North American Scholar
CLAUSEN, Wendell Vernon
A.B. University of Washington, 1945; Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1948; A.M. (hon.) Harvard, 1959.
- Professional Experience:
Instructor classics, Amherst, 1948-55; asso. prof., 1955-59; professor Greek and Latin, Harvard, 1959-82; Victor S. Thomas Professor of Greek and Latin, 1982-88; Pope Professor of Latin Language & Literature, 1988-93; prof. comparative literature, 1984-93; chair, Department of classics, 1966-71; vis. prof., University College, London, 1971; Sather professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1982; vis. prof., I Tatti, Florence, Italy, 1989; fell. AAR, 1952-3; ACLS, 1962-63; fellow commoner, Peterhouse, Cambridge; fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1963.
"Erchanberti Frisigensis 'Tractatus super Donatum' " (Chicago, 1948).
Throughout the thirty-four years of his tenure at Harvard University Wendell Clausen was one of the most influential teachers of Latin poetry in the professional world of classical studies. He exercised this influence not by the imposition of a method, nor by proselytizing for the works he admired, but through a powerful, deeply personal appeal that arose out of his own intense devotion to the world of letters and the life of the mind. Clausen’s commitment to literature developed early in life and it was not limited to the Greek and Latin classics—his choice of career was almost an accident after studying both English and Classics as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. After receiving his BA in 1945 he began his eastward migration to pursue his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, with its great legacy in classical studies, for which Clausen retained a high regard throughout his career (he was never mesmerized by Harvard). He earned his PhD in only three years, with a dissertation on a medieval grammatical treatise, a topic that only appears implausible against the backdrop of his later career.
His first professional appointment took him still farther east, away from his roots in Oregon to Amherst College, where he taught from 1948 to 1959. It was during these years that he achieved a reputation unique in American classical circles at the time. His first major publication was an edition of Persius, published in 1956 by Oxford University Press, which attracted the attention of British academics unaccustomed to acknowledging textual scholarship from across the Atlantic. This was followed in 1959 by an edition of Persius and Juvenal for the Oxford Classical Texts, the first volume by an American scholar in that prestigious series. In the same year Clausen moved to Harvard University, where he remained until his retirement in 1993. He contributed editions of four minor poems ascribed to Virgil in the OCT of the Appendix Vergiliana, which appeared in 1966, but this was almost the last tangible sign of his involvement with poets whose works he did not cherish. In the years that followed it was the poets of the late Republic and the Augustan period—Horace, Lucretius, Catullus and his contemporaries—with whom Clausen was engaged, but always and above all, Virgil.
For a scholar of so wide a reputation and such profound influence, Clausen published only occasionally and in articles that are distinguished by the same qualities that he valued in literature: precise attention to verbal detail, concision sometimes almost to the point of obscurity, and emotional suggestiveness that never quite finds its way to outright expression. “An Interpretation of the Aeneid,” arguably his most influential paper, which appeared in 1963, is a case in point. In ten brief pages Clausen outlines a reading of the Aeneid that became a landmark in twentieth-century criticism of the epic. It offers a darker interpretation of Virgil’s hero than the one then prevailing in England and on the continent, and led to Clausen’s inclusion in what some called the “Harvard school” of Virgilian criticism, an appellation later debunked by him in an appendix to Nicholas Horsfall’s A Companion to the Study of Virgil (1995). But from this point on, it was indeed Virgil who was the chief object of his study, and the Eclogues in particular, as he labored on the commentary that was to appear some thirty years later: as Clausen used to say, “it is a difficult thing to make a commentary.” The hallmark of Clausen’s style as a critic was to read Latin poetry in the context of its literary antecedents, earlier Roman poets of course, but Greek poets of the Hellenistic period in particular. In this respect his scholarship was pioneering. Although he abhorred the term, his work was informed by the aesthetics of intertextuality avant la lettre, and this quality is on display most prominently in the publication of his Sather lectures in 1987. Not content with the form this interpretation of the Aeneid had taken, Clausen continued to refine his reading in the years following his retirement and reissued the volume in 2002 with the new title Virgil’s Aeneid: Decorum, Allusion and Ideology.
In the course of his career Clausen won many honors: he had been a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome (1952-53), was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963, and was awarded the Premio Internazionale Virgilio by the Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana di Mantova in 1994. At the time of his retirement he was Harvard’s Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature. In public and in the classroom his demeanor was austere, restrained, and elegant, masking an almost painful reserve that was sometimes misconstrued as arrogance or indifference. But any reference he made to himself was usually accompanied by a shy smile and a gesture of the right hand to his chest, as if out of embarrassment. Students cherish recollections of Clausen reciting from memory passages from his favorite poets in Latin and English in a voice deep and resonant, yet tender, and not easily forgotten. Many remember hours spent in his office, conversing on literature, politics, or the vagaries of life at his summer home in Newport, Vermont, in the region known as the Northeast Kingdom, which is how he would usually refer to it. Clausen was patient with students, but not indulgent, although the harshest criticism that he would mete out in person was to call an idea “ingenious.”
He formed strong personal attachments and never forgot what he owed to his former teachers and old friends; he was deeply affected by the premature death of Roger Mynors, his longtime friend and collaborator. “It is this sort of personal relationship that helps to make our study traditional and humane,” he once wrote in a letter, “as it ought to be.” He was most at ease and most himself in the company of his beloved Margaret, his second wife to whom he was married for the last thirty-six years of his life and who followed him in death only a few weeks after his passing. With her, and especially when at their summer home in Vermont, the smiles came easily, and he exuded an almost boyish enthusiasm when he exchanged his trademark green jacket and tie for the plaid shirt that signalled the advent of another summer migration. Books were as much a part of their private life as they were of his profession; both their homes, the cabin in Vermont and the house on Kenway Street in Cambridge, were littered with them, piled by the bedside or by the two chairs at the window. “Literature has been my choice,” he remarked in his retirement speech, paraphrasing Coleridge. “And I am amazed at my good fortune, and thankful.”
Richard Tarrant, APA Newsletter (October 2006) 25-6; WhAm 61 (2007) 819.
- Author: Peter E. Knox