David Grene, 1913-2002

An eulogy delivered at Mr. Grene’s memorial in Bond Chapel at the University of Chicago


...The odds is gone

And there is nothing left remarkable

Beneath the visiting moon.


image © Judy Schavrien, 2002

When we remember that William David Grene was a legend, a legend in his life, and that he was larger than life, a ‘Zeus of the Classics’, perhaps we should acknowledge the thing we are saying in its simplest terms. That is to say, this man, David Grene, was a god. There is a sense in which every professor acts like a god, but no, in the way that he moved through university life and in the way his students treated him, this man really was a god. I suppose that is a shocking thing to say, and perhaps intended to be shocking. But if I were to say that he was a bodhisattva, I doubt if I should unsettle very many of you. We are distant enough from Hindu culture, and close enough to 60’s culture, for that to be an acceptably cool designation. Perhaps I could say this best in the terms of the tradition that I grew up in myself—and also here borrow from one of my favourite movies: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, David’s was the most filled with the Holy Spirit.

When I met him there was indeed a tongue of flame upon him, but there was also something simply incendiary about David. He was seventy-three and I twenty-two, and it was by no means a case of love at first sight (at least on his side). With male students in particular, he was like a father with a chip on his shoulder. The experience of the early weeks of the quarter in those days was of a string of brash and hopeful spontaneous formulators being withered like the fig tree. Usually they would not return to David’s classroom, and I remember them sometimes needing my shoulder. I told him at that time, there is ‘that in your countenance which I would fain call Master.’ For those of us who did come back, there was then an essential mediator between the god and the lesser angels (Social Thought students were called ‘Junior Fellows’). This mediator was Stephanie Nelson. Where the rest of us ventured our opinions and translations with a pounding pulse and a stammer, Stephanie at all times was absolutely fearless. She was equally good at humanizing David as she was at humanizing an ancient Greek author. Many of us, especially me, were filled in those days with the silliest kinds of pieties. Stephanie dared to be familiar with Homer and Pindar and Thucydides. David was extremely responsive to prompts and to her prompt especially, and things got considerably duller when she was gone. I believe there are many of us who can testify to her profound presence in David’s classroom. Let me remember that first and best group I was associated with, who had read Herodotus with David and whom I joined for the Odyssey: Stephanie, Clare Geiman, Richard Heinemann, Allen Speight, Norma Thompson, and last and least, the rookie David Amirthanayagam. There is no question that her long schooling with David has helped make Stephanie one of America’s most potent new classicists.

In later years David became much more of a grandfather in class. I used to complain to him how he would let some of my junior Junior Fellows get away with things in translating that he never would have done me. It was not good for them, I said. He just smiled.

One of my most curious experiences of David was of being a fellow student with him. My wife and I along with David and a few others took a late afternoon class on Linear B with Eric Hamp. (When Mr. Hamp is in the room, by the way, there are still some odds left, thank you very much.) David had to be first, with the raising of the hand; he had to be first, with the answer. It was absolutely a traveling in time, a glimpse of young Master Grene in his schooldays. I remember Mr. Hamp had Mr. Grene rolling about when he imagined the sort of conversation there must have been between a Phoenician and a Greek that resulted in that first phonemic alphabet.

When I came to Chicago David and Stephanie were already a couple, and hence I never saw them as an innovation or a disruption, but as a part of the way of things. Obviously David had a number of profound relationships with women, and there is nothing I can say now that might not offend someone. But I wish to testify here to the extraordinary coupling of David Grene and Stephanie Nelson. Over sixteen years their intimacy with Anne and me and later our young family was a source of great strength and comfort. They were exemplary, as a couple, as hosts, and yet of course neither of them is in any normal sense imitable. David was often decisive about things that might have seemed to have been his partner’s prerogative. It was a thing of wonder to see how Stephanie handled him, and how the two of them got along. David of course was greatly taken by coupling, and the uniqueness of coupling. Neutered animals were an abomination to him. David coupled me with the late Arthur Adkins. What judgement he had in these matters, and what a lucky young man I was to be under his care.

In the normal course of things, a teacher like David is only to be met with in books. He was a peerless philologist, from a generation that genuinely knew philology, and it was indeed an important part of the experience of studying with him to encounter his compendious acumen. But David’s philological knowledge was merely one of several paths into the mystery of author, word, and sentence that made a text a living presence in his classroom. He had a queerness to his mind and imagination that made Euclid, for example, incomprehensible to him, and the memorizing of traffic symbols an arduous task. He was a small-built man, but he was athletic—he was a horseman—and in his intellect, movement and voice he was a commanding presence. It was a signal honour to earn David’s recognition, by saying or writing something insightful: a moment of grace. It was an achievement to say something that made him get up and walk around as he answered you. David the peripatetic. His colleague Wendy Doniger remembers that ‘he lived on meat—particularly bacon and steak—cheese, butter, eggs and Tanqueray gin ... He was a real person. He was bigger than life.’

There was a definite hierarchy in his translation classes. The pole position was to be the last to translate. It was very important to be ‘first’ in David’s estimation, as it was for Emma with Knightley. It was a thrill the first time I got that pole position, and whenever I lost it there would be a concentrated effort, sometimes for weeks, until I got it back. That is a confession to those who know.

