The Influence Of Classical Greece On
American Literature – An Overview

Text of a paper delivered for the publishing project “The Classical Tradition
and the Americas” (subtitled “America’s Greece”), sponsored by The
Institute for the Classical Tradition, the conference held at Boston University,
November 11-14, 1993.

By Alexander Karanikas
Professor of English Emeritus University of Illinois at Chicago


In the beginning was the literary word, and more often then not it had a Greek origin.  To my college class I might illustrate the point by saying:  “Last week we discussed the genre of komodia, a comedy, with emphasis on the “happy idea” deemed necessary by Aristophanes.  Such an imaginative comedic idea as plot, we agreed, was used by Neil Simon in the successful The Odd Couple.  Today, we take up a tragodia, a tragedy pondering whether or not Death of a Salesman meets the requirements of the tragic hero as defined by Aristotle in The Poetics.  Despite what Miller wrote in “Tragedy and the Common Man,” we felt that Willy Loman as the protagonist was more pathetic than tragic, in that his hamartia, his tragic flaw, was more personal than grandly social.  His fall had far less impact on society than, say, the fall of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Oedipus.

“The classical tradition,” I could go on, “influenced not only drama but also other literary forms:  the ode by Pindar; the lyric poem, so-called because its rendition was accompanied by the lyre; also, many figures of speech.  If you utter the phrase, ‘To shriek the word bittersweet,’ you are being both onomatopoetic and oxymoronic, two formidable Greek literary terms.  Our basic approach in this class has been to go from studying the power of literature as bibliotherapy to that of psychagogy, the way great authors as ‘engineers of the soul’ can help and hopefully improve the very quality of mankind.”

I am telling my class that many of the key words by which we perceive, name, evaluate, understand, define, and enjoy literature derive from the classical Greek.  For me to say that here is to mention a commonplace already known by you.  Actually, my subject, “The Influence of Classical Greece on American Literature” achieves the same level of the obvious as would the topic, “The Importance of God to Theology.”  However, in this overview, I might in a recital of reminders be able to make a few more or less original observations.

To categorize the vast scope of classical influence I would begin with the literary terms that derive from the Greek.  One must not forget the Latin, too.  Familiarity with those terms came for many American writers with the classical education they received in school.  When the teaching of Greek and Latin waned, they got their Plato and Aristotle from other courses and their knowledge of mythology from influential books such as Frazer’s Golden Bough, Bulfinch and Hamilton on mytholocy, and Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry.  Archetypes were prevalent in American Literature long before Jung and the New Critics brought them to the forefront of our collective consciousness.

No truly knowledgeable writer seeking to establish the ruling passion or dominant trait of his character can escape what exists for him as examples in the large Greek gallery of personae, both in myth and in history.  As powerful as Zeus, as wily and resourceful as Odysseus, as virtuous as Penelope, as strong as Hercules, as tragic as Hecuba, as vengeful as Medea, as all-seeing as Tiresias, as beautiful as Helen, as sexually confused as Oedipus, as honest as Diogenes, an intelligent as Socrates – and, the anger of Poseidon, the wrath of Achilles, the wizardry of Daedalus, the wisdom of Solon, the ambition of Alexander.

What is also well recognized is the invention and definition of literary genres bequeathed to us from the Greek.  Not only the comedy, tragedy, ode, and lyric already mentioned, but also the epic from Homer and its definition as a long narrative in verse.  Aristotle’s distinction between the narrative and the dramatic still holds in our criticism.  Later critics built upon The Poetics with their formal requirements known as The Three Unities.  Another genre is the fable invented or at least made famous by Aesop.

Further classical influences in American Literature include the kind of adaptation we find in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and the translation into English of Greek works such as Robinson Jeffers’ treatment of Medea.  From translation to translation of a work the words can remain essentially the same, but our reading of that play – the variation of perception that we bring to it – changes the text from one age to another.  Thus classical influence is dynamic, ever-changing, not static and frozen in marble.  Also, American Literature benefited from new insights gained from abroad.  One example is how Ralph Waldo Emerson broadened his perspective by visits to England and Germany.  The full force of the Oedipus complex in Hamlet could not be felt until Freud and writers like Ernest Jones helped us gain a more profound understanding.  Of course, the variance from the original in a translation should be within the bounds of moderation.

