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Who Killed Homer?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Homer Lives! from the March 18, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

Peter Green’s review of Who Killed Homer? [NYR, March 18], like much of what he has written recently, is recycled, factually inaccurate, and hypocritical.

It is hard to take Green seriously anymore because his reviews are recirculated tidbits from his past invectives—the names change, while the cue-card quotes remain the same. Green’s entire review, laden with regurgitated quips, is itself lifted from his incoherent attack on Who Killed Homer? which appears in the current issue of Arion, together with our lengthy response to his factual distortions and misrepresentations. Green promises “to return to this subject elsewhere”—good God, if his past practice is any guide, third and fourth versions of his review repackaged with new titles are on the horizon.

In wonderfully egotistical fashion, Green suggests that we are wrong about our field’s decline because a few of his own students and friends seem to be surviving. But 600 BAs in classics out of a million granted each year is not an encouraging statistic, nor are the hundreds of unemployed Ph.D.s of the last two decades. The American Philological Association has just announced in the field’s eleventh hour all sorts of “outreach” programs—indeed, an entire new Division of Outreach—as candidates for national office warn that “…a lack of positions has created a nearly untenable situation for young Classicists, many of whom will be lost to the profession…,” and adding that “…most Classics departments are small and growing smaller.” (APA Newsletter 21.2 [June 1998]: Election Supplement).

Most revealingly, what Green now says about classics and classicists is entirely at odds with his pre-Centennial professor fury when he became known for posing, as he later admitted, as “a freelance maverick flaying the professors” (The Shadow of the Parthenon, p. 8). Since Green repeatedly implies that we too “covet most” to be mandarins, one can legitimately wonder about the circumstances of his own remarkable conversion into an entrenched apologist for the status quo.

Green, who chastises us for saying that the engine that drives classics is academic careerism, once wrote, “I have seen too many scholars and lecturers whose major concern is jockeying upwards in their Faculty, playing the game of academic politics, and who therefore avoid anything of the heterodox…” (Essays in Antiquity, p. 24). Green scolded us for saying classics is narrow and pedantic. But he once pontificated: “I believe the whole cultural and philosophical legacy of Greece and Rome is one of our vital and precious possessions; but I see it slipping beyond our reach through pedantry, fear, selfishness, intellectual snobbery, sterile traditionalism, and sheer pigheadedness” (Essays in Antiquity, p. 24). Perhaps his own critique of three decades ago was simply what Green now says of Who Killed Homer?—“the kind of antiestablishment diatribe that tends to surface every thirty years or so.” Green, who confuses the health of his field with his own career, now boasts that “Homer Lives!”; when university Greek and Latin enrollments were much higher than they are now, he wrote, “There is some difficulty in countering the charge that classical studies are ‘dead”’ (Essays in Antiquity, p. 20). Youthful indiscretions from one’s unemployed mid-forties?

We end with these sample quotations because in his pretentious review he questioned the motivations for our own outsider status (cf. his sneers at “middle-class American classical scholars,” “teachers of classics at small California colleges,” “folksy lecturing,” and populism). At least he is honest enough to reveal his envy when he warns about Who Killed Homer? book sales, a paperback edition from his own publisher, and favorable reviews and comments from diverse classicists (e.g. Bernard Knox, David Kovacs), public intellectuals (e.g. Richard Rodriguez, Camille Paglia), and nonacademic publications (e.g. Dissent, The Wall Street Journal).

But Green just doesn’t get it when he projects his own road to Damascus onto us. We really do like being “teachers” of lots of undergraduates; we feel very lucky to teach classics in the state where we were born; and we most surely do not want any part of the silly world of Peter Green and his colleagues. He apparently thinks that criticizing an ossified profession is a posture of sorts where “one flays the professors” only to recant as a rite of passage into coveted mandarinism—like some triple-talking tribune who shrieks loudly until at last gaining admittance into the obsequious senate house.

