Unbalanced Academics, Scribblers, and an “Odd Christmas”

Jack L. Davis, Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes to The Archivist’s Notebook an essay about the non-archaeological pastimes of some of the School’s most distinguished past members, including Carl Blegen, Emily Vermeule, Rhys Carpenter, Oscar Broneer, and Dorothy Burr Thompson.

Not so long ago I stumbled across an internet site called “The Academic Ladder,” a career counseling service. Its newsletter headlined a story of interest: “Get A Life!  A Chart For Living A Balanced Life (Even If You’re An Academic),” by Gina Hiatt, clinical psychologist.

“Why do academics lead unbalanced lives?”

You can never do enough. The academic life is a writer’s life, only worse. This is because the academic constantly feels that he or she has not done enough. … There is always someone better than you.  Academics constantly compare themselves to each other. … And face it: no matter how good you are at some aspect of a profession or field, there is someone else who does another part of the profession better.

In the long run, this is no way to live a life. You will end up with health problems and not enjoy your career, if you don’t balance your life better.  There is more to life than academia!

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)

German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)

While recognizing that academics may not feel they “deserve” leisure time as a “reward,” Gina suggests ways to live more balanced lives by finding things to do, other than work, that are relaxing, fun, and important. Most of us at least are somewhat familiar with the concept (I am constantly being told by loved ones that I should relax more and have more fun), but the notion that leisure time should be filled with important activities is another matter entirely, and brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s 1963 essay “Free Time.” There he succinctly wrote:

Time and again in interviews and questionnaires one is asked what one has for a hobby. … I am startled by the question whenever I meet with it. I have no hobby. Not that I’m a workaholic who wouldn’t know how to do anything else but get down to business and do what has to be done. But rather I take the activities with which I occupy myself beyond the bounds of my official profession, without exception, so seriously that I would be shocked by the idea that they had anything to do with hobbies -that is, activities I’m mindlessly infatuated with only in order to kill time- if my experiences had not toughened me against manifestations of barbarism that have become self-evident and acceptable. Making music, listening to music, reading with concentration constitute an integral element of my existence; the word hobby would make a mockery of them.

This from a man who condemned Walt Disney as Public Enemy No. 1 for his role in creating a new opiate for the masses! Leisure in Adorno’s view has importance; it is a serious matter that allows us to improve ourselves.

thomas-w-jacobsen-traditional-new-orleans-jazz-conversations-with-the-men-who-make-the-music-lsu-pressIf it is true that academics have trouble relaxing (and that is hard to deny), were our predecessors at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens able to find peace of mind in important ways that gave them a sense of self-satisfaction? There have, of course, been those who took their leisure activities so seriously that they left academia to pursue them: e.g., Tom Jacobsen, excavator of Franchthi Cave, who recently published Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music, his second book about jazz. But my focus here is on archaeologists and others, members of ASCSA, who stayed in the field and particularly those who found solace in creative writing.

Carl W. Blegen was among these. Some years ago when I first learned that he wrote short stories, I was surprised that such a prominent academic found time for creative writing. Subsequently, I came to realize that Blegen was not so unusual among scholars of his generation. I will return to that observation below, after a survey of Blegen’s literary oeuvre.

On New Year’s Day, Natalia Vogeikoff posted a story on this blog (https://nataliavogeikoff.com/?s=Odd+Christmas), one written by Carl Blegen about chronological paradoxes that occurred in 1923 when Greece converted from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar: There had been a year without Christmas! Blegen’s story, “An Odd Christmas,” appeared to have been composed for the Literary Club of Cincinnati, as Natalia wrote, but when?  “An Odd Christmas,” was not among essays that Robert D. Blegen, Carl Blegen’s nephew who has served as Blegen family historian, published in True Stories (1997). The stories there range in date from 1949-1957, and all but one,”Bookkeeping at Nestor’s Palace,” had been presented to the Literary Club.