Several other types of classical influence might be cited before I go to the colonial period in American Literature for a brief survey to the present.  One of these types is the pervasive and massive use of allusions to various aspects of classical Hellenism in all genres.  These allusions can be used both positively and negatively to achieve both the symbolic and the literal meanings desired in context.  Another type is the retelling, especially in novels, of what happened in myth, legend, or in actuality to some well-known personage such as Helen, Electra, Ariadne, or Alexander.  And, very important to our purpose is the classical influence on modern literary theory, literary movements, schools of thought, and criticism.  Most college courses in the history of literary criticism begin – and in my mind certainly should begin – with the relevant texts of Plato, Aristotle, and Longinus.

The Puritans, of  course, were Calvinists, but we can find them very conscious of the classics.  In their study The Puritans, Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson include the following passage from a funeral sermon by Ebenezer Pemberton, a tutor at Harvard, who mentioned in 1711 the various ways in which a country can be served.  One of these ways is the promotion of “good literature.”  The authors quote Pemberton:  “This is necessary for the true prosperity and happiness of a people.  Greece and Rome are more renowned for the flourishing state of learning in them, than for their arms.”  Such excellence in learning, Pemberton went on, was necessary “to secure the glory of Christ’s visible kingdom, to detect doctrinal errors and to baffle the heretic.”  (Miller and Johnson, 18).

Miller and Johnson also declare about the Puritans:  “Their theology undoubtedly stood in the way of unrestricted appreciation, yet in the amount of Greek and Roman writing they could enjoy and utilize, they fall very little short of the most liberal of Anglican scholars.” (20)  They state further:  “Increase Mather reveals significantly the alacrity with which a Puritan theologian made room on his shelves for the books of pagan Greece and Rome.” (20)  Finally, the Puritans felt that Thomism in general, and thus Aristotle, had turned into scholasticism.  They found an acceptable logician to set the matter right.  He was Peter Ramus, a Dutch humanist, logician, and Protestant.  Ramus established a system of contraries as opposed to Aristotle’s alleged tyranny of the syllogism.  As to classical influence, Miller and Johnson write:  “The very premise of his (Ramus’) system was a Platonic conception: that the world is a copy or material counterpart of an ordered hierarchy of ideas existing in the mind of God.” (21)

A final point before leaving the Puritans.  They made an odyssey, which they called a pilgrimage, fraught with perils, to reach the new world wilderness and establish Zion, the kingdom of God.  They were pursued at every turn, not by an angry and vengeful Poseidon, but by a cunning Satan and a God who was very stringy with his grace and very hard on sinners.

During the period of American rebellion and subsequent founding of our republic it was the politics and not the poetics of ancient Greece that held center stage.  But a generation or two later, with the outbreak of the Greek Revolution of 1821, the American men of letters and especially the poets responded with the so-called “Greek Fever” of support that included the hope, however remote, of a classical restoration.  In their study American Poets and the Greek Revolution, 1821-1828, Raizis and Papas write:  “The concern for the Greek war derived mainly from American interest in classical tradition and in the hope for the realization of the dream common among romantics and humanists: the restoration of Greece to her old glory and the return of arts and sciences to the land of the Hellenes.” (9)

This sentiment, the authors state, was expressed as early as 1787 by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to a friend and classical scholar, George Wythe, “I cannot help looking forward to the re-establishment of the Greeks as a people, and the language of Homer becoming a living language, as among possible events.” (9)  Before and after the Greek Revolution many Americans traveled to Greece looking for traces of the ancient genius, and they recorded their impressions in books for readers back home.  The main point to be made is that the “Greek Fever” of support by philhellenic poets like William Cullen Bryant rekindled interest in classical Hellenism that was widely reflected in American Literature.

Herman Melville, for example, alludes often to Hellenism in the novel Moby Dick and the poem Clarel.  Greek revolt or not, Melville was learned in several cultures both East and West.  I quote from the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” – “and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull.”  (Melville, Moby Dick, 254).  The relevant footnote explains:  “The Greek myth of Europa: Zeus in this form enticed her onto his back and swam off with her to Crete.” (254) Still on whiteness, Melville compares Achilles’ shield with “white sailor-savage” described in chapter eighteen of the Iliad as “depicting the heavens and earth and all human life.” (254)  In another passage Melville writes, “I have boarded the Argo-Navis,” referring as you know “to the mythical ship in which Jason sought the Golden Fleece.” (396)  Later in Moby Dick, another allusion: “You would have thought we were offering up ten thousand red oxen to the sea gods.”  The footnote; “Like ancient Greeks, though sacrifices on this scale are not recorded.”  Still another: “…The story of Hercules and the whale, and Arion and the dolphin.”  The footnote: “Arion, a Greek poet of the seventh century B.C., was said to have been carried to land by a dolphin after being thrown overboard from a ship.” (470).  Additional classical allusions are “a Titanism of power,” (482), “Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooners,” (539), and “Here’s the ship’s navel, this doubloon here,” and the footnote: “In primitive Greek religion the omphalos or navel-shaped stone was object of a cult; later, at the shrine of Apollo at Delphi, an omphalos was thought to be the center of the earth, and any central place was deemed the omphalos of the region.” (456).  There’s more in Moby Dick, including Damocles, Prometheus, and Pan.

