Airing Rome’s Dirty Laundry
In the United States we cede too much control of the humanities to professors who wall off their subject matters from the public with the rhetoric of pedantry and politics.
This state of affairs is fairly recent. Americans once bought huge number of books by the Durants and other popularizers of the humanities. Most Americans knew who Robert Frost was before he improvised his recitation at President Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, but fifty-five years later most Americans cannot name a living poet, classicist, or historian.
The United Kingdom still maintains a tradition of public engagement with the humanities. Classicist Mary Beard is a beloved national figure. Newspapers breathlessly cover the competitions for major literary awards. Bookies legally take bets on the outcome for the election of the Oxford Professor of Poetry. Amateur archeologists regularly make finds that remind the public of their Roman and Anglo-Saxon heritages. There is still a sizable market for books that discuss history and literature in an accessible fashion.
The newest author to follow in Dr. Beard’s footsteps is a recent PhD, Daisy Dunn. A major commercial publisher has heavily promoted Dunn’s first book, Catullus’ Bedspread, The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet. The cover even includes a breathless blurb by Britain’s current Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson.
Catullus’ Bedspread is Dunn’s biography of Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 82 BC–ca. 53 BC), a pivotal figure in Roman poetry. Catullus was an inventive poet with an inclination toward taking risks in his literary—and personal—life that stodgier predecessors had avoided. One could compare him to an Eliot or Pound in the era after Longfellow and Tennyson, or perhaps a Mick Jagger supplanting The Four Freshmen.
Catullus moved Roman poetry away from the “high” epic poetry of Ennius that saw its primary purpose as reinforcing belief in Roman exceptionalism. Catullus’ poetry was edgy because he addressed sexual themes in a seemingly autobiographical way, and thus he paved the way for Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus. His treatments of the minutiae (nugae) of daily living made much of Horace’s poetry possible. At some risk to his own life, Catullus’ pointed epigrams served as a model for Martial’s barbs.
Catullus experimented with a variety of meters that were uncommon in Roman poetry. Heavily influenced by the Greek poets Sappho and Callimachus, he had a knack for the paradoxical phrase (most famously “I hate and I love”) and the striking combination of a noun with an unexpected adjective. Although the verse of Catullus undoubtedly received a mixed reception in his own time, the imminent Golden Age of Roman poetry would not have been possible without his liberating influences.
The key assumptions of Dunn’s biography are similar to those of academic predecessors dating back to Ludwig Schwabe in 1862. Her goal with her speculative biography is to interest us in Catullus’ life in order to create broader interest in his poetry. I use the term “speculative” not to be critical—Dunn acknowledges that there are few indisputable facts about Catullus’ life. In order to weave a worthwhile story, Dunn draws on her impressive knowledge of the historical context of Catullus’ life as well as confessional details of the poems. Those confessional details are not necessarily historical facts, but they provide a basis for conjectures worth considering. Roman poets of this time tended to embroider events in their poems, but from the best that we can tell it was rare for them to create self-descriptions from whole cloth.
Dunn weaves her three main sources of material into a cohesive, well-written, and entertaining story that succeeds in its main goal of stimulating interest in her subject. There are thorough notes for the curious, but her prose reads like skilled historical fiction and avoids the scent of the academy.
The virtues of Catullus’ Bedspread led to glowing reviews in the major papers and journals of the United Kingdom, where HarperCollins first released it. As one might regrettably expect, the book’s reception by academics in the United States has been rockier. The nastiest of the American reviews by far is an exercise in what millennials call “mansplaining” (a man explaining something to a woman in a patronizing fashion). This review, by Bard College classics professor James Romm, appeared electronically in the normally politically correct journal, The New Republic.
Note Dunn’s explanation of her purpose in writing this book:
Catullus’ Bedspread, then, is my little book about Catullus and his life. It is, as far as possible, a life in the poet’s own words: Catullus’ journey as told through his carmina, his poems or ‘songs’, which I have translated from the Latin. I see this very much as a joint venture; Catullus provides the poetry; I offer something of the world that informed it.
