October 15, 2002

A recollection of David Grene

News of Professor David Grene's death on September 10 shocked me, despite his advanced age and manifest frailty. I took his last two classes at the University in the fall and winter of last year. Although he could do nothing unaided, he taught every week. Although his sight had deteriorated to the point that he needed 8.5x11 reproductions of the text, he read perfectly, almost as if from memory. This dedication in the face of such unyielding difficulties gave him an aura of permanence. If anyone made the idea of academia as a calling plausible to me, it was David Grene.

Grene was the world's greatest living classicist, translator of Herodotus and editor, with Richmond Lattimore, of The Complete Greek Tragedies. His rendering of the Oedipus cycle can still induce shivers. He was an early member of the Committee on Social Thought and, by the time of his death, a veteran 65-year teacher at the University, despite never having earned a Ph.D. When he raised a stir in the late '30s in the Classics department, he bought the first of several farms to fall back on in case he got fired. As recently as this summer, he traveled back to his farm in his native Ireland.

The farmer-classicist is a rara avis these days, and that is a shame—Homer is far, far earthier than those who teach his poetry today. There are probably now no professors left who can discourse on the great performances of "Lear" in pre-Anschluss Vienna (I remember something like this: "Later he was tried for war crimes—a very bad man. But a great King Lear.") Part of his appeal as a teacher last year was his anachronistic quality. When he taught T.S. Eliot or Yeats, he was teaching his contemporaries—and, in the case of Eliot, a former colleague.

He was in decline by the time he taught his last classes. Still, he had no trouble summoning a dismissive grumble in response to our carefully considered and precisely worded comments. Once in a while he would awe the room—always full of lab school kids, college students, Ph.D. candidates, faculty members, and two kidney doctors from the old days of Social Thought - with a completely unexpected insight into the work at hand. Rumor has it that shortly before he returned to Chicago and suffered his fatal hemorrhage he stopped in London to see a performance of "Antony and Cleopatra." Afterwards he called up a colleague to hold forth on its many flaws and few virtues. Nothing could have been more typical, or more heartening to hear.

Obituaries on the University's Web site, in the Tribune, and in The New York Times featured remembrances from Saul Bellow and many other prominent Committee alumni. For me, he was the co-teacher of the two best classes of my undergraduate career, one on Eliot's Four Quartets and the other on The Tempest. He read Eliot far better than Eliot himself, and he had a singular gift for Shakespeare's language, knowing intuitively when to reverse feet, and how to stress the crucial "if" in Miranda's first lines. It is too fitting, painfully fitting, that the last two courses of his career should have been on great poets confronting mortality and renouncing their craft, but even without this unfortunate denouement, I would have found him unforgettable. We shall not see his like again.