With respect to Melville’s Clarel, I quote a passage from my book Hellenes and Hellions:  “The seven allegorical figures who are Greek include Agath, an old pilot, whom Bezanson the scholar whom I cite designates as A MAN OF DISASTERS; the Banker, of Greek-English background, who represents MAMMONISM; the Celibate, a Greek monk who stands for A SUPERIOR TYPE OF INNOCENCE; Christodulus, the abbot of Mar Saba in Palestine and a symbol of UNQUESTIONING BELIEVER: the Cypriote, a handsome boy who epitomizes UNTROUBLED YOUTH; Glaucon, a rich Smyrniote and archetype of IRRESPONSIBLE AND HAPPY YOUTH: and the Lesbian, a man of MIDDLE-AGED EPICUREANISM.”  (Karanikas, 24).  In introducing this passage I make the point that Melville’s knowledge of the archetypes deriving from traditional Hellenism, both in myth and history, made it natural for him to choose Greeks as the symbolic figures he needed.

The Greek Revolution also inspired a host of American stage plays most of which were melodramas of limited literary value.  The first, The Grecian Captive (1822), was written by Mordecai M. Noah.  Among John Howard Payne’s many works were Ali Pacha; or, The Signet Ring (1823) and Oswaldi of Athens (1831).  One might expect that the Greek hero most honored in our literature during the nineteenth century, Marco Bozzaris, would be depicted on the stage.  At least three plays fulfill this expectation.  In them and in various poems, Bozzaris was Achilles and Odysseus at the walls of Troy, Leonidas holding back the Persians at Thermopylae, and many another classical hero born anew and fighting to be free.

As in the drama, the American novel also exploited public interest in Hellenism both ancient and modern.  The brigand became a stock character.  The Greek brigand, the folk hero popularly called the klephtes, is an honorable Robin Hood fighting for his people whereas the Turkish brigand is a cruel and mean outlaw.  A good example of such a novel is George Horton’s Like Another Helen (1900).  Indeed, in the past century and a half so much American fiction has found in Hellenism a “usable past” that I can mention only a few examples.

Both Jack Williamson and Barbara Michaels use the Ariadne prototype.  Williamson’s The Age of Wizardry (1964) retells the myth of Theseus and his epic struggle to rid the world of the Dark One, the power of the Cretan Minos and his dreaded Minotaur.  Both Williamson and Michaels, too, allude to the legend of Atlantis, the lost empire mentioned by Plato.  The strength of Theseus in The Age of Wizardry wins out against the dark and mystical forces of the Minoans.  When he severs the head of Keke, Ariadne’s beautiful dove, the head turns into the “dark, skeletal visage of Daedalus.”  A dwarfish wizard becomes the brazen giant Talos.  For Theseus the lovely Ariadne at the end renounces the power of wizardry.

In The Sea King’s Daughter (1975) Barbara Michaels presents a heroine named Ariadne whose father, an archeologist, seeks a fleet of Minoan ships sunk in the harbor of a Greek island, the alleged location of Atlantis.  A major character, Kore, practices sorcery until the game gets out of hand, meaning that the villagers on Thera take her literally when she speaks about the old Minoan ritual of human sacrifice.  Her father finds no ships, but the girl who represents Ariadne finds a lover whom she marries.

Another author, June Rachuy Brindell, wrote a novel entitled Ariadne and another Phaedra, both from a feminist perspective.  Her own “Author’s Note” in Phaedra clearly states what she illustrates and laments.  “The earliest known religion of the Greeks,” she writes, “was the worship of mother-goddesses, manifested in reverence for the earth and for all renewal of life – vegetable, animal, and human.  A succession of invaders from the north attempted to destroy this religion and to substitute their own worship of militant gods and their semi-divine sons, the Heroes.  On the island of Crete, which was protected by the ocean and by a highly developed naval fleet, it (mother goddess worship) continued as the primary worship until that rich civilization (known popularly as the Minoan) finally fell to the Greeks around 1500 B.C.  As a result of this fall, Phaedra, the last woman in line to inherit the matrilineal throne of Crete as well as the mystic power to speak for the mother goddess, was kidnapped and carried off to Athens by the Greek hero, Theseus.”

