In 1975, William Colby, the director of the CIA, was bracing himself to testify before the Church Committee on the crimes of the CIA. The agency was created to be accountable to Congress, but it had so routinely evaded that responsibility that being honest was considered a form of treason to the company. (Former director Richard Helms had been given a hero’s treatment for his own lying to Congress.) Just before his testimony, Colby went to see an old friend, who he knew was giving a guest lecture at George Washington University on Sophocles’ Antigone, about the woman who defies her family and the state to stay true to her conscience. That friend was Bernard Knox, a fellow “Jed” from World War II. The Jeds were members of Operation Jedburgh, which trained three-man teams (one American, one British, one French) to parachute by night into occupied France and join the Resistance. Both men became decorated war heroes. This was just one example of the way Knox could bring together ancient literature and modern life.
Knox was a good comrade to have in combat situations. He had served on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, where he was severely wounded in the neck and shoulder and left for dead by his own troops. He was there because his friend John Cornford had come back from a first foray into Spain to recruit fellow Communist students at Cambridge and Oxford to follow him into the war against Franco’s fascists. Knox told me that Cornford, a poet and charismatic leader, was “the most extraordinary person I have ever known…. Perhaps it was the fierce single-mindedness of his thought and action that compelled admiration.” Cornford found Knox conducting a Marxist reading group in Cambridge, and he took him to meet his father, the famous Cambridge classicist Francis Cornford, who gave his son the revolver he had carried as an officer in World War I. Knox had to smuggle the gun through customs since Cornford was a radical whose luggage was bound to be searched. When Cornford was killed in Spain, Knox had to take that news back to Cornford’s lover, Margot Heinemann, whose poems lamenting his death Knox sent me:
Yes, you’d like an army all of Sidney Cartons,
The best world made conveniently by wasters, second rate,
Someone that we could spare,
And not the way it has to be made,
By the loss of our best and bravest everywhere.
After recovering from his war wounds (which left a scar on his neck), Knox came to America, to marry the woman from New Jersey he had met when she studied in Cambridge. For three years he used his classical Cambridge training to teach Latin to girls at a private school in Connecticut. But when America went to war he joined the OSS. His language skills led the men forming the elite Jedburgh corps to appoint him to its number. Later, in the McCarthy era, his Communist past would have disqualified him for such duty. But Russia was still our ally, and his adventurous side became a recommendation for this Dirty Dozen brigade. He later wrote:
The problem in choosing men for such an operation, of course, is that once they are landed in enemy territory, you can no longer control them. They may do the obviously sensible thing: go to ground in a safe hiding place, do nothing to attract attention to themselves, and wait for the arrival of friendly troops. The psychological and psychiatric tests the Jeds were subjected to had one basic objective: to select men psychologically incapable of remaining quiet—troublemakers, in fact; people who could be relied on to upset applecarts. I have no great admiration for psychology as taught and practiced in the United States, still less for psychiatry, but I have to admit that the men in charge of selecting the Jedburghs delivered the goods. I have never known such a bunch of troublemakers in my life.
After making trouble behind the lines in France, Knox was sent to do the same in Italy, where he picked up a fancy copy of Vergil’s poems. He read a passage from the Georgics ending “Blasphemous War seethes everywhere” (saevit toto Mars impius orbe). In a talk he gave at a conference in Venice in 1994, he said of his experience in Italy: “Though I might justifiably have been called filocomunista when at the age of twenty I fought in the winter of 1936 on the northwest outskirts of Madrid, by 1945 I was an older and wiser man.” He resolved to study classics if he survived the war.
Though Knox became famous as a Greek scholar, his first scholarly article, published in 1950, was as a Latinist, repaying his debt to Vergil: “The Serpent and the Flame: The Imagery of the Second Book of the Aeneid.” Imagery criticism was old stuff in postwar English departments, but it was still something new in classics. When I arrived at the Yale classics department eight years after this article appeared, it was still being talked about as trailblazing. There was not much regard for literature in that department, which made its name under Michael Rostovtzeff by excavating the ancient Hellenistic and Roman site of Dura Europos—in today’s Syria—from the 1920s on. Though that dig turned up fascinating Christian and Jewish art and artifacts, the grubbing in the 1950s was down to the counting of endless little drab oil lanterns. When Brad Welles, the head of the department in the 1950s, boasted of his latest publication, Knox, by that time a Yale professor, angered him by saying, “The lamps of Dura Europos are going out one by one.”
When I lamented, later, the lack of literary interest in the department during my time there, Knox told me it was even worse when he entered Yale as a graduate student in the 1940s. When he decided to write his dissertation on the messenger speeches in Greek tragedy, he could get no one on the faculty to be interested in the subject, so he wrote without an adviser. (The brilliant literary student Howard Porter was there, but only as an untenured instructor who could not direct dissertations.)
Luckily for Knox, few brought up his youthful communism during the McCarthy period. One who did, the flamboyant reactionary Willmoore Kendall, who was acting as a mentor to William Buckley at the time, told Knox that he would protect him if a problem arose because of his past. Knox was amused when I later told him that alphabetic accident made his books rest on my shelves next to Kendall’s. That is when he told me how Willmoore assured him: “In Germany, Nazi party leaders were allowed to have one Jewish friend, whom they protected from persecution. You are my Jewish friend.”
It is funny to think that Kendall could protect Knox. He was so wildly unpopular that Yale bought out his tenure to get rid of him, while Knox became a very popular undergraduate lecturer and esteemed graduate teacher. You cannot become much more Establishment than being appointed the first director of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, the Sather Lecturer at Berkeley, the Jefferson Lecturer in Washington, and winning the George Jean Nathan Award and the Charles Frankel Prize of the National Endowment of the Humanities.
The Jefferson Lecture is officially described as “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” When Knox gave it in 1992, he defiantly described his beloved ancient Greeks as “The Oldest Dead White European Males.” No one defended their legacy more effectively than Knox, combining deep scholarship with high popularizing skills. The Center for Hellenic Studies gives fellowships to young scholars from around the world. I was a fellow in its first year of existence, and the chance to live with scholars early in their career—in my year they were from Italy, England, and Germany—was as stimulating as anything in my experience. Knox shared that stimulation with many people in things like his introductions and annotations to Robert Fagles’s popular translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, or in the forty-some articles he wrote for The New York Review of Books. I once asked him why he did not write an autobiography. He said he would try to find time, but he was always behind deadline for The New York Review.
He is now the youngest and livingest dead white male in memory. It is not often that one has a professor who fought guerrilla wars in three different countries (Spain, France, and Italy). To a man left for dead on the field of battle at age twenty-one, his carotid artery geysering blood, and who lost his best friend, his Patroclus, at the same age in the same war, the warrior deaths of Greek literature had to have a special meaning, and that came through to his students. I once wrote for a collection of tributes to Bernard during his life, in which I said that his presence in an otherwise stultifying classics department had been, in the words of Aeschylus, like “sheltering the light through shadow” (phos in euphrone pheron). He still plays that part for many of us, even through the shadow of death.
September 30, 2010