BMCR 2007.01.10

Classics: A Memoir

, Of farming & classics : a memoir. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xii, 169 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780226308036. $30.00.

1 Responses

Memoirs are invaluable sources for the modern history of classical scholarship. I recall only C. M. Bowra, E. R. Dodds, Victor Ehrenberg (and his wife’s!), and U. v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. They are as revealing for what they omit as for what they record. We have an expert’s evaluation of his contemporaries and often of his own work. A memoir will regularly reveal a scholar’s prejudices and hence clarify his choice of subject matter or indeed the coefficient of mendacity in what he writes. Written at the end of a career, they can be honest without danger: Seneca’s libertas. My revered Chicago teacher, David Grene (1913-2002), was an Irish ex-patriate, who for 64 years taught not in Classics, where he was not welcome, but in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His name is familiar in the US because of his widely used The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited with Richmond Lattimore (1952-64 with frequent reprints). His posthumous Memoir is just that and not a play by play autobiography. There is nothing on his two marriages and his children; and little on close friends. He discusses in detail only those safely deceased. He wished to avoid hurting people. A pity. The volume ends with a brief note by his widow, several brief posthumous recollections by children and friends and a welcome but alas select bibliography. Some nine portraits are included. A map of Ireland would have helped the reader and an index lacks.

Grene at the end of his life recalls people who mattered: his parents and one Aunt May, an individual who spoke her mind. Dicky Wood, a master in his first school at Dublin, St. Stephen’s Green, won him aged ten for Greek. Grammar was driven home. The boys chanted declensions and conjugations. In the second year they read Alcestis. “I know that I owe more to Dicky for my love and knowledge of Greek and Latin than to anyone who ever taught me afterward” (60). I had precisely the same experience as a schoolboy. He won an entrance scholarship to the Protestant Trinity College, Dublin. He had three teachers who mattered: the papyrologist J. G. Smyly, George Mooney, editor of Apollonius, Lycophron Alexandra and unexpectedly Suetonius and the odd and feared Sir Robert Tate, who had his victims translate passages from Milton through Wordsworth into Greek and Latin hexameters and elegiacs.

Two other quite different experiences determined the man. He early became a lover of the Dublin theater. In 1924, aged eleven, he watched Sybil Thorndike play the protagonist in Shaw’s Saint Joan. He felt “excitement and even fear”. This was his first play. Shortly after he saw Charles Doran in Othello and then many others. I took three of his courses 1956-58 in Sophocles and Euripides. His Greek was amazing. He would open an OCT and read off without a pause in flawless English a chorus of Aeschylus. But his lasting legacy for me was that he consistently treated the texts as scripts. He repeatedly argued exits and entrances, a gesture or a movement. This was quite different from my Harvard New Critics who argued unconvincingly the impact of repeated words. A first time viewer could never have noticed such distant repetitions. His approach convinced me to write my dissertation on the dramatic technique of Sophocles.

There was another half of his life, the farmer. Grene owned three farms The first was in Illinois; the next two in Ireland. Some half of every year was spent on his farm. He did the work himself: sowing, harvesting, ploughing with horses rather than a tractor, raising poultry, sheep and cattle. He articulates in a very moving way the effect this has on a man. He digresses occasionally on the Amish, whose resistance to machines he only admires. The slaughter of the Chicago stockyards repulsed him. In a memorable defense of fox hunting (149-158) he argues that it brings out the best in hunter, horse and fox. He has only contempt for liberals who seek to forbid fox-hunting but utter not a word against the commercial mistreatment of poultry and livestock. All this caused an empathy with Hesiod, whose Works and Days he translated in 1998. One may compare the rider, Morris H. Morgan’s “The Art of Horsemanship by Xenophon” (1893), done before the automobile.

American classicists, not least Chicago alumni, will eagerly read chapter 12 “University of Chicago.” We have here an insider’s report without bitterness or reproach. Grene joined Chicago in the midst of the Hutchins Wars. Hutchins insisted that undergraduate education be built on “Great Books.” He abolished the football team which was a waste of time and money. Translations were better than not at all. Discussion and disagreement were encouraged. Students must not be told what Plato means. They must extract it themselves. Grene was a master at throwing out provocative questions and extracting opinions. In the fifties there were some four students in a Grene seminar and twelve professors, sometimes with their wives. Classes were animated and informed discussions, with occasionally a student timidly making an observation. In the same semester one could take Grene on Sophocles and the philologist and the Icelandic successor of Paul Shorey, Benedict Einarson, on Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, where we learned to understand particles, word-order, optatives and such.

Like Moses Hadas, Grene was a pioneer in what today we call “Classical Civilization.” Grammar and composition, though important, were not alone enough. Wilamowitz, a bit earlier, had argued that we must see “the forest and the trees” and lectured to the Greekless. Unfortunately there arose no “Grene School.” Decisive was that a Ph.D. in Social Thought would not secure a tenure-track appointment in Classics, and Departments of Social Thought did not abound. Other than Allan Bloom, a poor farmer (144), I can recall no doctoral student. David Grene’s legacy, like Columbia’s Coleman Benedict’s, is not books that last. It is the effect of his teaching and enthusiasm on his students, who have passed it on to their students. I am certain that his published recollections will cause him to be rememberd by readers not fortunate enough to have known the man.

[For a response to this review by Lillian Doherty, please see BMCR 2007.01.35.]