The Greek titles of another American writer, Gladys Schmitt, are well known.  They include The Gates of Aulis and Electra.  Not so well known is Harvest Home (1974), the strange novel by Thomas Tryon, set in the remote and archaic Connecticut village of Cornwall Coombe.  The women practice the ancient Eleusinian fertility rite which includes a seven-year cycle of human sacrifice.  Even less known to the general public is the fiction of Harry Mark Petrakis.  His most extended adaptation of classical material is the novel In the Land of Morning (1973), based upon the Oresteia. With regard to O’Neill’s version I wish to make only a passing comment.  I used to tell my students that Clytemnestra had a stronger motive in killing Agamemnon than Christine Mannon had in disposing of poor old Ezra.  You can read the texts and judge for yourself.  I also used to say that O’Neill brought the question of justice before the mere City Council whereas Aeschylus had the great gods Apollo and Athena argue the judgment before what later became the court of Areopagus.  We have lost much in grandeur by no longer believing that the gods can intervene directly in the affairs of mankind.

The adaptation by Petrakis is limited when compared with that in Mourning Becomes Electra.  Alex Rifakis is the war-weary Orestes who returns to Chicago from Vietnam to find the makings of a tragedy at home.  Greek Town is ruled by the gangster Antonio Gallos whose gambling house is called the Temple of Apollo. After the revenge has been accomplished, Alex departs for Phoenix leaving his mother Asmene and sister Eunice behind, “doomed to share the dreary unwinding of their lives, growing into ancient, hopeless figures that only death could liberate.” (Petrakis, 282).  You may recall that at the end of Mourning Becomes Electra Lavinia throws out the flowers and retreats into her empty mansion.  Aeschylus has Electra go into the palace to await dire events.

The heavy presence of sexuality in American Literature depends very much on terminology derived from the classical Greek.  To quote again from Hellenes and Hellions:  “The classical simile ‘He looks like a Greek god,’ an Adonis, still serves as a description of male beauty.  The Hellenic tradition with its initially religious sanction allows for a great deal of libidinous activity.  Without fertility there is no harvest of life, and so the ancient Greeks honored Dionysus and his satyrk hosts with plays and rites of rampant sexuality.  They deified the male organ and called him Priapus; and when his psyche or glands went askew, they or others after them termed the condition priapism – a mixed blessing at best.  The island of Lesbos named the lesbian proclivity, and its greatest poet, Sappho, was the first to celebrate its joy.  From the goddess Aphrodite we get the world aphrodisiac; from satyr, the world satyriasis; and from nymph, nymphomania.  Odysseus gained a renewal of potency, not from the horn of a vanishing animal, but from the benevolence of Athena, the goddess of wisdom.  If in our time man’s fertility has gone berserk, resulting in the population explosion, the fault lies in our forgetting the most famous of Greek maxims, ‘Everything in moderation.’ (Karanikas, 258).

 In thinking about the classical Greek influence on American poetry, where do we begin and where do we end?  Should it be with Edgar Allen Poe’s lovely lyric To Helen and end with Archibald MacLeish’s Calypso’s Island?  Among so much else, we can visualize Walt Whitman, his hair wildly flowing, loudly declaiming Homer from atop a street bus in Brooklyn.  There’s a world of classical allusions in Pound, Eliot, Jeffers, and many another of our best poets.  As to Eliot, we could discuss his equating Sweeney with the repulsive Cyclops, Polyphemus, kin of Poseidon; or the frail hysterical girl to the young princess, Nausicaa.  We could dwell on the enigmatic role of Tiresias in The Waste Land.  Also, the role of Philomela.  In writing The Cocktail Party, Eliot used the Alcestis of Euripides as a model.  Many volumes have been published about every aspect of Eliot, including his use of classical allusions.  For example, Gilbert Highet states that the symbolist poets sometimes employed Greek myths to show, by contrast with the heroism or beauty of classical legend, how sordid the men and women of today have made themselves. (512) After speaking of Joyce’s Ulysses, Highet states:  “Less filthily, more beautifully, but no less despairingly, T.S. Eliot has used Greek legend to cast a pure but revealing light on the meanness of modern life.  The poets of the Renaissance used Greco-Roman myth and history as a noble background to dignify the heroic deeds they described.  Eliot does the opposite.  When the Renaissance poet compared his hero to Hector or his heroine to Helen, he made them more brave and more beautiful.  By comparing Sweeney leaving a pick-up girl to Theseus deserting his mistress Ariadne, Eliot shows the modern infidelity to be vile – because the world which tolerates it is ignoble, coarse, repetitious, and complacent, and because even the actors lack that style which, in a heroic age, elevates a crime into a tragedy.” (Highet, 513).

