Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir
by David Grene.
University of Chicago Press, 2006,
cloth, 184 pages, $35.

Reviewed by John Byron Kuhner

Augustine, in praising God’s choice to place Adam and Eve in a garden that needed tending, waxed poetic. “When all is said and done, is there any more marvellous sight, any occasion when human reason is nearer to some sort of converse with the nature of things, than the sowing of seeds, the planting of cuttings, the transplanting of shrubs, the grafting of slips? It is as though you could question the vital force in each root and bud, and ask what it can do, and what it cannot, and why” (A Close Reading of Genesis 8.8.16 in Peter Brown’s translation, from his biography of the saint). All life on earth comes from sunlight transformed into energy via the photosynthetic activity of plants; and in those moments of confusion when we question how we got to where we are, we look to the simplicity of life at its root, in the things that we grow and the meals that sustain us.

There is something similar about the classics. When the mind is sick of its own complexity and choked on its own productions, there is a healthy instinct in us to return to writers like Homer and Caesar and Herodotus. We go back to sources like this when we want to be reminded of who we are. The answer is not there entirely, but it is as close as we can get to the mystery.

We understand this relationship between farming and the classics intuitively, and so someone at the University of Chicago Press with a knack for naming things entitled David Grene’s posthumous memoir, Of Farming and Classics. The cover, a photo of a mature tree rising out of the misty pasture lands of auroral bucolia, suggests that the book will be an extended meditation on the mystical unity of man and mind and land and poetry.

But anyone looking for such a book—which, let me say, should be written, with a view to the modern reader, so have at it, you literate Agricolae—will be disappointed by Grene’s. It really should be entitled “Memories and Reflections from the Life of David Grene (1913–2002), who was Irish, headed the School of Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and Owned a Farm.” The classics are hardly mentioned. Saving a three-word phrase from Aeschylus and an acknowledgement that the word “worms” occurs twice in Homer, there is not a single quotation from a classical author. There is no acknowledgement that some of the ancients kept farms and wrote about them. Grene mentions authors occasionally, but they are merely names on the page.

Similarly with farming. He evidently likes horses and does not like the way pigs are treated by industrial agriculture (nor should you, by the way), but you can read the entire book and not know the name of a single plant Grene ever grew. Nor are there any poetic meditations on the nature of a seed, or seeing the stalks drooping after the first frost. For anything of that sort, I am afraid you will have to go to the classics yourself, and Grene is not going to help you find the right passages either. There is no mention of Cato or Varro or Columella or Theophrastus.

So what is the book about? It is in part about growing up in Ireland; there are satisfactory descriptions of his mother and his aunt May (neither of whom had anything to do with either farming or classics), a bit of lyricism describing the river Liffey, which is a depressingly typical example of the utterly bloodless but occasionally suggestive style of the book:

It is a wonderfully suggestive river, even dirty and polluted as it tends to be now. If the truth be known, it probably was polluted during a great deal of its history, since it served as a sewer for the city for hundreds of years. But a mysterious river it is, especially in the early misty mornings of summer. I remember very well that for weeks before my final exams in Trinity when I could not sleep, I would walk along the quays, and it always comforted me, although its suggestions of comfort were to be only vaguely understood. (39–40)

There are only fourteen nouns in that passage, and half of them are filler. This is indicative.

The best material in the book concerns Grene’s own instruction in Latin and Greek. When you see old Latin composition textbooks you wonder if it was at all possible that high school students were once being taught using such impossibly difficult exercises. That was the kind of education Grene actually received. Unfortunately, he really doesn’t talk about how it was made to work, or why he was part of a generation that completely abandoned it. (In fact, in his memoir he studiously avoids anything difficult or that might require him to adopt a strong position. He never mentions his two wives or his children, and his description of the twentieth-century upheavals at Chicago is pallid at best.) He read Euripides’ Alcestis in second-year Greek. He was writing Greek and Latin hexameters while living in his parents’ house. He does not give a great deal of data, but the anecdotes are enjoyable to read:

He [Classicist Robert Tate] would, for instance, on Tuesday give us a passage of any author from Milton to Wordsworth, and on the following Tuesday take up our versions of them, done into whatever meter you deemed appropriate—hexameters for Milton, Ovidian or Tibullan elegiacs for Wordsworth. . . . On the Thursday following he would enter the classroom, sit down with his face ostentatiously away from us and toward the window and lawn in the square. He would then catalogue our infelicities or downright blunders without attributing any of them by name to the unhappy listening faces which would begin to redden. He would then comment with something like this: “I say nothing about the poetry of this; it is too much to expect that you have enough feeling for English poetry to have any notion of how to render it in Latin or Greek—but at least you ought to know the simple rules of Latin and Greek meter.” (71–2)

The text is one hundred fifty-eight pages, and the first hundred and ten cover his life up to age twenty-three. There then follows an unacceptably summary sixteen-page account of the next sixty years of his life at the University of Chicago. The account is characterized by an avoidance of flavor and detail, which (one might note) seems to be the preferred style of the Chicago School of Social Thought, where vagueness appears to be the local dish. There is an occasional tidbit of worth—for example, that Robert Hutchins, the controversial “Great Books” president of the University, tried to get all university exams to be multiple-choice, one of those odd contradictions that help explain why he managed to arouse so much opposition.

Finally comes a twenty-two-page account of farming, again written with a curious avoidance of detail. Again, anyone looking for accounts of Scipio the Younger’s completely self-sufficient farm, or a note that Vergil wrote a book about farming (the Georgics are never mentioned), or even looking to be reassured by the presence of good farming nouns like “manure” or “fertility,” will find all these things absent.

Grene’s book is not likely to cause any harm, and it could plausibly provide an evening of unchallenging entertainment. But it is a fragmentary memoir rather than a treatise or meditation or plea. It makes no claims, direct or ostensive, for physicality as a means of understanding even the ancient world, much less intellectual culture or truth more generally. Nor does it claim that a more classical method of food production is necessary for human dignity or happiness. Such claims would need a stout defense—the farming manuals of the ancient world all presume the involvement of massive amounts of slave labor. Varro said that there were three types of tools on a farm, vocale, semivocale, and mutum—voiced, half-voiced, and voiceless: slaves, animals, and objects; “what beasts these Romans were,” as Lewis says, and even the Benedictines with a religious vision of work and prayer never really dispensed with slave, serf, or low-wage labor. But there is still something compelling in Augustine’s vindication of God’s wisdom in making Adam and Eve cultivate a garden, not for their survival but for their benefit, as a kind of act which was equally contemplation. Perhaps we grow sick of the gift of life, and abuse it, because we have simply lost our intimacy with the processes by which it is sustained. “And in that consideration,” Augustine continues, “we can perceive that ‘it is not he who plants, nor he who waters, who is anything, but he who gives the increase—God.’”  

John Byron Kuhner taught Latin for ten years before moving to the Catskill Mountains, where he lives in an off-grid one-room cabin and works as a gardener. He tends a garden and keeps a blog, and is the author of Staten Island, or, Life in the Boroughs.