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Crusty Christopher

In response to:

Sense of Homer from the May 9, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

H.A. Mason, in his review of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Odyssey (NYR, May 9), makes some remarks about my review of Fitzgerald’s version (Hudson Review, Winter 1961-62), which I cannot allow to go unchallenged. I am not of course protesting against his critical opinions; he is more than welcome to them. What I take exception to is the phrase he uses to describe the general endorsement of Fitzgerald’s version with which I ended a review that was in many respects adverse: he calls it a “pre-prepared ‘blurb.’ ” The ugly compound adjective is apparently his own sorry invention; no dictionary known to me defines it and so I am forced to interpret it as best I can. If Mason had written “prepared” I would have taken it to mean that I deliberately inserted the sentence so that the publisher could use it as an advertisement. All I can make of “preprepared” is the suggestion that I did this after previous consultation with the author or the publisher or both. Since this is the only meaning I can extract from the words (and I am not alone in this), I must give the lie direct. I have never met, talked to or corresponded with either Fitzgerald or his publishers. And if Mason meant what he said he is a liar and slanderer.

I can see three courses of action open to him. He can perhaps explain his choice of words in some way that will absolve him of the charge of malicious slander and still produce a reasonable interpretation of what he wrote. I do not think this will be easy. He can claim that he was writing carelessly and with little regard for the meaning of his words; such a claim, in view of the usual quality of his prose, I would be prepared to accept. Or he can simply apologize to me in these columns for his unwarranted accusation of dishonesty. In that case I expect an apology from you too. There are limits to the amount of character assassination a journal (even your journal) can permit itself and it is the editor’s responsibility to remove infected matter of this kind from the text of those contributors misguided enough to submit it.

Bernard Knox

Center for Hellenic Studies

Washington, D.C.

H.A Mason replies:

I wish that I had accepted your suggestion to substitute in my script an explanatory phrase for the neologism “preprepared,” and if it had crossed your minds or had dawned on mine that the word could be thought of as implying that I had reflected even remotely on the character of Bernard Knox, I should have written instead what I now hasten to send to you.

What had occurred to me was the very thought that went through the distinguished scholar’s mind: “If Mason had writen ‘prepared’ I would have taken it to mean that I deliberately inserted the sentence so that the publisher could use it as an advertisement.” To adapt a phrase from the grammar books (impossible conditions in the past), “If Mason had written that he would have been both a slanderer and a fool.” Would anybody finding this on a dust cover:

The poem is here translated into modern English by RICHMOND LATTIMORE—“foremost translator of Greek now writing in English” (Hudson Review)—“master translator of the age” (Wm. Arrowsmith)—who “writes the most accurate verse translation in the language” (Robert Lowell)

suppose that the three eminent figures there cited had an eye on and a care for the publishers when they came out with these fine phrases?

Criticism is criticism and trade is trade. The critic is at the mercy of the advertising man’s scissors. Everybody knows this and nobody thinks that men of established reputation as poets and critics are consenting parties to the treatment their pronouncements undergo in the blurb-composer’s hands. The awkward phrase I concocted was intended to kill any such rising absurdity in the reader’s mind and to open the way for a thought that I had supposed was common but took for granted the critic’s innocence: “Well, he made it very easy for the tradesman who wanted to sell his wares.” This was a criticism I was forced to apply to myself many years ago about an article on a New York weekly, in which like Crusty Christopher I mingled blame and praise, when I found the weekly’s sales department cheerfully using one isolated sentence to “boost” their supplements. No ingenuity, I was forced to see, had been needed to extract it: it offered itself, ipse capi voluit.

The analogy with other horrors that earlier pedants have dreamed up by prefixing “pre” to ordinary verbs suggests, I hope Bernard Knox will agree, that an unanxious mind would puzzle out of “pre-prepare” some such meaning as “an action occurring before the actual constituting of the blurb” and understand that the link between the two acts was one of consequence not of conscious intention. Yet I do not think that Bernard Knox was romancing when he implied that at least one person had informed him that an attempt had been made to “assassinate his character” in a New York journal. But what I should have supposed before I saw his letter to you was that he would have instantly pointed out to his informant or informants that the context of the neologism was not at all in favor of the supposed murderous intent, and that there was another reference to him in the article of quite unambiguously favorable import.* But what I above all would have expected from such an able critic if he had then run through my article was some recognition that for its success I required the opposition of men of eminence and integrity not figures of straw and of doubtful honesty. Just as there would have been no excuse for taking up space in a serious journal if it were generally agreed that these modern verse translations were not likely to last, so there would have been no point in writing at length merely to confirm the opinions of Messrs. Knox, Lowell, and Arrowsmith. It may have been presumptuous to hope that two of these authors would see worthy opposition in my sentences, but I cannot apologize for not having guessed that readers might suppose me capable of such stupidity and irrelevance that I would glance at the morals of men when my public duty was to confine my attention to the worth of their published opinions.

  1. *

    In The New York Review of Books, May 9, 1968 I described as a “pre-prepared ‘blurb’ for Fitzgerald’s Odyssey” the following sentence taken from an article by Bernard Knox: “The longfelt need for a poetic translation of the Odyssey has been filled and it is safe to say that this will be the standard English version for a long time to come.” In the sentence following this quotation I wrote of Moses Hadas, William Arrowsmith, and Bernard Knox as “men with whom it would be an honor to be allowed to debate”.

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