involvement in a friend’s struggle against sexual discrimination, she came to realise that “when we ‘author’, we are assuming the authority of our own voice”. (170) To deny that voice is to do nothing more than blend into the academic background; to accept it is to begin “enlarging the range and nuance of the human response to literature and ideas” (170)—a moving and persuasive summation of the very real value of PV scholarship.

This moment of situated insight gave W. the moral courage to begin her first book in earnest. The persuasive account of labor and pietas she offered in Public and Private in Vergil’s Aeneid (1989) was informed by her childhood observations of Midwest farmers. W. chose not to signal this directly in the book itself, but her writing both there and in subsequent books is stylistically strong and shot through with sincere conviction—need a ‘personal voice’ always say ‘I’? Here she implicitly takes serious issue with the influential work of Nancy Miller (on which, see below). W. goes on to offer a brief ‘pros and cons’ list (178-80), which I found invaluable: the following is a paraphase.


  • The “careless” intrusion of ‘I’ can distract from what we are trying to say.
  • It may not always be appropriate, and its use in teaching calls for particular thoughtfulness
  • “[N]o personal experience privileges us absolutely”. W has borne children, and found it added to her perspective for Public and Private, but is here wondering: is this any big deal? Better, worse and more startling things happen every day. It speaks of a certain courage and rigour on W’s part that she raises this awkward issue as other writers in this volume do not.
  • Finally: if we let PV into scholarship, by what criteria do we evaluate it? (By much the same criteria as ever, W. asserts convincingly: does it make sense, are we persuaded?)


  • Avoiding unnecessary abstractions.
  • Writing accessibly and with a minimum of jargon.
  • Staying aware of the complexity of the issues we’re talking about.
  • Communicating about our subject more effectively.
  • All in all, it’s a compelling list in PV’s favour. And another supposed bonus: embracing PV (and admitting that each and every scholarly work is close to its particular author’s heart) will make us less ready to indulge in personal attacks. A shame W. was not able to communicate this to some of the other contributors to this volume! But her committed emphasis to PV as a strategy for human as well as scholarly progress makes this a memorable essay.

VAN NORTWICK, ‘What is classical scholarship for?’

In an appropriate closural device, Van N. can now reply with some confidence to his Momus-like bullying censor—although he admits that not all the answers are secure. Van N. sees the problem of acceptance of PV as definitional: can it count as ‘scholarship’, when scholarship is so narrowly self-delimiting? Traditionalists will hate his all-too-reasonable argument that scholarship first projects backwards onto the past hierarchies of its own devising, and then denies itself the approaches that might uncover its own situatedness. “By adopting the role of objective scholars … we have been leading an unexamined life.” (184) The myths of objectivity and direct access to ‘the past’ are becoming increasingly untenable in the face of postmodernism, suggests Van N. In this crisis, and in a marketplace of cultural diversity that is often indifferent to us, it is urgent that we ask: what is classical scholarship for?

This is to ask not only what the whole enterprise is trying to achieve, but what values should be driving it. Issues of canonicity are at stake as well: can and should it survive amid diverse voices? “But finally, we circle back to the familiar reasons, the compelling depth and complexity of the issues raised by the texts themselves” (190)—back to the human values, and horizons of recognisable experience and response, we see reflected in them. If any answer can reconcile traditionalists and PV practitioners for long enough that they get talking, this is probably it. Van N.’s reprise thus performs the role of unobtrusive conclusion as well as coda.

Getting Personal… There is some great material here, and much to provoke thought. But I am really not convinced that much of it marks any advance on positions advanced by Nancy K. Miller some years ago. Her Getting Personal is cited by four of the nine contributors here, its author invoked by Hallett at the outset as patron saint of the whole enterprise.[4]4 But the vision and spirit that informed Getting Personal seem sadly absent in the Hallett & Van Nortwick volume, for all that the authors fetishise Miller’s work. Has anxiety of influence led to loss of personal confidence?

