[The reviewer apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]
In this, her second book about Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867), Marie Sally Cleary explores the social and personal background of his famous The Age of Fable; or, Stories of Gods and Heroes, the first, and most famous part, of what is now usually known as Bulfinch’s Mythology.1 The first eight chapters of Cleary’s new book are devoted largely to a biography of Bulfinch and his family, and the final four deal specifically with The Age of Fable. While this latter group of chapters will be of most interest to classicists, it is necessary first to say a few words about the biographical chapters.
In the biographical chapters Cleary constructs the following narrative: Bulfinch was the son of a man who felt a great deal of social responsibility (Charles was a famous architect in post-Revolutionary War Boston, and finished the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.), which Bulfinch must therefore also have felt; Bulfinch was well educated at a time when that meant that he had focused primarily on classical languages and literature; finally, Bulfinch was a failure in the various business endeavors he undertook, but encountered people from every walk of life, thus giving him an idea of how the “common man” thought. Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming amount of information on which Cleary drew (most of the Bulfinches were energetic letter writers), there is little to tell us how Bulfinch conceptualized the project, and so Cleary has to speculate a great deal. There are many interesting anecdotes and observations about middle-class society in post Revolutionary War Boston and Washington, D.C., but too often they are buried in data less than germane to the arguments building up to the analysis of the The Age of Fable. One gets the feeling that the single chapter devoted to Bulfinch’s life in Cleary’s previous book about Bulfinch’s mythology book was more than sufficient to cover this small patch of ground.2
In the final four chapters Cleary argues that we should view The Age of Fable from a pedagogical, rather than literary, point of view, a case she made at some length in her previous book on Bulfinch. Here, she expands on her previous work and argues that Bulfinch was “democratizing” Greek mythology by making it available to people with little or no knowledge of Latin and Greek. Despite Bulfinch’s own use of the term “popularize” in the book’s dedication to Longfellow, Cleary differentiates the two: “The word democratize means, not only to make something popularly available, but also to make it work for social equality and against usurpation by power and wealth” (256).
A key part of this democratization is Bulfinch’s attempt to make mythology appear as “useful knowledge,” a move Cleary connects with his interest in the natural sciences. In this light, Cleary makes much of Bulfinch’s time as the recording secretary of the Boston Society of Natural History. This acquaintance with the methods of scientists, Cleary maintains, helped Bulfinch eventually light upon the career meant for him: “[h]e would select from and arrange traditional literature so that ordinary people could understand it, not only scholars” (250).
But Bulfinch’s preface, on which Cleary relies almost exclusively for her formulation of his aims, does not seem to support Cleary’s view of the book’s purpose. If anything, Bulfinch seems to have been writing largely for people of his own social class, essentially the middle-class offshoot of the early American elite. Cleary sees Bulfinch’s linking of classical mythology with English poetry (at the end of each myth, he quotes several authors who refer or allude to the myth) as a pedagogical tactic, and argues that this connection is the main purpose of the work and the reason for its success. Bulfinch’s explanation, however, was slightly different: “we often hear persons by no means illiterate say that they cannot enjoy Milton. But were these persons to add to their more solid acquirements the easy learning of this little volume, much of the poetry of Milton which has appeared to them ‘harsh and crabbed’ would be found ‘musical as is Apollo’s lute.'”3
I admit to not knowing much of the reception of Milton in mid-nineteenth century America, but I wonder if gearing a book on myth to readers of Milton was ever really a marker of “democratization.” Is Bulfinch’s book “useful” (a quality Cleary stresses) because he quotes or alludes to Milton over forty times? Far more convincing is Cleary’s assertion that Bulfinch succeeds in providing, as he declares in his preface, “a Classical Dictionary for the parlor” in part through the inclusion of a thorough index to the work. This notion of usefulness, however, is a far cry from Cleary’s idea that the book worked “for social equality and against usurpation by power and wealth.”
In general, the discussion of how exactly Bulfinch democratizes mythology is not sustained. In focusing almost exclusively on the preface, Cleary neglects the rest of the book, and so provides no detailed analysis of how Bulfinch handled his material. Equally lacking is an extended discussion of the reception of his book, which might have strengthened her arguments about what the book accomplished. The Age of Fable did succeed, and continues to sell well, but Cleary’s vague formulation of ‘democratization’ is unconvincing as an explanation for this success.
This question — what made Bulfinch’s book succeed — is important to all of us who teach classics because it is akin to asking why Greek Mythology courses are so popular. The question is fundamental: do students want to take mythology courses because they are “useful” (i.e. they help them understand references in literature, movies, etc.) or because there is something inherently enjoyable about the myths themselves (or rather the accounts of the myths)? The answers are not mutually exclusive, but Cleary almost completely ignores the latter possibility.
Cleary is right that Bulfinch occupies an important place in the American reception of myth, but sells his book short, in part because she sells the subject matter short. If Bulfinch succeeded because he married Greco-Roman myth to English poetry, then what explains the success of later mythological handbooks by Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves, neither of which devote any serious attention to non-classical literature? Is it not more likely that Bulfinch succeeded because he was giving people without Greek or Latin — or without the inclination to use their Latin — a chance to read enjoyable literature presented with charm as well as respect?
The topic of this book thus raises important questions, though Cleary adds little of importance to the discussion in her previous book. The excessive biographical details of the current book are of limited value, especially since so few of them are about Bulfinch himself. Rather, Cleary seems to have been unwilling to forgo including a great deal of information about other members of the family, primarily Thomas’s father, and too readily indulges her digressive tendency, making it difficult to get to the heart of the matter. A tighter connection between the two major parts of the book and a more detailed analysis of The Age of Fable itself would have been welcome.4
1. The Bulfinch Solution: Teaching the Ancient Classics in American Schools. (Salem, NH: 1990).
2. Chapter 3, “Bulfinch’s Life as a Matrix for The Age of Fable,” pp. 57-93.
3. Because there are so many editions of Bulfinch’s book, I (like Cleary) provide no page numbers. His division of the book into small sections, however, makes it easy to find references.
4. The book is mostly free of typographical errors and generally attractive in formatting, though the binding (the book is perfect bound) began to fall apart before I was even finished reading it.