Humanities Center Director: Thomas Wilson

Daniel Mendelsohn

Author, Essayist, Critic, Translator, Charles Ranlett Flint Professor of Humanities at Bard College

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

Thursday, September 18, 2014 • 4:10pm • Taylor Science Center G027

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic intertwines an ongoing reading of the most popular and beloved work of Greek literature - The Odyssey, with its irresistible tales of travel and adventure, and its eternal themes of transformed identities and climactic recognition — around a personal narrative that itself combines adventures both real and metaphorical. That narrative is a father-son story: an account of how a year-long reading of the poem that the author undertook with his ailing father, first in the classroom, then on a series of travels around the Mediterranean, following in the footsteps of Odysseus, effected its own unexpected recognitions and transformations in their relationship to each other and, eventually, to the enduring questions the author was faced with once his father fell ill and began to die. As Mendelsohn says, “In the last of our conversations about the Odyssey, when he was ill, I ruefully mentioned how we seemed to be reenacting the final encounter between Odysseus and his father. My father grinned his sour little grin and said something that, to my mind, stands as the epigraph of this book and what it wants to reveal about the classics: ‘We thought we were reading it, but it was reading us.’” His talk will be a combination of a reading from this new work and a discussion of it. 

Daniel Mendelsohn is an internationally best-selling author, award-winning critic and essayist, and columnist for The New York Times Book Review. Born on Long Island, he was educated at the University of Virginia and at Princeton, where he earned a doctorate in Classics. He began his career in journalism in 1991, contributing to such publications as The Village Voice and The Nation while completing his doctoral thesis on Greek tragedy. After finishing his PhD in 1994, he moved to New York City, and since that time his translations, reviews, and essays on books, movies, theater, and television have appeared regularly in numerous national publications, most frequently The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times.

Mendelsohn is the author of seven books. The Elusive Embrace (1999), a memoir of family history and sexual identity twined around meditations on classical texts, was a New York Times Notable Book of 1999 and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. In 2002 he published a scholarly study of Greek tragedy, published by the Oxford University Press. His first collection of essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (2008) was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year ; his second collection, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture (2012), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and runner-up for the PEN Art of the Essay Award. In 2009, after twelve years of work and study, Daniel Mendelsohn published an acclaimed translation, with commentary, of the complete works of C. P. Cavafy. The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, the 2006 account of Mendelsohn’s search for information about six relatives who perished in the Holocaust, was a New York Times and international bestseller, and went on to win the National Books Critics Circle Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Salon Book Award in the United States, as well as the Prix Médicis in France.

The New York Times Book Review says: “Mendelsohn just might be our most irresistible literary critic... Much of the fun of reading Mendelsohn is his sense of play, his irreverence and unpredictability, his frank emotional response... He forces the [essay] form in directions Francis Bacon never imagined." The New York Review of Books says: “Arguably the best writer and critic at work today... There is nothing to which he does not bring a fresh perspective.”

Mendelsohn lives in New York City and in the Hudson Valley, and teaches at Bard College.

Sponsored by the Dean of Faculty and the Hansmann Lecture Fund