For half the year every year David was a farmer, and a number of us students, including the late Allan Bloom, were at some time initiated by him into the realities of cow and pig, sheep, horse and donkey. The stock of his memoirs, from Wicklow to Trinity, from farming in Illinois to Belturbet Co. Cavan, from studying in Vienna under Radermacher during Hitler’s rise in the thirties to Hutchins’ Chicago to the Committee on Social Thought, is a thing of wonder in itself. Yet David was able to dramatize these realities in the classroom so that somehow they formed an entry point for the dramatization of literature, philosophy, history—the distinction becomes moot—and one began to feel the presence of an author as a protagonist: mortal, historical, and yet ever-present. Even the philology seemed to come alive and count in a new way. One became self-conscious, about one’s accent as much as one’s ideas; one felt intimidated, and yet challenged to speak. It was a rare critical formulation that could survive this experience. But they would come nagging in the aftermath.

Translation was a private matter with David; in class almost all the translating was done by students. His gift as a translator did not lead to his conducting master classes. Many of us can testify to a common experience, of preparing a text of Aeschylus or Pindar or Sophocles painstakingly for hour after hour, coming up with formulations that seemed (at the time, and to us) very clever or even brilliant; but then showing up at his class, and having our minds go completely blank when he called on us to translate. Suddenly the Greek appeared before us as an obstacle course that we had never seen before, and which we were asked to run on a full stomach. He was completely galvanizing that way: perhaps his power had to do with our own feeling that he was on the ‘other side’ of the line that Greek drew before us, a Poseidon feasting among the Ethiopians; he also seemed somehow on the other side of the author’s mask, a fellow worker with him in the art of turning thought, and the movement of thought, into Greek. There was also a curious knack to his timing, a way he would call on you that simply left you naked.

At the heart of the obstacle course was always a tightrope over an abyss. No other teacher I have known was so able to initiate one into the ‘going across’ of translation. If you missed your step, you remained scarred and subdued until the next attempt. But there were also times when it felt like one was dancing on that tightrope; and on those happy occasions in David’s company I have had no more exhilarating an experience as a student or a teacher.

I am particularly grateful for his early study, Man In His Pride: A Study in the Political Philosophy of Thucydides and Plato (Chicago 1949), later reprinted as Greek Political Theory. David’s treatment is a healthy antivenom to the kind of pseudo-analytic reductionism and juvenile unliterariness that dogs the use and abuse of Plato’s writings in departments of ‘philosophy’ (sifting Plato for arguments is like reading Playboy for the articles), and also to the programmatic approach to Thucydides in ‘departments’ of history. But David’s greatest legacy is his translations, which should continue to bring him students. He was bold enough, hubristic enough, brilliant enough—and, to be sure, there was also his extraordinary feeling for stagecraft—to think that one could translate the Greek tragedians into English verse. His achievements here represent a genuine conduit for the ancient playwrights into a modern world and idiom. The rhythms of Greek are not translatable, not even the iambs, but David, in my view, was particularly good at capturing the rhythmic movement, together with the movement of thought, of whole speeches in Greek drama.

His aim was unique in his time: to give ‘access’ to the tragedies to students who were not intending to study Greek. Ms. Nelson writes in an e-mail that ‘the idea of a Great Books course is so usual now that we tend to forget that it was David's completely new idea that a translation didn't need to serve only as a pony for beginning Greek students that made it possible. He really did issue in a whole new era that way.’ David’s passing underscores the nearly complete dependence of such programmes on translations, and the traditions of scholarship and teaching (that are sometimes misleadingly called ‘secondary’) that underlie works of translation. But David’s renderings do represent a body of invaluable commentary for students of Greek as well. David knew enough not to translate Homer into English (though I, knowing less, was always pestering him). The long line he found for Hesiod (a translation of Works and Days is included in Ms. Nelson’s God and the Land, Oxford 1998) will always leave me wondering what his Homer might have been.

The most remarkable achievement, however, was his Herodotus (Chicago 1985). There he found an uncanny match in the neverland of a quasi-Hibernian storyteller for the diction and character of Herodotus’ own neverland of antique Ionic. The experience of being ‘behind the mask’ is simply extraordinary;  only the achievement of Hobbes with Thucydides is a fit comparison in English prose (although David himself would never have allowed the comparison). Herodotus’ thought in form and rhythm, gesture and posture, lives and breathes in those pages of David’s. And David lives on in them too.

A golden age of University education has passed forever, and we all know it.

There can be no healing for this loss—not for his friends and colleagues, for his loved ones and lovers—for the dead Greek authors who found in him marrow, blood and voice—or for me.

He was a man of wonders who faced the challenges of his aging body and the relentless mortality of his friends with a vivid, fiercely loyal and capacious heart. He was a bodhisattva of the Tanqueray vine with an Apolline absolutism of conviction. But his absolutism was always grounded in human feeling—‘human’ was ever his guiding word, his touchstone—never in abstract principle. The one thing that could not survive in his classroom was pretension or dishonesty. The ingenuity of the genuine was David’s virtue, and academia everywhere is a drearier, less principled place without his animating and enduring spirit.


Amirthanayagam P. David


November 22, 2002

© A P David 2019