Eliot declared himself a conservative in politics, Anglo-Catholic in religion, and a classicist in literature.  He felt that poetry should not be an expression of personality, as was the case with the Romantics, but a suppression of personality, an attitude deriving from classicism.  Allen Tate, a New Critic much influenced by Eliot, derided the lines by Shelley that went, “I fall upon the thorns of life.  I bleed.”  A poet should not bleed, at least not in public.  Classical restraint allows for a higher form of aesthetic achievement.

Robinson Jeffers did much more with Hellenism that give us a unique translation of Medea.  Robert J. Brophy’s fine book Robinson Jeffers sub-titled Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems, details the scope and depth of the poet’s indebtedness.  The poem Cawdor parallels the Hippolytus by Euripides from which Jeffers made his adaptation.  In Roan Stallion, as Brophy states, “Jeffers cites the Leda myth.”  In The Tower Beyond Tragedy, “we have still another modern adaptation of the Oresteia.”  To quote Brophy:  “The ‘Oresteia’ myth as Jeffers is here concerned with it is again reducible to the Agon-Theophany of the year-god’s fall-and-resurrection pattern, paradigm of the world’s renewal eternally.  Agamemnon, the old king or depleted year-spirit, is to be replaced by the heir, Orestes; Clytemnestra, representing the vengeful earth-goddess consort, serves as priestess of execution.  In her turn assuming the same earth-goddess role, Electra, the daughter, invites the new king, her brother Orestes, to a hierogamy and consequent assumption of power.” (Brophy, 113).  One may doubt that O’Neill and Petrakis had all this in mind when they composed their modern versions of the Oresteia.

We have come to the last of the several types of classical Greek influence on our literature: literary theory and criticism.  Professors in American Literature generally agree on the existence of these movements and schools of thought: the Romantics, Transcendentalists, Local Colorists, Realists, Naturalists, Parringtonians, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the Expatriots, Marxists, Southern Agrarians, New Humanists, New Critics, Deconstructionists – and, of most interest to us, the Neo-Aristotelians.  They were centered at the University of Chicago under the leadership of Ronald S. Crane.  Among all the groups listed above all kinds of controversies, defenses, and condemnations were made in all kinds of debates down the years.  For example, Joseph Wood Krutch in The Modern Temper (1929) distinguished between a higher humanism and a lower naturalism and caused a stir by declaring that tragedy as defined by Aristotle was impossible in a democratic, materialistic society that glorified the common man.  Arthur Miller’s essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” contradicted such a view.

For their part, the Neo-Aristotelians at the University of Chicago found Aristotelians of the past too literal and mechanistic in their use of Aristotle; thus the previous scholars ran counter to “theaposteriore and predominantly ‘differential’ spirit of his approach.  What is needed, accordingly, is much inductive theoretical research, based on wide knowledge and close analysis of modern and contemporary writing into problems both of general poetics and of the specific poetics of literary forms as these are posed by the achievements of writers of all kinds since antiquity.” (Crane, Introduction, 10).  At what amounted to a little Lyceum conducted by Crane the effort was made by a group of brilliant thinkers to enlarge, refine, and possibly even improve upon Aristotle.  Their four terms that establish causation were and still are useful constructs for assessing aesthetic values in literature.  The efficient cause, the poet; the material cause, the language, ideas, symbols, and so forth, of a poem; the formal cause, the structure, the strategy; and the final cause, the achieved intention, such as catharsis in a tragedy.  With these premises and guides the Chicago school of Neo-Aristotelians earned a lasting place in literary history as an important component of formalist/aesthetic criticism.

Archibald MacLeish made an interesting and relevant comment when he wrote:  “When you are dealing with questions too large for you, which, nevertheless, will not leave you alone, you are obliged to house them somewhere – and an old wall helps.  Which is perhaps why so many modern plays have proved, on critical examination, to be reconstructions of the myths of Greece.” (Quoted by Porter, 77).

Nearly two hundred years ago the poet Shelley said, “We are all Greeks now.”  In many respects, we still are.



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