Sept. 26, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 1

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    Grene, helped found Committee on Social Thought, dies at 89

    David Grene, translator of Greek tragedy and history and founding member of the University’s Committee on Social Thought, died Tuesday, Sept. 10. He was 89.

    Grene is best known for his translations of Greek tragedy and of Herodotus’ History, which was described by the New York Times as “a monument to what translation intends and to what it is hungry to accomplish.”

    His translations of the Greek tragedies, published by the University of Chicago Press, sold well over a million copies, but his strongest influence may have been through his teaching–students and colleagues remarked on his personal knowledge of and emotional relationship to ancient Greek writers, which was so deep that the writer Saul Bellow described Grene as seeming to have grown up with them.

    Grene was born April 13, 1913, in Dublin, and started his classical education early, beginning Latin and French at age 8 and Greek at 10. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, earning an M.A. in 1936. Between 1933 and 1936 he taught and studied in Dublin, Vienna, Athens and at Harvard University, and he also worked in Hollywood alongside the Marx brothers. But he decided to settle in America only when he came to the University as an Instructor in Classics in 1937.

    Upon his arrival at Chicago, Grene’s intensity ruffled the feathers of some faculty members, leading former University President Robert Maynard Hutchins to leave a note in his file stating “This man is not to be fired without consulting me.”

    Grene, who was an avid dairy farmer with a series of farms in Chicago and County Wicklow and County Cavan in Ireland, started his first farm outside of Chicago at age 25, reasoning that if he were nonetheless to be fired he could always support himself.

    His companion Stephanie Nelson, a former student and current professor at Boston University, said “he loved working with cows, horses, pigs chickens and ducks, and it was important to him that the farms be self-supporting and not merely a hobby. He was as much a part of the rural farming community in Ireland as of the academic community in Chicago, and people in Ireland found it as hard to imagine him as a professor of Greek as the academics here found it hard to imagine him as a dairy farmer. He didn’t feel the intellectual world was in any way superior to the task of providing food.”

    Grene flourished as a Chicago scholar, and in 1947, he became one of the five founding members of the Committee on Social Thought.

    On his biographical form, Grene described his academic interests as “the theater, particularly Greek theater and that of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era in England, the Anglo-Irish theater of the early 20th century” and “Greek political theory.”

    He brought these together in such works as “Reality and the Heroic Pattern: Last Plays of Ibsen, Shakespeare, Sophocles,” “Man in his Pride: a Study of Thucydides and Plato” and “Herodotus: the Historian as Dramatist.”

    Saul Bellow, whose novels often evoke Chicago’s intellectual life, frequently taught with Grene and shared an adjoining door with him: “We were in and out of each other’s offices and each other’s hair quite a lot.” He remembers that Grene “used to drive in from his farm downstate to teach. He had a very firm character. Except perhaps with respect to his specialty, Greek literature. He was very emotional in his reactions to the poets and playwrights we studied, he had spent so many years with them that he belonged to their families, so to speak.”

    His daughter, Ruth Grene, a professor of plant physiology at Virginia Tech, remembers him as a sensitive father: “He was extraordinarily perceptive and sympathetic about one’s difficulties from our earliest age. He would just look at you and understand.”

    Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School, said Grene was distinguished by “his integrity and his refusal to let anything come between him and the source. He knew all of Greek and most of English literature so that was what he had in his head, rather than what other scholars were saying.

    “He had utter confidence in what the text said, didn’t read in any trendy theory or anything–he just went right for the jugular. He taught me to doubt the dictionary . . . that when you want to know what a word means you look at it every time it occurs in Greek.”

    In the wider world, he will be best known for his translations. In addition to Herodotus, these include Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Seven Against Thebes, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Electra and Philoctetes and Euripides’ Hippolytus, all published by the University Press in The Complete Greek Tragedies. He and Doniger translated Aeschylus’ Oresteia for the stage in 1986, and it premiered at the Court Theatre under the direction of Grene’s longtime colleague Nicholas Rudall.

    Grene is survived by his first wife Margerie Grene of Blacksburg, Va., his second wife, Ethel Grene of Willamette, Ill., his companion Stephanie Nelson of Boston, Mass., four children, Ruth Grene; Nicholas Grene, a professor at Trinity College, Dublin; Andrew Grene, a political affairs officer at the United Nations; and Gregory Grene, a musician and a music producer in New York; and 10 grandchildren.