We wrote Who Killed Homer? because we love the Greeks and are saddened that formal study of them is dying. We believe that this loss is due in large part to influential classicists who fail to teach enough undergraduates and to convince the public of the worth of their own field. That Green takes this argument personally is revealing—and fine with us. For those who actually teach introductory Latin and Greek, and several classics courses a semester, or who are trying to obtain a permanent job with a newly minted classics Ph.D., or who simply wish to find an engaging book on the Greeks, classics is sadly dying. Most in the public and an increasing number on campus tend to agree—and here Green, maverick turned lead steer, at last gets one thing right.

Victor Davis Hanson

Selma, California

John Heath

Menlo Park, California

Peter Green: replies:

Hanson and Heath’s letter offers a useful trailer to anyone thinking of consulting their book, being likewise short on rational discourse, while long on colorful rhetoric and ad hominem name-calling. There is, I think, a deep confusion in their approach between two quite different problems: how to educate a broad student body in Greek culture, and the training of professional classicists. The needs, and deficiencies, of each are hopelessly muddled in their discourse. For instance, they regard six hundred BAs out of a million as evidence of decline in general appreciation. But most students don’t need a degree in classics to appreciate Greek wisdom, and professionally this percentage represents a return to a reasonable figure, a correction of that post-war inflation in the humanities of grades, departments, and advanced degrees which (as in fact they are well aware) is largely responsible for the glut—and not only in classics—of inadequately trained Ph.D.s, about which they complain so vociferously.

Such an attitude sits rather oddly with their passion for course overloads at the expense of serious research (and yes, I have taught beginning Greek, not to mention grading all essays myself in courses with enrollments up to a hundred: they’re not the only hard workers on the block). There are two things only that would justify such overloads: (i) an enormous student demand; and (ii) an acute shortage of teachers. But on the first count they complain that no one’s interested anymore; and on the second that there are too many professors being turned out. Confusion again. Why not, one wonders, hire some of the latter to relieve the pressure, if pressure (but from where?) there is? Ah, of course: because they are careerists who don’t understand Greek wisdom. The temptation to regard this obsession of Hanson and Heath’s as simply a specialized version of the puritan work ethic, designed to present them as the only defenders of the pass, is, I fear, very considerable.

Another curious reaction they evince is a marked distaste for being told that things are getting better anywhere, or aren’t as bad as they suggest. They should surely be delighted at any light in the gloom, whereas in fact they seem to relish no kind of success, bar the (very welcome) kind they have achieved themselves. I used my personal knowledge and experience not, as they suggest, out of egotism, but because, unlike a good deal of their statistics, it was known and certifiable. There are plenty more such cases nationwide should they care to seek them out. (My current e-mail shows that there are rising Latin enrollments in Dallas, while an Ohio high school appeals for textbooks to meet an exponential increase in demands.) Hanson and Heath should investigate the activities of a body such as CAMWS (the Classical Association of the Mid-West and South), which has influence far beyond its geographical limits, and whose members are precisely those middle-class American scholars and teachers whom, far from despising (as Hanson and Heath affect to suppose), I saw in my review as the profession’s salvation, and among whom, even as a metic, or resident alien, I am proud to be numbered.

Lastly, there is the charge, reiterated at wearisome length, that as a certified Outsider I have somehow sold out to the Establishment. I find it astonishing that Hanson and Heath should have read so much of my work yet still have failed so completely to understand it. Of course I have changed: primarily because classics has changed, and more radically in the last forty years than ever before. There are new problems, new enemies (mostly administrative). The postwar crisis in the humanities is indeed all too real, and needs serious constructive attention. But Hanson andHeath are still flailing away at their obsolescent straw men, Us vs. Them, forever. Times change: they don’t. It would really help if they stopped snarling at colleagues and decided to collaborate instead. As another now-famous Californian said, not so long ago, “Why can’t we all get along?” God knows there’s enough that needs doing.

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