Friday, June 04, 2004


A Novel Approach to Teaching Homer

In This Trifling Distinction: Reminiscences from Down East (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978), pp. 149-150, John Gould tells about one of his classes at Bowdoin College. At the time Bowdoin admitted only men as students.
One of my great teachers was Thomas Means, and his superiority may be demonstrated by the way he introduced us to Homer. We came into the first class, he discharged the amenities like a shorted battery, and he said: "Gentlemen -- it would probably cause talk if the young ladies of the community came to the gymnasium after a football game and bathed the athletes. But in ancient times, it was customary for the handmaidens to wash a gentlemen after a hunt, games, or a battle. For next class, I want you to be able to cite instances of this in the Iliad. If you will count off, you will have the numbers of the books each man is to explore. Good day."

At our age, at that time, in a conservative college, there was a bawdiness to this that resulted in no "unprepareds" the next time. And in succeeding classes Professor Means had us look for similar things -- until each of us had read all the books and knew all the Iliad. Which is an excellent thing for a writer to know.

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