North American Scholar

BACON, Helen Hazard

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1919-03-09
  • Born City: Berkeley
  • Born State/Country: CA
  • Parents: Leonard, a poet, & Martha Stringham B.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 2007-11-09
  • Death City: WIlliamsburg
  • Death State/Country: MA
  • Education:

    B.A. Bryn Mawr College, 1940; Ph.D., 1955; postgrad study at U. of California, Berkeley, 1940-1; Harvard, 1942; Litt.D., Middlebury College, 1970.

  • Professional Experience:

    Communications Division, U.S. Navy, 1942; instr. Greek & freshman English, Bryn Mawr, 1946-9; intro. Latin, North Carolina Women's College, Greensboro, 1951-2; Fulbright fellow, ASCSA, 1952-3; instr. to asso. prof. classics, Smith, 1953-61; fac. member Barnard College. 1961-89; chair dept., 1962-74; prof. Greek & Latin, 1965-89; fac. member, Bread Loaf School English, summers 1966, 1968, 1973, 1975; scholar-in-residence, AAR, 1968-9; fac. member Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia U., 1975-89; Blegen distinguished vis. research prof., Vassar College, 1979; vis. prof. Harvard, spring 1983; vis. resident research fellow, ASCSA, 1984-5; president, APA, 1985; part-time vis. prof. classics, Hampshire College, 1986-7; Founders fell., Am. Assn. University Women, 1963-4.

  • Dissertation:

    "Barbarians in Greek Tragedy" (Bryn Mawr, 1955) printed (New Haven: Yale UP, 1961)

  • Notes:

    Helen Bacon spent much of her early life in Berkeley, CA, and then in Florence, Italy, where her father, the poet Leonard Bacon, and her painter mother, Martha Stringham Bacon, settled their family among a group of artists and intellectuals until the growth of Italian fascism before World War II. After graduate work, she enlisted in the Navy, where she worked as a cryptographer in Washington. After the war she returned to Bryn Mawr to complete her Ph.D. After stints at the Woman’s College in Greensboro and Smith, she moved to Barnard. She taught graduate courses regularly at both Columbia and the Bread Loaf School in Middlebury, Vermont, and was a visiting professor at Harvard and Hampshire College. She was closely associated with the AAR for many years and held numerous positions in the APA, including its presidency.

    Helen’s scholarship was consistently ahead of its time and helped to introduce legitimate literary criticism within the highly conservative discipline of Classics. Her Barbarians in Greek Tragedy is widely used and her translation and introduction to Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes was nominated for a National Book Award. She published influential articles and reviews addressed both to classicists and non-classicists on a wide range of topics, including Attic tragedy (especially Aeschylus), Plato, Virgil, the Roman novel, classical presences in the poetry of Robert Frost, and the mythological writing of Edith Hamilton. Helen’s best-known articles for classicists include “The Shield of Eteocles” (1964), “The Aeneid as a Drama of Election” (1986), “The Poetry of Phaedo” (1990),”The Chorus in Greek Life and Drama” (1994-5), and “The Furies’ Homecoming” (2001). Her best-known articles for non-specialists (though they are often cited by classical scholars too) include “The Sybil in the Bottle” (1958), “Socrates Crowned” (1959), “Woman’s Two Faces: Sophocles’ View of the Tragedy of Oedipus and his Family” (1966), “Aeschylus” (1982) and her six essays on Robert Frost and classical poetry, which would make an excellent book if bound together in a single volume. Helen’s beautifully written scholarship is grounded in close attention to details of language, form, and style. She characteristically moves from discussion of specific passages to broad ideas and interpretations, which are informed by her distinctive ability to see the literature she discusses in its historical, social, and cultural contexts.

    At Barnard, Helen fought as department chair to make modern Greek a permanent part of the curriculum and fostered the tradition of the Barnard Greek or Latin play, which continued on a nearly annual basis after her death. Above all, however, she was an extraordinary teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students. From her undergraduate days at Bryn Mawr where she was said to be able to “construe her way through a brick wall,” Helen’s knowledge of Greek and Latin was exceptional and she challenged her students to achieve the same kind of intimate familiarity with the languages. Her elementary Greek class was famous and inspirational: in addition to studying grammar and syntax, students memorized and discussed lyric poems every week, and were exceptionally well prepared for more advanced courses, in which they were impressed by Helen’s sensitivity to style, ideas, and ethical content and value of the texts being studied. Helen was a demanding teacher who set high standards and inspired students to meet her demands. At the end of an advanced course on Greek tragedy, she would invite the entire class to her apartment to read the play aloud (amid much food and drink)—an unforgettable experience for generations of students. Helen was also famous for supervising student essays and graduate theses; many have commented on how she taught them to write.

    Helen’s sense of justice and fairness, combined with New England firmness, was exemplary. In 2003, she received the David Burres Award for Civil Liberties by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts in a ceremony at Smith College. As an untenured professor in 1960, Helen courageously organized Smith faculty and the larger academic community to support two younger colleagues who had been turned in to the police for possessing homosexual pornography. The men were exonerated by the courts, with help mobilized by Helen, but were fired by Smith—in reality for being gay; although Helen failed to get them rehired, she succeeded in getting them back pay. The ACLU praised Helen as being among those “heroes who speak out for civil liberties when it counts most—at the moment when individual rights are violated.” Although Helen received tenure at Smith, she left for Barnard the following year, partly as a result of this incident.

    Helen was throughout her career immensely supportive both personally and intellectually to other scholars, and especially, as an early feminist, to women. She gave a great deal of time and energy to writing detailed letters in support of applicants for graduate schools, fellowships, and jobs. She was ready and willing to think through situations, share her experience, and offer advice.

  • Sources:

    Helene Foley, Nancy Felson, Deborah Roberts, Seth Schein, Laura Slatkin, APA Newsletter (February 2008) 30-2; Nancy Felson, Deborah Roberts, Laura Slatkin, CW 101,4 (2008) 539-41; WhAm 46 (1990-91); DAS 8:3.24.

    Image: Barnard College Mortarboard yearbook 1965

  • Author: Helene Foley, Nancy Felson, Deborah Roberts, Seth Schein, & Laura Slatkin