North American Scholar

COMMAGER, Henry Steele, Jr

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1932-07-13
  • Born City: Bennettsville
  • Born State/Country: SC
  • Parents: Henry Steele, prof, history, & Evan Carroll C.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1984-04-02
  • Death City: New York
  • Death State/Country: NY
  • Married: Annette Grant, Mar 1984
  • Education:

    AB Harvard, 1954; Society of Fellows, 1955-8

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr to asst prof, class Harvard, 1958-61; asst prof, to prof Gk & Lat Columbia, 1961-84

  • Publications:

    “Lucretius' Interpretation of the Plague,” HSCP 62 (1957) 105-18; “The Function of Wine in Horace's Odes,” TAPA 88 (1957) 68-80; “Horace, Carmina I, 37,” Phoenix 12 (1958) 47-57; “Horace, Carmina, 1,2,” AJP 80 (1959) 37-55; The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study (New Haven, 1962; repr Bloomington, 1967); “The Structure of Catullus 5,” CJ 59 (1964-5) 361-4; Twentieth Century Views: Virgil (ed) (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1966); “Notes on Some Poems of Catullus,” HSCP 70 (1965) 83-110, repr in Catull (Darmstadt, 1975) 201-40; A Prolegomenon to Propertius, Semple Lectures (Cincinnati, 1971; Norman, OK, 1974); “Some Loose Ends A Metrical Note on Horace's Satires,” in G W Bowersock, W Burkert, M C J Putnam, eds, Arkturos: Hellenic Studies Presented to Bernard M W Knox on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (Berlin, 1979) 409-12; “Some Horatian Vagaries,” SO 55 (1980) 59-70; “Fateful Words Some Conversations in Aeneid lV,” Arethusa 14 (1981) 101-14; “The Structure of Catullus 62,” Eranos 81 (1983) 21-33; series editor, The Garland Library of Latin Poetry (42 vols) (New York, 1977) and Publications of the Society for Pure English (7 vols) (New York, 1979); numerous book reviews and popular articles, mostly on etymology, in NYTimes, Atlantic, Forbes, and Wall Street Journal (among others)

  • Notes:

    Steele Commager's life and work demonstrated what the American “New Criticism” of the mid-20th century could accomplish when applied to the works of classical antiquity by an intelligent and sensitive critic who was open to the rhetorical possibilities of his material in a manner that often transcended the limitations of New Criticism itself. A member of the famous Harvard class of 1954, Commager immediately entered the Harvard Society of Fellows in lieu of pursuing a Ph.D. His major work, The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study, which he completed in 1962 at the age of 30, is still recognized as one of the best works of its kind on this major Roman author. The text of Horace is made to resonate simultaneously on numerous levels, as moral, political, and poetic themes emerge from what might appear to be straightforwardly topical passages. Commager's scholarship was written in a language that at all times avoided the ponderous obscurities of technical jargon. Commager carried this engaging and unpretentious style of exposition over into his teaching as well. He was for many years an object of great admiration and affection to his students at Columbia University, many of whom, building upon his methods of close textual analysis, went on to become important contributors to the field of classics in their own right. Commager's success as a scholar and teacher lay in the directness and immediacy of his approach to classical literature, which stressed careful attention to the elastic ambiguities of the Latin language, an extensive use of concordances (in preference to commentaries and secondary literature), and a thorough knowledge of the words of the text. His love of etymology was such as to endow the semantic fate of the individual words in the authors he handled with an almost human drama and urgency. His publications and his lectures dealt not merely with classical authors, but also with a wide range of English and American poets; for Horace and Virgil were, to him, just as much “contemporary” poets as were Eliot and Pound. By the time of his death from cancer at the age of 51, Commager had established himself not only as one of the leading champions of the literary value of the masterworks of Latin poetry among his fellow philologists but also, through his articles and reviews in major newspapers and magazines, as one of the most humane and personable ambassadors of classics to a larger audience outside the field.

  • Sources:

    William G Blair, NYTimes (3 Apr 1984) D30; DAS 1982:101; WhAm 1980 1:685

  • Author: E. Brian Roots