The history of the study of Classics has become a fashionable topic to explore over the last few years (well, fashionable among professional classicists, that is). It’s a branch of what we have come to call “reception studies”.
Mostly we have concentrated on investigating the careers of our successful predecessors. Top of the list have been the likes of Sir Richard Jebb (in the picture), prolific commentator on Sophocles (his commentaries are still in use today after more than a hundred years), professor of Greek at Cambridge, member of parliament and self-interested dandy (“What time he can spare from the adornment of his person he devotes to the neglect of his duties” as the Master of his college nicely quipped).
Or there’s my own particular love-hate subject -- Newnham don, contrived eccentric and the first professional woman classicist in this country, Jane Ellen Harrison. When she was a student she apparently turned William Gladstone apoplectic on a visit to the college. Asked what her favourite Greek author was, she replied “Euripides”. Not enough to enrage a modern Prime Minister. But for Gladstone the right answer was always Homer, and Harrison – by choosing the radical and unsettling Athenian dramatist – was intentionally trying to needle the Grand Old Man. It worked.
But last Saturday one of our graduate students hosted an excellent conference on the other side of this story: those who didn’t make it, those who were squeezed out by the big guys, those who hated it. It was called “Classics rejected": the start, as one of the session chairs quipped, almost as nicely as Jebb’s Master, of a new science of “rejection studies”.
The day was full of stories of tragic and not-so-tragic rejection. Ed Richardson, the conference organizer, lingered on the life history of the Victorian Theodore Buckley, translator of enormous tracts of classical literature, alcoholic, opium addict – as well as hammer of the bourgeoisie and of the establishment view of classical greatness. (He showed a great Buckley cartoon of the pitiful, tattered ghost of the murdered Julius Caesar ruefully eyeing up a beautifully presented, imposing Victorian bust of himself.)
Others talked about A. E. Housman failing his degree (before going on the chair of Latin in Cambridge), about books that never got published, about reforms that never took off and about mavericks driven out of Oxbridge and forced to take refuge in “the colonies” (one suspects that they might have had a better time).
I’m not sure what the intended conclusion was. I came away with the sense that you could partly put the longevity of Classics down to the fact that it actually managed its dissidents rather well. Indeed the discipline thrived on tolerating and ultimately incorporating its own internal enemies into the mainstream. It was a broad church pretending to be a narrow one.
I also found myself wondering how far any of the people we had discussed really were failures (the proper failures don’t leave behind enough information to make material for a conference). Very few of our chosen subjects could count as the failures they sometimes made themselves out to be. The “successful” Jane Harrison is a good example of this. As a woman, she was certainly a victim of discrimination of all sorts and made no bones about it; but she ended up turning her own marginality to excellent career effect – becoming the doyenne of studies of Greek religion and culture.
In fact just these points were made, self-referentially, at the conference itself. One of the distinguished speakers ended the day eloquently (and theatrically) asking the assembled company whether the whole project we were engaged on was now worthless and time-expired. Hadn’t Classics really had its day? Shouldn’t we be going off and learning Chinese and Arabic? (More on my own progress in that area will come in due course). Shouldn’t we get real?
At first sight, tough talk at a conference of classicists. But I suspect that it’s just that kind of internal opposition that keeps the subject on its toes. They are doubts that have been raised, albeit with different nuances, for hundreds of years – cathartically. I don’t suppose that any of us, even the eloquent speaker, will actually give the subject up.