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Sept. 12, 2002 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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Classicist David Grene, 1913-2002

David Grene, translator of Greek tragedy and history and founding member of the University of Chicago’s legendary Committee on Social Thought, died Tuesday afternoon, September 10. He was 89 years old and died at the University Hospital of a hemorrhage.

Grene is best known for his translations of Greek tragedy and of Herodotus’ History, which was described by the New York Times as “a monument to what translation intends and to what it is hungry to accomplish,” but he also farmed in Ireland and America for over 50 years. His translations of the Greek tragedies, published by the University of Chicago Press, sold well over a million copies and he worked with his colleague, Wendy Doniger, to take them to the stage, also teaching playwrights like Shakespeare and Ibsen. But his strongest influence may have been through his teaching–students and colleagues remarked on his personal knowledge of and emotional relationship to ancient Greek writers, which was so deep that the writer Saul Bellow described Grene as seeming to have grown up with them.

Grene was born April 13, 1913 in Dublin and started his classical education early, beginning Latin and French at 8 and Greek at 10. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, earning an M.A. in 1936. Between 1933 and 1936 he taught and studied at Dublin, Vienna, Athens and Harvard, as well as working in Hollywood alongside the Marx brothers. But he decided to settle in America only when he came to the University of Chicago as an instructor in Classics in 1937. Upon arriving at Chicago, Grene’s intensity ruffled the feathers of some faculty, leading the University’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, to leave a note in his file stating “This man is not to be fired without consulting me.” Grene started his first farm outside of Chicago at 25, reasoning that if he were nonetheless to be fired he would always be able to support himself. But Grene finally flourished at Chicago and in 1947 he became one of the five founding members of the Committee on Social Thought, a unique interdisciplinary group which has numbered Hannah Arendt, Edward Shils, Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom–all of whom deeply respected his learning and some of whom attended his classes–among its members. The transplanted German political philosopher Arendt is remembered as saying that on two continents she had never known anyone with the innate sense of Greek that Grene had.

On his biographical form, Grene described his academic interests as “the theater, particularly Greek theater and that of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era in England, the Anglo-Irish theater of the early 20th century” and “Greek political theory.” He brought these together in works like “Reality and the Heroic Pattern: last plays of Ibsen, Shakespeare, Sophocles,” “Man in his Pride: a study of Thucydides and Plato” and “Herodotus: the historian as dramatist.” The sections on “Memberships in learned societies,” “Academic honors and citations” and “Recreational interests” he left blank. But in fact Grene held an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Northwestern University, of which he was proud, and was an avid dairy farmer with a series of farms in Chicago and County Wicklow and County Cavan in Ireland. His companion Stephanie Nelson, a former student of his and current professor at Boston University, said that “he loved working with cows, horses, pigs chickens and ducks, and it was important to him that the farms be self-supporting and not merely a hobby. He was as much a part of the rural farming community in Ireland as of the academic community in Chicago, and people in Ireland found it as hard to imagine him as a professor of Greek as the academics here found it hard to imagine him as a dairy farmer. He didn’t feel the intellectual world was in any way superior to the task of providing food.”

Saul Bellow, whose novels often evoke Chicago’s intellectual life, frequently taught with Grene and shared an adjoining door with him: “We were in and out of each other’s offices and each other’s hair quite a lot.” He remembers that Grene “used to drive in from his farm downstate to teach. I knew him also in Ireland as a farmer and horseman–he was mad for horses. He had a very firm character. Except perhaps with respect to his speciality, Greek literature. He was very emotional in his reactions to the poets and playwrights we studied, he had spent so many years with them that he belonged to their families, so to speak.” But his daughter, Ruth Grene, a professor of plant physiology at Virginia Tech, remembers him as a sensitive father: “He was extraordinarily perceptive and sympathetic about one’s difficulties from our earliest age. He would just look at you and understand.”

Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions in the University’s Divinity School, says that even now, people she has not met will approach her to say that Grene “was the best teacher they ever had and changed their lives, taught them the most important things.” Bellow agrees, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he were. He had an extraordinary way of throwing himself into the books he was teaching. That would come out in the feeling he gave to the teaching–you don’t often meet that in academics. He was on a first-name basis with Sophocles and Aristophanes, that was how he made you feel.”

Doniger says Grene was distinguished by "his integrity and his refusal to let anything come between him and the source. He knew all of Greek and most of English literature so that was what he had in his head, rather than what other scholars were saying. He had utter confidence in what the text said, didn’t read in any trendy theory or anything–he just went right for the jugular. He taught me to doubt the dictionary...that when you want to know what a word means you look at it every time it occurs in Greek." Doniger’s son Mike O’Flaherty, a historian and writer who grew up around Grene, added that “He wasn’t bothered by the fact that other people didn’t agree with him because he didn’t see himself as part of a school. He understood things in a way that was both very instinctual and very cultivated and always had something unpredictable and true to say. He taught me that your first duty in writing about other people is to know who they were and see through their eyes.”

In the wider world, he will be best known for his translations, which according to the Chicago Tribune “replaced the stuffy works of the 19th Century and exposed generations of college students to impeccable and luminous translations of the Greek voice and ancient thought.” In addition to Herodotus, his other translations include Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” and “Seven Against Thebes,” Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” “Electra” and “Philoctetes” and Euripides’ “Hippolytus,” all published by the University of Chicago Press in The Complete Greek Tragedies. His 1986 stage translation of Aeschylus’ “Oresteia,” with Doniger, premiered at the University’s Court Theatre under the direction of Grene’s longtime colleague Nicholas Rudall.

An insight into Grene’s motivations and legacy may be gained from the introduction he wrote to a translation of a bygone age, Hobbes’ version of Thucydides. Here he said, “Translations of great works from the past appear when there is a demand for them. This demand seems to spring from some sort of understanding between the two ages, however distant. We are very near to the world of fifth-century Greece...For strangely enough, they faced something like our problem of the mass society–a society without respect for traditional standards of birth or conduct, with few restraints in religion or morality, with war past or war impending the most dynamic force in political life.”

Grene is survived by his first wife Margerie Grene of Blacksburg, VA, his second wife, Ethel Grene of Willamette, IL, his companion Stephanie Nelson of Boston, MA and four children: Ruth Grene, Nicholas Grene, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, Andrew Grene, a political affairs officer at the United Nations, and Gregory Grene a musician and a music producer in New York, as well as ten grandchildren.

A high resolution photo of David Grene is available here.
Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Friday, September 13, 2002.

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