From his first paragraph, Romm insists that this kind of book is simply unacceptable and that it “can be pulled off only by resorting to the dark arts of historical biography—guesswork, speculation, and recreation of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Dunn’s book raises questions of how far these forms of necromancy can be taken before nonfiction passes over to fiction, and scholarship is eclipsed by romance.” Romm misleadingly omits any mention of the fact that many scholars have written about Catullus’ life by making virtually the same assumptions that Dunn makes.
Note the heavily sexist coloring of Romm’s language. Certainly for his peers, and probably for most of the general public, the terms “the dark arts” cannot help but conjure images of Hecate and other witches—indeed, in classical literature how many male practitioners of “the dark arts” can you name? Moreover, Romm’s false dichotomy of “scholarship” and “romance” drips with contempt for a genre traditionally associated with intellectually unambitious women.
Romm’s testosterone-driven fury prevents him from seeing that a broad range of legitimate literary enterprises exist between a peer-reviewed journal article and a bodice ripper. Any reader of Catullus who is reading for pleasure rather than philological blood-letting will imagine the man who wrote this special poetry. As scholar/translator Charles Martin once put it, “it seems to me that to read Catullus’ poems with any sensitivity is to feel precisely that … craving for the facts of his life.” What Dunn does in her book is to structure that imaginative exercise in a way that is founded on sensible inferences from the poems as well as extrinsic sources relating to the places and individuals named in the poems.
Romm’s fury also leads him to take meritless shots at Dunn’s meticulous scholarship. For instance, Romm claims that Dunn “misleadingly” calls Catullus, who was born in or near Verona in modern Italy, a Gaul. In fact, Dunn helpfully educates us right from the beginning about the boundaries of Cisalpine Gaul (which included Catullus’ birthplace) and Transalpine Gaul. Classicists are sometimes lazy about using the term “Gaul” as a word close to a synonym for “French”; I found it helpful for Dunn to make the distinction in the same way that Charles Martin and others have done, and to explain the significance of Catullus’ lack of eligibility for Roman citizenship.
Romm next rips into Dunn for identifying Catullus’ lover (pseudonymously “Lesbia” in the poems) as Clodia Metelli. While it is true that Publius Clodius Pulcher had three sisters named “Clodia,” the overwhelming majority of scholars agree with Dunn that Catullus’ lover was the most prominent of the three, Clodia Metelli. The fact that Romm’s argument relies on his assertion that “at least one recent scholar” (emphasis added) has argued for a different sister should have tempered his bile.
Romm’s implicit view that a biography requires complete scholarly agreement on every point, if taken seriously, would paralyze the writing of biographies and undercut his own biography of Seneca. Dunn operates in the real world and provides her readers with a perfectly accurate overview of what we know and do not know about the identity of Lesbia—a fact that Romm conveniently ignores when he smears her scholarship by calling it “poorly reasoned” without any specificity about the reasoning that he is criticizing. Indeed, Dunn’s footnotes are more scholarly and complete than Romm’s notes in his Seneca biography.
Dunn never intended to write a book for pedants. Her goal was to encourage educated readers to learn about Catullus, to read his poetry, and then to learn even more about him. With any luck Dunn’s book will lead the curious to other books, such as Charles Martin’s marvelous Catullus translation and criticism, or the scholarship of Marilyn B. Skinner. For me, Dunn’s goal is an admirable one, and it is disappointing that The New Republic has helped to stifle an effort to engage the public about classical literature.
Would I pull back Dunn’s speculation a bit in a few places? Yes. Do I wish that her translation of the key poem rose above workmanlike free verse with the lineation of Robert Creeley? Yes. Despite these small faults, however, I believe that Catullus’ Bedspread serves an important purpose, and Dr. Dunn and others should brush off the American academy’s prejudices and produce additional lively books designed to lure readers into the pleasures of the humanities.
Posted: October 27, 2016
Did you see this one?
On Brooklyn’s Side
Gerald J. Russello
Volume 46, Number 3 (Fall 2008)