The Literary Club at Cincinnati

The Literary Club in Cincinnati

In searching last spring for the date of the story’s composition, I found considerably more information about a little known facet of Blegen’s life — his membership in the oldest continuously operating private essay club in the United States. The Literary Club of Cincinnati is one of only nine unaffiliated organizations of that kind, each governed by its own rules and procedures. Its meetinghouse is a Greek Revival building built in 1820. Founded in 1849, membership is limited to 100 men who meet monthly to hear a member read an original story, thus the club’s slogan: “Here Comes One with a Paper.” Guests have included Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), while Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William Howard Taft belonged. The club has met continuously since its foundation, with meetings cancelled only for the American Civil War and for the flu pandemic of 1918, when 1700 individuals succumbed to that disease and the Cincinnati Health Department estimated the total number of cases of influenza at 100,000.

By complete coincidence, in the autumn of 2013, I was invited to attend a meeting of the Literary Club and consequently learned more about its activities. Fortunately the club is attentive to its history, and copies of its papers are archived in the library of the Cincinnati Historical Society. Blegen’s involvement is clear. He was elected in 1942. In the next fifteen years he delivered eleven papers, the last in 1957, the year of his retirement from the University of Cincinnati.

Blegen’s papers encompassed a wide spectrum of topics: from life in Clifton, the historic Cincinnati suburb where Marion Rawson lived and that is home to the University, to memories of excavations at Troy. There were excavation reports, pure and simple. In “Romeo and Juliet- with Variations” Blegen related the well-known story of Constantine Kephaloyannis and Tassoula Petrakogiorgis, lovers from feuding families of Herakleion, Crete. In “Schoolteacher, Retired” he describes a chance meeting with American strangers over dinner in Istanbul: their lives reflect the dreams and aspirations of immigrants in America — a subject dear to Blegen as a first generation Norwegian-American.

In addition to “An Odd Christmas,” two another essays are of special interest to members of ASCSA: “A Pioneer,” a sober biography of Schliemann inspired by the donation of his papers to the Gennadius Library, and “Memories,” a gem of a reminiscence written in 1942 in the midst of WW II. In it Blegen reflected on the benefits of Allied victories in Europe vs. the damage to cultural monuments from Allied bombing. One must feel:

U.S. B-24 Liberator “The Witch” and Crew that Bombed Navarino in October, 1942

U.S. B-24 Liberator “The Witch” and Crew that Bombed Navarino in October, 1942

… a pervading sadness when one reflects that important monuments and works of art, which have almost miraculously escaped complete destruction throughout the innumerable vicissitudes of two or more millennia, and which have been carefully restored to light and conserved by archaeologists of our own day, are now again exposed to danger, and that in a more annihilating form than ever before.

The fact that Americans had bombed Navarino (Pylos) harbor led him to reflect on his personal connections with that town and his trip there in 1913 with students of the ASCSA.

Having chosen to go by sea, we chartered a small sturdy boat and sailed down the western coast of Messenia, setting a course fairly close to the shore with its rocks and sandy beaches and verdant hinterland, and passing through the straight between the island of Proti and the mainland. Becalmed for hours when the wind dropped, we had abundant leisure to become familiar with the long jagged range of Mt. Aigaleos, rising with its bare sharp peaks etched against the eastern horizon; and at the same time, under a cloudless sky, we were toasted first to a pink then to a painful red by the blazing sun. A kindly breeze sprang up just before evening and at long last we reached our destination. The approach of our boat had been observed from afar, and when we finally made fast alongside the quay, we were greeted by a large throng curious to know what had brought a strange vessel to their port. Their anticipation of something unusual was this time richly rewarded, for the arrival of a group of foreigners —and especially Americans — was a sensational event in the sleepy community of Pylos, a veritable nine days’ wonder. Amid a flood of friendly and eager questions we were escorted to the one inn boasted by the town, where we were ultimately left for the night.

Three Admirals Monument in the Plateia of Pylos

Three Admirals Monument in the Plateia of Pylos

After commenting that the local hotel, “The Three Admirals,” was named for the Russian, French, and British commanders allied against the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Navarino (1827), he remarked:

Although the proprietor of the hotel was undoubtedly descended from a long line of pirate ancestors, by an unexpected show of firmness we came out with flying colors from our encounter with him; but our somewhat sanguinary engagement with the voracious insects firmly entrenched within his beds ended in a strategic retreat on our part. On the following day we were rowed across the broad bay, passing over the submerged wrecks of Turkish frigates and galleons, which may still be seen through the translucent waters when there is no wind to ruffle the surface.

The group explored Paleonavarino and Sphakteria; then, worn out, they slept well, despite the bugs.

