When Bill Arrowsmith died in l992, his old journal Arion quite rightly devoted an issue to the man and his work. But I felt that there was an excess of thoughtless praise from a wide circle of those who knew him well and those who knew him slightly but wanted to be included. I feel that it is important to mark weaknesses as well and strengths in a proper obituary, although that is not within our usual academic tradition, and in this spirit I wrote to Arion. The editor, of course, rejected my paper. I reproduce part of it here, not in annoyance but as a suggestion that we not fall into absolute reverence for powerful men, but put them in a true light, so that we can be free of our reverence and get on with out own work and our own lives.
It is now a few years since Arrowsmith's death, and I think it is time for me to collect my recollections of the time he was up here living in Lincoln, Vermont.
PART I: Comment
"... dear to my friends, and terrible to my enemies. (Homer)"
I don't know if many of you saw the Japanese film Ikiru ("to live "). When the pathetic and totally ordinary clerk-protagonist does finally die, his friends do a traditional ceremony, getting together for an evening to praise his good nature and friendliness. They drink heavily until morning, at which point they are drunk enough to start saying the things they never liked about the man, and as the evening passes, they exhume the hidden feelings of many years. When the sun rises they are finished, they have completed a very important business, they have combined praise with censure, and at that point they have dealt with the man as a whole person, a human being, and he is properly buried.
Not so with Arion! The notices on Arrowsmith, which were generally short and looked like perfunctory jobs of half an hour's typing in response to an invitation, do two things. They praise the Great Man unreservedly, even his anger, his bad temper and his ability at venting hostility (something the Western world has had a surplus of). But more important, they carefully outline their relationship to Arrowsmith, how they met him, how well they knew him, how they basked in his friendship. In the act of publicly praising him, they praise themselves!
Arrowsmith, whatever else time may say of him, was an aggressively tough man, as the roots of his Anglo-Saxon name show, if you have a little patience with philology. Nobody smiths out arrows, least of all the American Indians, whom he wanted to adopt spiritually. It is the village smith who hammers out "harrows" for breaking up clods, he is the Harrowsmith. Suffering Cockney pronunciation and transplant to the American working class, here is a key to Bill's origin somewhere back in time.
There is a magnetism about strong men which attracts weak ones into their magnetic field. We see this in politics, in the arts, in every social aggregation which inexorably evolves a pecking order. Nobody pecked Bill who protected his genuflecting tribe and he did his pecking outside which was wise. But this Review was the work of the pecked, the subservient, the followers. Bill needed these followers, no blame! But seeing them patting themselves on the shoulder over his corpse, that is shameful, that is unpardonable.
It is not pleasant to remember that Arrowsmith could be a bully. It is true, Moses Hadas did plagiarize, he did lift sections from Loeb prefaces for his popular books. Indeed he had a terribly bad memory for citation of page and line, the sort of things which Arrowsmith said he despised as "Germanic Scholarship". But Hadas, this white-haired and polite old Jewish gentleman with his rabbinical studies and his pronounced southern accent, veteran of years in the fields of Classics and Semitic Studies, back then when Arrowsmith was washing dishes at Princeton - - - was this a suitable target for attack? Hadas' book, on the diffusion and fusion of Hellenistic thought in the Semitic Near East, stands as good work solidly based, while Arrowsmith's Art and Craft of Translation is unconvincing and, like much of his output, the work of others writing under his aegis.In fact the attack on Hadas was faked up, it was done not to preserve the reputation of Classical scholarship, but to call attention to the new Classics crowd. Bruere at Chicago had done a detailed job on these plagiarisms a few years before, this new attack was calculated to show that there were hard-hitters in the field, tough fellows out there in Texas. Bullies!
Some few years ago when I was reading the Bacchae in Greek with four students, we spent one term going through every line and every phrase of the play, and just to keep it lively we kept open on the table Arrowsmith's translation of the Bacchae in that Lattimore-Greene series which Arrowsmith later deprecated. His version seemed to us to be in thin verse riding fast over the nuances of the Greek, all in all no great job. I say this not to denigrate him, but to suggest that he could do rough and imperfect work too when in a hurry. He was like us a mortal, another man who lived into his sixties doing fine work at times, and at times throwing a lot of dust in the critics' eyes, which he did niftily and with a certain style.
