Top critical review
An Incomplete Odyssey
Reviewed in the United States on May 25, 2009
Rarely have I encountered a book wherein the answer to a question posed by its rhetorical -- but well-intended and no doubt provocative -- title is so obvious. Merely reading the cover jacket will inform a potential reader who "killed" the ancient Greek poet; one needn't slog through over three hundred pages to solve this mystery. Furthermore, the questioning title assumes a fact I wholeheartedly reject: that Homer is "dead" -- a concept (as it must be) that the authors never actually define beyond his near-disappearance from the collegiate curriculum.
To that end, I doubt it'd be giving away much to tell you that -- according to Hanson and Heath -- Homer's killing took place in that nest of vipers itself, the modern university. Being professors they cover this familiar territory quite well, recounting seemingly every folio of recent classics scholarship that wouldn't be out of place in a Woody Allen spoof: everything from "feminine subjectivity in the Odyssey" to the homoerotic breakdown between Achilles and Patroclus. The authors go further and posit solid reasons for this tawdry state of affairs, and while their culprits -- academic infighting and privilege, multiculturalism, subjective historicism, devaluation of the humanities -- are not terribly surprising they still benefit from a fresh airing, especially in this context. The introduction itself describes a sordid little tale of how their initial paperback publisher balked at its *own printing* at the last minute, apparently strong-armed by a clutch of academics whose delicacies were bruised in the first edition. On more than one occasion, I got the impression the authors -- both in writing this book and toiling within their respective classics departments -- were characters in their own Greek tragedy.
And perhaps that was at least partly their intention, for when they arrive at remedies Hanson and Heath fall back on Greek wisdom itself. Reviving the study of Homer by "thinking like a Greek" and having professors actually *model their behavior* by centuries-old standards might seem a quaint piece of overreach. But the authors appear quite serious, and given their intricate detailing of the university's suffering due to the loss of Greek wisdom they have little choice but to recommend harsh remedies. I was rather disappointed they didn't consider more pragmatic alternatives, from both the "demand" (e.g., introducing the epics to a younger audience) and "supply" (suggesting more wholesale university reform) sides. I understand that college is their turf -- but I wish they betrayed more knowledge that it's not the *only* turf.
A few other pitfalls tarnish the author's case. Organization is not a strong suit: five languid chapters read like extended (albeit interesting) essays and one is even entitled "Who Killed Homer - and Why". (Isn't that the name of the book?) Curiously missing among the chapters, however, is a more serious omission: any *consequences* of Homer's "death". (Wholesale elimination of Classics departments? The final death knell of classical wisdom? A new dark ages?) I'm aware this comes perilously close to reviewing a book the authors *didn't* write -- but given the dramatic problems and remedies discussed, this seemed an especially curious oversight.
But "Who Killed Homer?" is still worthwhile reading for both its withering indictment of university practices and detailing of the cavalcade of rude jokes that now pass for classics scholarship. Its bibliography and suggestions for "when all we can do is read" are also more than welcome and might even inspire a healthy number of non-students to tackle the Greeks (and Romans). In fact, if enough readers outside the ivory towers surmount the tasks of understanding classics and even applying their teaching to their lives -- another topic Hanson and Heath consider far too briefly -- their demise at universities might just be nothing more than another nail in that overpriced, coddled, and increasingly irrelevant coffin.