Although Carl as an adult didn’t turn to creative writing until World War II, so far as I know, his interest in storytelling began as a child. His brother, Theodore (Ted), an eminent modern historian and many years a dean at the University of Minnesota, in his family memoir, The Saga of Saga Hill, described how in the Blegen house “the attic was also the scene of action after Carl won a magic lantern as a prize for a school composition published in the Minneapolis Journal Junior,” a four-page tabloid for young readers inserted in the Saturday edition of the now defunct Minneapolis daily. In his foreward to True Stories Bob Blegen added that Carl:

… was interested in everything. He was very knowledgeable about the American Civil War. He followed major-league baseball in the U.S. He was a double acrostic fan. And he enjoyed telling stories.

Writing and storytelling were interests that Carl shared with others in his family. Ted co-authored a “biography” of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: Master Detective (1952). The Blegens were also inveterate and tireless letter-writers, hardly a week passing without news being exchanged between the family in Minnesota and Carl in Athens. That voluminous and invaluable correspondence, spanning seven decades, now has a home in the Archives of the ASCSA, thanks to the generosity of Bob Blegen.

As I became more and more mindful of Blegen’s creative writing, I was curious to learn about others at Greece who had shared this passion with him. Here an exhaustive review is impossible, and I can mention only a few of his friends and colleagues. Some are well known, others not. (I intentionally omit memoirs of the ASCSA (e.g., Emerson Swift’s Youthful Rambles on the Trail of the Classics) and focus on short stories and poetry.

Emily Townsend Vermeule (1928-2001)

Emily Townsend Vermeule (1928-2001)

I first note that Blegen’s best friend, Alan Wace, also wrote short stories, published posthumously in Greece Untrodden (1964), but originating in tales that he told colleagues at Mycenae. My favorite concerns an accidental encounter on Mt. Olympus between Wace’s fictional alter ego, George Evesham, and the Greek god Zeus!

More familiar to American Classicists will be Emily Vermeule’s essays on baseball and the Boston Red Sox. The Boston Globe even enlisted her in 1990 to review Dan Shaughnessy’s The Curse of the Bambino. Earlier, in an article in the New York Times, “Odysseus at Fenway (1982),” Emily imagined future archeologists trying to reconstruct society from baseball box scores. And she wrote often whimsical poetry throughout her life, publishing one poem, “Fish (1959),” in The New Yorker and a second in Poetry (1961):

“Dactylo-Epitrites for Dudley Fitts: Thoughts of an Inveterate Tobacco Smoker.”

All animals breathe air in and out as Empedokles
reflecting on experiment said. Either air or
light ocean compounds caught in a gill or, rarer,
a snout of marsh gas. All of it colorless till by sea
those westward sailors learned from some Indian how to drown
and temper such pale stuff in a brilliant miastic brown.


Emily Townsend Vermeule published "Fish" in the February issue of The New Yorker 1959

Emily Townsend (Vermeule) published “Fish” in the The New Yorker (February 21, 1959 issue)

Rhys Carpenter abandoned creative writing before his directorship of ASCSA, in favor of a career as an art historian and archaeologist. But he already at that point had published two volumes of poetry (1914, 1920), an Arthurian dramatic romance (1914), and a travelogue of a journey by donkey through Maya country (1920). [All of these works can be found online at http://www.archive.org.] A poem from his book, The Plainsman (1920), is characteristic of his learned classicizing style.

Rhys Carpenter (1889-1980), professor of Art History at Bryn Mawr College

Rhys Carpenter (1889-1980), professor of Art History at Bryn Mawr College

“For Zeus’ Grove at Dodona”

You who seized the cloud and shattered him,
Drank him deep in your bodies oaken,
You who caught the sun and scattered him
Like sherds of yellow basins broken,
You who sent the winds to the Cretan coverns,
To towns of Egypt, ships and crowed taverns
And markets full of voices, to bring you tiding
Of strange things deft in the future hiding,
Oaks of Dodona, wise and strong,
Bend your heads to my earthern song.

I would be remiss were I not also to mention Dorothy Burr Thompson’s Swans and Amber (1948), a delightful collection of loose translations into English of early Greek lyric, such as this example by Mimnermus:

What is life and what is joy,
Where love cannot lie?
When I cease to care for this,
Aphrodite’s hidden bliss,
May I die — may I die.

