Homer to Joyce
Some things never change. In 1940, Mortimer J. Adler observed in How to Read a Book that entering students at Columbia University and the University of Chicago lacked the necessary preparation to read the world’s great books; forty-five years later, Steven Marcus, in his foreword to Professor Wallace Gray’s survey of eighteen classics, registers precisely the same complaint. Gray and his colleagues at Columbia forge ahead and teach these unprepared students anyway, as did Mark Van Doren, Adler’s colleague in the 1920’s at Columbia and, several decades later, Gray’s colleague at the same university.
“Great Books” has become the less contentious “Humanities”—a change dictated by both theoretical and psychological imperatives, no doubt—but then as now the course might well have been called “Homer to Joyce,” the title of the book Gray has mined from his considerable experience of teaching it. One thing has changed since Van Doren’s and Adler’s salad days: the thick hedge of study guides, “outlines,” and digests that has grown up around the classics themselves. Consequently, it must be stressed at the outset that Homer to Joyce is decidedly not a digest of digests for students intimidated by the prospect of looking on literary beauty bare.
On the contrary, the author assumes a readership serious about and familiar with the works under consideration. Although his eighteen essays can be called introductions to the books, and although they furnish considerable background material of various sorts as well as thematic analyses, Gray does not condescend to timid or frivolous readers. He begins his James Joyce essay, for example, by pointing to the existence of two rival camps of Joyceans with Ulysses (1922) between them. He then explains the contending “optimistic” and “pessimistic” schools of Joyce criticism, while taking care to proclaim his own preference for the optimists. Although he does not always present opposing interpretations in this manner, he often adjudicates critical controversies and, on occasion, takes sharp exception to the critical consensus. An example is his maverick essay on Antigone (441 B.C.), which concludes: “Antigone is wrong; Creon is wrong. The action of the play pits wrong against wrong.”
The kind of student who will profit from this book is Samuel Johnson’s “common reader,” to whose continued existence in the late twentieth century this book is a testament. The reader who desires to be challenged to think about the great books and to investigate their relationships to one another and to the modern world will surely relish these essays. Not only former college students who have read these books—or at least some of them—and would like to reacquaint themselves with Homer, Vergil, and Dante and both widen and deepen their understanding but also teachers of the classics looking for new insights and fresh approaches will not be disappointed.
One test of such a book is its success at enticing the reader to take up that classic he or she has always been meaning to read. Again Gray’s volume is a triumph. Consider the case of Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), a novel that an astonishing number of serious readers never get around to picking up. Gray whets the appetite by noting at the start that there are two Don Quixote’s. The initiated are likely to conclude that he is talking about part 1 and part 2, published ten years apart and very different in tone. No, he is actually distinguishing two ways of reading Cervantes’ novel: one that finds a kind, gentle, and fundamentally sane Don Quixote whose adventures create a tender, warm, and funny novel; and another that judges the hero insane, his escapades cruel and unfunny, and the interpolated stories long-winded and dull. Both ways of reading the novel, Gray advises, are wrong. Although far from considering Don Quixote a perfect novel (he freely concedes that the physical beatings so often administered by, and more frequently to, Cervantes’ knight-errant are indeed cruel and unfunny), Gray explains the rich complexity of this work in a way that will win it more new readers.
Convinced that the classics “talk to one another” as well as to each new generation of readers, Gray strives to show connections among them—not only the obvious thematic connections of works such as Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 B.C.) and Joyce’s Ulysses but also links less often perceived, such as those between Euripides’ The Bacchae (c. 405 B.C.) and William...
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