I had been working hard on a talk for a group of North Carolina classicists. So when a letter came from Bob Hellenga, an old friend and a much admired novelist, I put it aside, just glancing at the enclosure, the text of a lecture at Monmouth College, called “Confessions of a Fictional Classicist.” I’ll reads it later, after the lecture, I promised myself.
En route to the meeting, Bob Simmons, a visiting Assistant Professor at UNC-Greensboro, said he noticed I had an honorary degree from Knox College. Very politely, suppressing any amazement that I should have received such an honor, he asked how it came about. My long-winded answer necessarily involved an account of my friendship with Bob Hellenga.
“The Bob Hellenga who wrote Fall of a Sparrow? “
“The very one.”
“That novel changed my life.”
“It made a classicist of me.”
As I teased out the story, I realized that no specific passage in the novel had yielded this result. Simmons said, “ it just reminded me of the joy that a professor of Classics can take in doing the work that she or he does. “ Joy, but a lot of hard work, too.
The day after my talk at Greensboro I turned to Hellenga’s lecture, a rich exegesis of Fall of a Sparrow, with its light-handed Homeric resonances. Of course, Homer won’t resonate in your novel unless you pour out a full libation of hard work. For Hellenga much of that came during the years we were both at the University of Michigan. Before I met him Hellenga had taken Great Books and Introductory Greek with Art Hanson:
Everything came out of these two classes .. Friends, my wife (introduced by someone in Greek class). My intellectual framework. Especially Homer… I worked hard to translate sixty lines a night. Professor Blake would come into class and say , ‘Rosy-fingered dawn came up like this this morning,’ and he’d hold his hands up to demonstrate. That was the extent of literary criticisms in the class. All we had to worry about was slogging through sixty lines per class. There was absolutely no pressure to appreciate the Homeric poems as works of great literature. And I think this was a good thing. Appreciation came naturally, unforced.
And in time a series of novels, and real-as-life characters, came too. Of these Woody in Fall of a Sparrow is one of my favorites. He’s a classicist, though not in the mold of Warren Blake. “It was a truly wonderful thing, he reminded himself, that a man could earn a living talking to young people about Homer and Ovid and Horace.” Wonderful, and a joy as well, as Bob Simmons rightly inferred.
So watch out which texts you read. They have a way of sneaking up on you and changing everything.
OTHER NOVELISTS WITH A CLASSICAL BENT:
E.L. Doctorow, see blog entry of January 22, 2014
Roxana Robinson (Sparta), see blog entry of January 10, 2014