Classics and the Loeb Classical Library

Here are some excerpts from an interview with Jeffrey Henderson, editor of the Loeb Classical Library, on the occasion of the launch of A Loeb Classical Library Reader. I thought he had some interesting things to say about the Loeb library and about the study of classics.

“The Loeb Library in the 1970s began to replace some of the older translations with modern ones that could be straight translations. And there’s quite a lot of sexy, classical literature, explicit classical literature that needed to be replaced in the old editions and we’ve been doing that along the way, as we can. It always depends upon finding the right author for these things because not everybody is a good translator, and not everybody can do the Latin, or Greek text and the English translation at the same time. We don’t split the tasks. It’s always the same person that does both the Latin or Greek and the English. So, sometimes it takes decades to find the right person to do one of these.”

“Yes. People don’t know that the novel actually began among the Greeks, and we have half a dozen really good ones. They, again, are a genre that hasn’t been translated, or it wasn’t considered very important for classical literature for a long time. They were in the Renaissance when people imitated them to create picaresque novels and romances. But classical scholars sort of shied away from them as being trivial kinds of literature. I’m doing a volume of two of them; that’ll be fun.”

“James Loeb wanted to make the classics available for everyone, and he thought scholars had their own resources. But he wanted to preserve all that was important in Greek and Latin literature forever, so he endowed the library so that all the volumes would always be in print.”

“Early on, old headmasters and various talented amateurs would do the translations. They were okay. Those guys could write, even if they weren’t the greatest scholars, they were excellent writers and the translations were good enough for the ordinary reader. And they just used standard Greek and Latin text. Not the first editions. So, the Loebs were considered for every- day readers and not scholarly reliable. And so, students and graduate students that used them were thought to be using unreliable editions from the point of view of critical scholarship. But, as I say, since the ’70s, we’ve been redoing a lot of the volumes and certainly when we do the new volumes, we get both revisions and new volumes, using the top scholars in their fields. And we want them to do fresh editions of the Greek and Latin text too. So, the volumes that have come out, new and revised for the last 35 years, are excellent scholarly tools. And, in some cases, they’re the best editions available.”

“That’s why they are of a rather modest size,” said the professor. “And, Loeb insisted in his bequest, that they be that size and he designed the volumes as they are today. And they’ve always been that way. He endowed the library so that the Loeb volumes would always be in print and available at a modest cost. They’re very nice volumes. They’re all the same price and we try to keep that price as low as possible. They come, you know, in red or green cloth and green or red dust jackets, and they look rather nice all together in a bookcase. All Greek texts have green jackets, and all Latin texts have red jackets.”

“At Boston University, we have almost a hundred Classics majors now. There are far more than there were twenty years ago. I think there are a lot of reasons for it. In the humanities, there’s been praise for critical theory and kind of non-literary enthusiasms in various departments, and that turns off students that are natural humanists because they want to read. They love to read and they love literature. So, they tend to gravitate away from English departments and other language departments toward Classics because this is real literature and very, very good literature. And, it’s still taught as literature.”

—Judith Moore, “Reading: A Loeb Classical Library Reader” [San Diego]

I find that last paragraph very telling. It sounds like some students are rebelling against post-modernism, and classics departments are more than happy to take them in. When I went to university I was disappointed to find that the introductory classics courses were on indefinite hiatus, but now they are on again, plus dozens of upper level courses to choose from. How nice for today’s students. [grumble]


3 comments on “Classics and the Loeb Classical Library

  1. Stefanie says:

    Do you collect the Loeb Classics? They are such lovely books but I've never been able to convince myself to afford them. That is interesting about students leaving English departments for the Classics. I don't even recall there being a classics department at the university I went to. But then at the time, it was believed that theory and post-modernism was going to save English departments because it was going to make literature cool and interesting again. Obviously it didn't work out that way.

  2. Sylvia says:

    So far I only have the Reader, which is great fun. I wish they would put out an anthology, or two, Greek and Latin.
    It's too bad the humanities aren't respected as they should be. I guess in our technological world it's hard to see their value. But we're still human beings, aren't we?

  3. Stefanie says:

    I'm pretty sure I'm human, though there are some people I work with who seem questionable at times!

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