Most recently I learned of Oscar Broneer’s poetic ambitions — never a secret, of course, from his colleagues in Corinth. Oscar wrote in English, Swedish, German, and Greek! I quote Jim Wiseman from Archaeology magazine (“Insight: The Muse Within Us,” Archaeology 52, 1999, pp. 13-15): “[Broneer was] a lover of poetry, including Greek poetry of all periods, and was particularly fond of reciting for friends Edgar Allan Poe’s The Bells in his native Swedish, delighting in the alliteration.” Broneer wrote poetry and short stories himself, including the only poem ever published in the Journal of Field Archaeology:

“Archaeologists, Now and Later”

Like Truffle-hunters, nose to ground,
They search and dig until they’ve found
Some bits of bronze, some sherds of clay,
Which ancient man had thrown away,
As having neither use nor beauty.

Oscar also wrote short stories. Liz Papageorgiou, sometime contributor to this blog, is currently cataloging Broneer’s papers for the ASCSA.   She wrote to me: “I suspect that many of these stories were written in the ’40s and he tried to get them published in popular American magazines, like the Saturday Evening Post. It seems that only one was published; the number of rejection slips would make anyone cry.”

But was publication Oscar’s principal motivation? Could it simply be that creative writing was a strategy that he, Blegen, Vermeule, Wace, and others of their generation employed to focus creative energies on a divertissement both enjoyable and rewarding?

And, to be sure, this tradition is not entirely lost today. Sean Hemingway recently published a novel (The Tomb of Alexander), Alan Boegehold two collections of poetry (Reflections and Songs for the Crew) as well as an English translation of 166 poems by Constantine Cavafy. Indeed, members of ASCSA continue to scribble, and to find in creative writing a healthy antidote for the relentlessness of academic life. Is it perhaps time for an anthology of the greatest literary hits of the ASCSA? Take note, Alumni Association!

Alan Boegehold's Reflections

Alan Boegehold’s Reflections

7 Comments on “Unbalanced Academics, Scribblers, and an “Odd Christmas””

  1. Glenn R. Bugh says:

    Fascinating, Jack. Of our generation, I can think of no more fitting heir to this ASCSA literary ‘scribbling’ than Tom Palaima of the University of Texas who writes on blues, war, politics, and the UT football team. Nothing escapes his sharp pen.

  2. […] Archaeologists as essayists and evidence that people wrote even when they didn’t have to write bac….  […]

  3. Kostis Kourelis says:

    So interesting. Although I have only scratched the surface, i am beginning to realize that Dorothy Burr Thompson had serious ambitions to become a writer, aspiring to be like her mother Anna Robeson Burr, a well known author in the 1920s (but mostly forgotten today). While her mother was writing her most successful book, a memoir of World War I (in UK, where Mr. Burr served as a diplomat), the young Dorothy kept a beautiful diary (at Bryn Mawr archives). While at the American School, Dorothy Burr Thompson talks about being torn between fiction and academic writing. I have a suspicion that the original Swans and Amber manuscript of the 1930s is different from the one published in the 1980s and was more focused on children folk stories. Marriage and childbirth may have hampered creative activities. I would like to interview Pamela Sinclair-Todd for more information. While writing, she also seems to have taken drawing classes with Peschke. Thanks to her creative-writing ambitions, Dorothy Burr Thompson’s diaries are by far most rich psychologically than any of her fellow friends (Alison Frantz, Virginia Grace, Agnes Newhall, Lucy Talcott, Lucy Shoe). Burr Thompson’s creative sensitivities become evident in her work at the education department of the ROM in Toronto. She had a unique and poetic relationship with archaeological objects that she tried to communicate in classes for children (folding back to a need to integrate archaeology with motherhood). I am only scratching the surface in my archival look, but I think an intellectual biography of Dorothy Burr Thompson would yield some jewels. Thanks for exploring the Cincinnati Literary Club connections. What a discovery!!! Kostis

  4. […] Liz Bourke, “Unbalanced Academics, Scribblers, and an ‘Odd Christmas’” is rather a comfort: academics who are also […]

  5. […] to understand how these interactions influenced Blegen’s own artistic sensibilities including his literary output which he presented at the Literary Club in Cincinnati. Finally, I wish the volume talked more about Blegen’s intellectual legacy through his students […]

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