Ancient Greek Literature and Society (Doubleday Anchor Paperback Original New York: 1975) 469pp.
In the late sixties Doubleday had originally contracted with Adam Parry, a brilliant young Hellenist (a son of Milman Parry), to write a history of Greek literature. Adam who had been my colleague and friend when I taught at Yale was never one to hurry projects along, and in this instance, died tragically in a motorcycle accident in 1971 before he had begun the task. The project was handed over to me at a time when Doubleday was going through a major reorganization. When my editor, Susan Burckhardt (later Watts) with whom I began the manuscript relocated to London, I was left to float with minimal supervision. The result was an undisciplined--may I reluctantly say bloated?--text which, nonetheless, has never failed to find its admirers for its eccentricities, not the least of them being the cover illustration. I had originally planned a front cover adorned with a vase painting of a Bronze Age helmet and a back cover of a vase painting of a drunk young man vomiting after a party with a young woman keeping him from falling over. The idea was to show that the ancient Greeks had a vast range of human activity which they aesthetisized. The Athens museum held off giving permission for the helmet, so the Doubleday people decided to go with the vomiting lad on the front which in a way is a kind of warning of the reaction the reader might have to the wayward text contained within.
Among the book’s eccentricities is a peculiar ambivalence toward reading the culture of the time into the texts I discuss, a legacy of the New Criticism with which I had been imbued from the time I entered college. While social and historical context is precisely what ‘Society’ in the title promises, and the reader would certainly be satisfied with the number of historical allusions, still there is an emphatic literariness everywhere. As an example, in my discussion of the Greek historian Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War I am far more interested to interpret the trajectory of that conflict as he defines it with reference to the tragic structuring of events in Aeschylean tragedy (still spellbound by Cornford’s great Thycidides Mythhistoricus) than the economic, social and political realities of Athens and Sparta of the time. Likewise I argue that Thucydides’ first book (or chapter as we say) with its peculiar emphases and omissions and its speeches represent his attempt to illustrate various kinds of history writing rather than a narrative of events, in other words a literary exercise. It is perhaps my most extreme rejection of content for style. The title of the book is utterly misleading, something I did not realize for decades. Mine was the narrow view of antiquity that was taught me and I in turn taught my students, as though the literary history of the Greeks began with Homeric epics, lingered lovingly and long on the literary production in Athens in the fifth century BCE--especially tragic drama--then merely glanced at the fourth and third centuries, first in Athens, then in Alexandria, and that was it. The book contained no mention of Greek literature during the hegemony of the Romans, nothing of Plutarch, for instance, that great Greek speaking, Greek writing author in the time of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, who so significantly reconceived Roman history and tradition through a Greek cultural lens. For which read his Parallel Lives (of noble Greeks and Romans).
Still and all the book turned out to be useful, often for its provocative opinions, which were particularly helpful to academics trying to flesh out lectures in their classical culture courses, and for its extended bibliographical essay at the end which provided a mine of information on scholarly trends and critical opinions of all the works discussed in the book. Thirty years on I am often amused to hear or read someone insisting that one of my more eccentric notions is a commonplace of classical thinking simply because it has filtered out of the book through lectures and student papers into the vast ocean of received truths.
While I was living in Rome in 1972-73 I was contracted to make an anthology of Anglo-American criticism of ancient Greek tragedy which appeared in 1974 (La Tragedia Greca: guida storica e critica Editori Laterza Bari [now in its fifth edition]). At the same time my editor at Laterza began working with a translator on bringing out Ancient Greek Literature and Society for which I had to rework the long bibliographical essay so as to give it a more continental perspective, not to mention to reflect much more Italian scholarly interests. This took some doing, from which I learned a lot, not to the least being that I and the way I had learned antiquity was going out of date. Letteratura e pubblico nella Grecia antica came out in 1979 but did not have an enduring success because by this time classical studies had departed completely from the belle-lettristic New Critical positions in which I had been educated, especially on the Continent where structuralism, deconstruction, the new historicism, and post-modern theories of criticism completely swamped and revamped the tradition. I was never enthralled partly because the jargon in which it was expressed repelled me, partly because theory without constant appeal to the facts and statistics necessary to validate it seemed to me to be intellectually dishonest.