I wrote at the time of Arrowsmith's death a memorial in the form of a letter to a good friend who knew him in later years. My letter contained information about his life, his faults, his varioous tribulations. I do not find anything like my account in the Arion review although the Editor had it under his nose at the time. I asked myself why is this?
De Mortuis nihil nisi bonum, an academic classicist might say. But I agree with the Japanese film script, until it is bonum et malum you have not done with the man, you have not buried him. Only when he is properly buried, can you get on with your lives, do the things you were afraid to do because he was so powerful, so admirable in your eyes.
At the time of Arrowsmith's death, I sent a paper to Arion which brought together information about his sojourn in Lincoln, Vt. When I reached the Editor some years later for a copy of my memoir, he had nothing in his files. So I thought it worthwhile to re-assemble my thoughts from memory, (as Herodotus neatly put it) "lest these things be lost from memory".
I first met Arrowsmith in l964 when he came to give a lecture on the Alcestis at Middlebury College. We had him to lunch with my Classics colleague at my house, I remember we had a large soup of vegetables and boiled beef bones and a good deal of forgotten conversation. His talk on the Alcestis was stimulating as academic drama, sharp and incisive as always, but I can't recall the central argument. The audiences which had expected something genial and tame, seemed surprised at his verbal edge.
At that time a certain dirt back-road in Lincoln, Vt. was home to the adjacent talents of William Arrowsmith and the celebrated French scholar Roger Shattuck, a heavy load of talent for a minor roadway in the rural countryside. In the late l960's I was often up in those hills visiting my longtime friend Tom Bass sometime teacher, poet and later maverick cattleman. Every once in a while I would drop in on Arrowsmith to say hello, I was always cordially received, and we had a good talk about things. I was convinced that his presence on the Middlebury campus would be an important event in what was then a solid but humdrum college scene, and since Arrowsmith obviously needed company and craved students, I thought that a position there could follow naturally.
Two events made it clear that Middlebury would have nothing to do with him. First the then President sent a Dean to visit Arrowsmith and inquire if he would consider giving a tutorial to a single student in Livy. This would be like asking Einstein to give a remedial course for one student in algebra.... Arrowsmith was furious, told me he said to the amazed Dean to get his coat and get the hell out of the house, and that was the end of that. My feeling was that the President was afraid of Arrowsmith as a possibly disturbing force on compus, tinged perhaps with more than a little professional envy since both were in Classics, and the Dean was sent to make an unacceptable offer on purpose. If not that, it was simply a stupid gesture.
A few years later Arrowsmith was interested in getting the then idle Flaherty Estate in Vermont going as a forward-looking film school and asked that same President if he would put the enterprise under Middlebury's academic umbrella for funding reasons. The reply was: "....but it must be entirely under my control....", to which an enraged Arrowsmith asked how something which he had absolutely no understanding of, could possibly be under his control. Again a dead end.
When I dropped in on him for a drink or a talk, I always sensed something was wrong as soon as he opened the door. His wife gave a grim stare and disappeared for the evening but he seemed to shrug and carried on the conversation solo as a normal situation. I later understood that during that period she was getting interested in gardening, raising some animals and the kind of thing many people find engaging in rural areas, especially at that time. Arrowsmith had no sympathy, Tom Bass told me Bill thought the whole thing ridiculous, and had no wish to conceal his distaste. What later ended in a bitter divorce apparently had undergone several decades of tension and ill-will, which terminated in her persuading him to go to Yale, which he tried, immediately hated and quickly left. Other things happened in those years, and from then on it was total estrangement, while he oscillated off to John Hopkins, then Emery, then finally a home-base at BU thanks to his old Texas University associate President John Silber.
In those early years before Yale, he had heart trouble, and had bypass surgery done successfully. The enormous costs made it necessary to take a teaching position, but since nothing was possible at Middlebury after several trials (Shattuck had lectured at the college, also with no appreciation or invitation to return), he took a position at BU and flew back and forth to Boston for two days work each week. This was a sad situation for a man of national reputation, recovering from major surgery, flying week after week to Boston to cover his medical costs. Several of us at Middlebury tried again for hiom here, but to no avail.