The questions PV raises regarding the interrelation of feminism and postmodernism are reiterated in Compromising Traditions—but Miller’s suggestions for strategies of response (20ff) are streets ahead of anything here. Mostly gone, too, are her boldness and litheness of style; her positive perspective on anger and “making a spectacle of oneself” (23) as radical act (if only we could apply this to Judy Hallett’s paper!); her infectious enthusiasm for the communicative and transformative potential of metaphor. One of her warnings rings particularly true in the light of Compromising Traditions: “[P]ersonal criticism … [a]t its worst, … runs the risk of producing a new effect of exclusion, the very ‘chumminess’ of the unidentified ‘we’ of … self-effacing authority … a scene of rhizomatic, networked, privileged selves who get to call each other (and themselves) by their first names in print…” (25). Compromising Traditions is just too chummy, too full of comfortable navel-gazing for its own good. Somehow, despite its many good moments, it fails as a totality to convince us that the project of PV is urgent or important—a major let-down. The motivation somehow isn’t there.

This curious halfheartedness may be due in part to the book’s ultimate failure to celebrate its situatedness in an ongoing discourse of academic occasions—one of the great strengths, and challenges, of Miller’s book (“I prefer the gossipy grain of situated writing to the academic sublime”, xi). Not only does it fail to engage with the occasion; also absent is any detectable agenda, beyond ‘open it up and see what happens’. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but leaves me wondering what the book is for. By contrast, Miller’s celebration of the personal voice in its many forms was rooted in passionate and hard-fought feminist conviction; a tale of bravery and adversities, of battles lost and won. For Miller, PV is about feminism and vice versa. This spirit of engagement has continued to inform PV activity over the past decade: the courageous and incisive testimony of queer criticism (Alan Sinfield’s Cultural Politics, Mick Wallis’s ‘Stages of Sadomasochism’)[5] has constituted s everal of twentieth century academia’s finest hours. Similarly, Nineties feminist PV has articulated “the return of the repressed” into the trenches of reactionary academia (Showalter, 27). Compromising Traditions’ near-perfect silence on these developments makes me wonder what the authors’ agenda is: are they hoping we won’t find out how far behind they’ve already been left by the field? Or do they just not know?[6]

The refreshing pugnacity of this feminist/queer PV work does find echoes in some of the papers here (notably by Wiltshire, also Zajko). But the collection taken as a whole lacks direction and any kind of political commitment, however broadly defined.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the various contributors’ un-Miller-like reluctance to share these dangerous notions with their graduate students: PV is cordoned off as a playground for the tenured. The message for us underlings is: keep your heads down. Where’s the fun in that? Despite all the encouraging noises, pluralism is out of the window here. We’re offered low-calorie vanilla feminism, but nothing on colour or class; nothing very startling on sexuality. The choice by so many of these comfortably established figures to ‘play it safe’ is profoundly disappointing. This book could have been a radical challenge to the field, and isn’t, despite the noisy cheerleading of Judy Hallett’s intro. Lose the faith that different ways of talking can-and-should change the world, and all that remains is stylistics: PV downgraded from munition to firework.

Not that I’m saying you’d be wasting your money on this book; much of what’s here is fun, parts of it are well worth anyone’s time, and the price is very reasonable. Buy it and browse. But treat yourself to Miller too, and Sinfield, and the rest of the outlaws; and as a matter of priority.

[1] Oxford: Corpus Christi College, March 1997.

[2] ‘Cast Out Theory. Horace Odes 1.4 and 4.7’. David West’s speech has since been issued by the Classical Association as a pamphlet (no bibliographic details). His admission that PV as teaching tool may be appropriate for “certain pupils” (16)—that is, students in the Bronx—smacks to my mind of condescension.

[3] Showalter presents her typology in ‘Good Girl, Bad Girl’, a review article in London Review of Books 19.11 (5 June 1997) pp.27-8. Showalter’s article offers a succinct overview of feminist successes in PV during the early 90s: she emphasises its productivity as a site of new genres for academic writing. Miller’s new book Bequest and Betrayal, for instance—a memoir about memoirs—is hailed as “a new model of serious criticism” (28).

[4] Nancy K. Miller, Getting Personal: Feminist occasions and other autobiographical acts (Routledge: 1991). Cited in bibliographies of Morton Braund, Zajko, Martindale, Moyer. Hallett begins her introduction quoting Miller (1).

[5] Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics – Queer Reading (Routledge: 1994); Nick Wallis, ‘Stages of sadomasochism’, Paragraph. A journal of modern critical theory 17.1 (Edinburgh, 1994) pp.60-69.

[6] Martindale, whose bibliography is the most substantial in the book, cites Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons: A Memoir; but that’s about it.