North American Scholar

POWELSON, Stephen Van Nest

  • Image
  • Date of Birth: 1917-11-11
  • Born City: Syracuse
  • Born State/Country: NY
  • Parents: John Abrum and Mary Elizabeth Rennie P.
  • Date of Death: 1994-12-26
  • Death City: Copenhagen
  • Death State/Country: Denmark
  • Married: Esther Morley Williams, 1 September 1941.
  • Education:

    A.B. Harvard, 1938; MBA, NYU 1940.

  • Professional Experience:

    Accountant, Haskins & Sells, New York & Philadelphia, 1940-7; European auditor, manager sales office, Care, Inc. (Stuttgart), 1947-8; Controller, U.S. Agency for Int. Dev. Missions in Europe, 1948-56; Deputy comptroller, Panama Canal Co., 1956-9; Dir. International audits, Am-Std., 1959-71; Vice President for Europe, Alden self Transit Systems Corp., (Westboro, Mass.) 1971-3; European controller Spalding Div., Questor Corp. (Toledo, OH), 1974-7; Financial Dir., Al TassHeel Litijara Co. (Paris), 1980-90.  

  • Notes:

    Stephen Powelson read the entire Iliad at Phillips Andover, where his teacher, A.R. Benner, required his students to memorize 21 lines of the Iliad in one week. Powelson found that he could do it in one hour. He graduated from Andover as valedictorian of his class and as a winner of the Jacob Cooper National Greek Prize, an award that helped finance his education at Harvard College. His only classics course in college was one on Greek drama, after which he read no Greek for 44 years. In the meantime, he earned an MBA from NYU and became a Certified Public Accountant. He spent much of his highly successful business career serving various international companies and organizations in dif­ferent capacities, but was obliged to retire when his company closed its Paris office.  His technique was to read an entire book in the Loeb edition into a tape recorder and read it several more times to “visualize myself as part of the action.” He would read a paragraph, recite each line with his eyes closed until he learned it, then recite groups of lines, then several paragraphs and so on until he could recite the book. He then would listen to the tape recording and “fix the material in my memory.” To do so, he often associated lines with English-Greek homonyms, personal memories, and even pieces of furniture in his home. He said, however, “The Iliad has 15,693 lines and I don’t have that much furniture.”  By 1983 he had memorized 10,000 lines, 15 of the 24 books, 10,400 of the lines. In 1983 he recited book 9 to the NYU Classics Department. At the age of 76 he gave a national and European tour, typically asking faculty to announce only the night before what passages they wished him to recite from books 1-22 and 24 (he was working on Book 23 at the time of his death). In performance he periodically closed his eyes, clenching his fist and pumping it up and down with the rhythm of the hexameter, needing only occasional prompts from the audience. He felt he was barnstorming for Classics and was able to do so at his own expense. He estimated that he had spent 5800 hours memorizing and ultimately memorized 14800 lines, which would take a stretch of 15 hours to recite, through unusual powers of mind and what he called “will, discipline and a touch of madness.” His wife noted that his extraordinary memory did not extend to all facets of his life: “He can’t find his glasses, he can’t find his keys. Nevertheless, he was testimony that one mind could hold the entire Iliad in its memory and that the enriching value of the classics: “Every person has a secret desire to achieve immortality. My way is to absorb into myself something that is immortal.”

  • Sources:

    Jerrold C. Brown, APANewsletter (October 1995) 14; Harvard Magazine (January-February 1988); NYTimes, 24 October 1983; Tuscaloosa News (16 April 1994) 5F.

  • Author: Ward W. Briggs, Jr.