While he was living in scholarly solitude at Lincoln, Arrowsmith had a Japanese graduate student in Classics living in a small building behind the house, ostensibly working on his Ph.D. thesis. Year after year the assiduous degree candidate kept his work going, while a few hundred yards away Arrowsmith was at his writing. Finally Arrowsmith said it was time to see what he was doing, and to his amazement (as he told me) the thesis was all in broken English. The grad student moved out and in with a lady down the road and continued living independently in rural America, while Arrowsmith probably never realized that the failure was in part his own doing by inattention. He was totally involved with his Neitzsche translation for several months in that period, but knowing almost no German he spent evening down the road with Tom Bass who knew a little more, and with typical Arrowsmith talent and drive he came out with a readable English translation of some merit. And before critics could jab him, he was off on the next project with the Navajo blanket-weavers, and then the start of the Greek Drama project.
About that time I had discovered the Pythagorean "Symbols", which I soon realized were Counsels for the students at the Master's monastic retreat at Croton, hence not unlike the ko'ans of the classic Zen masters from the 12th century. A few colleagues at Middlebury handed the MS back after reading a dozen pages, utterly confused. But Arrowsmith read the whole sixty pages carefully, said it was interesting and new, and noted that I could never get it published in a Classics Journal, since it has Zen material in its fabric. I edited it carefully this year and put it in this internet site under Philosophy section, glad that we are no longer completely under the control of a Classical Establishment. (I had another paper on Vergil which brought up a range of new topics summarily rejected by the editor of a major Classical Journal, with the express comment that they were interested only in standard problems which had been previously studied in detail for which new solutions were now presented.) Arrowsmith had been through all this, he knew where the enemies were. But he blamed me for not persevering in writing and getting stuff out, I knew then and I know now that he was quite right, but find myself saved by the independent new world of the Internet
For a dozen years I taught a Senior level course at Middlebury in The Art and Craft of Translation, initially following Arrowsmith's lead in his book of the same name, but eventually moving toward sound-re-creation and the phonetics of translation as a critical part of the process. I had wonderful students, since Middlebury students are linguistically top of the line, although largely innocent of criticism and secondary sources. With half a dozen fluent students who could usually use two or three languages decently, I added my Greek and Latin with doctoral level French and German, and we plunged into the heart of the art of writing poetry. This was the best course I ever did. I was not only critic of work done but a class contributor from my side of the table and I owe the origin of the course to Arrowsmith's ideas entirely. But strangely when we talked about what I was doing at Middlebury and what he was doing at Emery, it was clear I had far better students to work with. What a waste of talent, he should have been here all those years with his drive and skill, working with the remarkable students who do languages at this college. I did well enough, he would have done better I suspect.
I had trouble not surprisingly with the same people in the college adminsitration who had rejected Arrowsmith's advances toward the college and being frozen in rank for some time, I asked Arrowsmith for a reference for the college Committee, to which he responded fairly and generously although he did not know my work that well. They never heard him, and it was some time after that I got things straightened out with anew administration. But Arrowsmith knew how it felt to be on the bad side of an academic establishment, he had been there too.
When he left Vermont, he left behind a giant load of hate with a bad divorce, bad memories, and some fiuve hundred acres of land he had somehow acquired over the years. About that time I was thinking of leaving my home in the geodesic dome I had built with students and building a new house, so I asked him if he had any land he could sell me. He must have been in a bad mood, because he replied he had other things on his mind, and could not afford to be my real-estate agent. I retorted that the 'megalothumoi' have a right once in while to be 'tricho-proctic' every little once in a while, a remark which nobody but a classicist could translate, which I guess he read with a grin. We corresponded few years about various things and people, then it was silence as his health and energies dissipated, and at last the news arrived that he was gone.
Just now in these last years of the century, a movement has started which intends to start a new Journal to represent to the intelligent reading public what the Classics is about, what new things it is doing and planning, where it all came from and where it is going in a fastmoving world which tends to read the old as curious or obsolete. I said to one of the movers of the project that what is needed for success --- far ahead of the ideas, the copy, the format and the market --- is an Arrowsmith to charge the ideas with fire and lead the way. He said that was right, but the question stands: Where is there another such one to take the lead? For serious work in getting ideas into print, for founding worthwhile Journals of new thought, where is there to be found another one like Arrowsmith?
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