October 31, 2019
By Garrett Bruner
We are pleased to announce that over 150 letters between Emmett L. Bennett Jr. and Tom Palaima are now online at Texas ScholarWorks. They join the hundreds of items of correspondence from PASP, covering scholars like Alice E. Kober and Michael Ventris.
This set is special. In their entirety, the letters span three decades, from the late 1970s, 1980s, and through the 1990s. They see the twilight of Bennett’s career and the beginning of Tom Palaima’s, documenting the transition of Bennett to emeritus at Wisconsin to Palaima’s hiring by the University of Texas in 1986. They cover an incredible range of Linear B subjects, like recollections of Alice Kober’s work methods, detailed descriptions of Bennett’s own work methods inspecting Pylos tablets in Athens, building better archives with Linear B materials, travels to Rome to study at the Istituto, and even travels to Austin, Texas to study at PASP in the early 1990s (see below for a reminder of Austin’s 1990 atmosphere, written by Bennett October 19, 1992!)
While many items of Bennett’s correspondence are already online, these capture Bennett’s voice like no other. In them, Bennett’s warmth is felt, his wit and attention to detail sparkles, and his everyday concerns are as relatable as anybody’s.
Here, I introduce a series of Bennett’s letters sent to Tom Palaima from Athens, Greece from July 1, 1986 through June 18, 1987. They cover a specific narrative: his appointment to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) as Mellon Professor of Classical Studies for a year long term. There, he would research the Pylos tablets in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens for publication in the Palace of Nestor series. What follows here is a preview of his trip: I will describe the first few letters over the first months of Bennett’s time in Athens.
Applying to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens
In 1984, Bennett successfully applied for a Mellon Professorship to research Linear B tablets in Greece in a year-long visit to the ASCSA. Earlier correspondence shows Bennett mulling over the idea of applying, but this is the letter, to me, shows himself committing to the position and project. The application to Professor Stroud was attached by Bennett to Palaima on the letter of January 12, 1984.
Bennett then outlines some of his year-long project goals: “a thorough look again at the Pylos tablets”, for the fourth volume of Blegen and Rawson’s Palace of Nestor, plans for visits to Iraklion to view the Knossos tablets and other trips to “Thebes, Tiryns, and elsewhere” to investigate inscribed stirrup-jars.
But the application involves more than Bennett’s inquiry for the position and projects. Bennett then reflects on his life’s work with Linear B tablets, from as early as taking courses with Carl W. Blegen as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, to his critical work on the decipherment during the 1950s at Heraklion at the request of Sir John Myres (see that series online), to his hiring at Wisconsin. He very briefly recounts his European travels, from Cambridge to Yugoslavia to Crete. Modestly, he ends the letter on a note of his problematic Greek fluency (which Tom Palaima, in his recommendation, follows up to dispute this to Stroud, writing Bennett’s “modern Greek is better than he lets on.”)
Online, too, is Tom Palaima’s own letter of recommendation to the ASCSA in support of Bennett. For me, the letter is like a time capsule. Tom Palaima was still very early in his career. He was an Assistant Professor at Fordham University, had only recently received his MacArthur Genius award, and (most importantly!) PASP did not even exist! In the letter, Palaima recaps Bennett’s best qualities as a humanities scholar and human being. Vivid to me is an anecdote he relates about Bennett:
Arriving in Athens
On July 1, 1986, Bennett writes to Palaima to confirm his arrival in Athens, Greece. But not very cheerfully. No mention of the wine dark sea or beautiful ruins. Instead, Bennett begins his stay at the ASCSA with a list of computer issues! Printers, monitors, floppy disks and fonts all trouble Bennett from the beginning, problems that he relates throughout the entire year of residence. At the letter’s close, he wonders if he should have bought an IBM convertible. I wonder what has happened to these machines, if they are still at the ASCSA!
Four days pass and on July 25, 1986, Bennett writes Palaima again. This next letter sets the scene at the ASCSA better than his first. He tells of rain, a thunderclap, and wandering around Athens in search of quality Greek restaurants. He describes going to the bookstore Kardamitsa’s and buys the Mylonas Festschrift, attends dinners at the school, meets old friends and makes new ones. He finishes the letter with comments on a book by Barry Powell.
Getting to Work
It is now August in Greece. A month passes before Bennett writes again on August 18, 1986. This letter is loaded with information on his work. Throughout, he refers at a distance to what had transpired in the month since the previous letter: a return to the United States for more luggage and trips to the Iraklion museum. (He did outline in a letter before his trip a summer itinerary, to “leave maybe 29 or 30 July to Madison, and to Boston in the nick of time.. This extra trip has its own particular aim, but it can also serve to buy a passel of books in Athens…”). He addresses his letter to both Tom and Cynthia (Shelmerdine) together and begins the letter in formal jest at their recent “corporation” (or marriage). At this time in 1986, Tom Palaima would’ve been also just moving to Austin, Texas to begin his tenure as a professor at the University. He would make it his home for the next thirty years.
Then Bennett talks “shop” with Palaima. He relates issues Jean-Pierre Olivier and Louis Godart are having in the publication of the Corpus of Mycenaean Inscriptions at Knossos (CoMIK). He gathers his ideas for courses on Linear B to hold at the American School, with attention on their Winter term and how this affects his scheduling.
Most interesting to me, as archivist, is the next paragraph. It begins with “One of the things you wrote me we might talk about in Cambridge but didn’t get around to is books.” Here, Bennett appears to be outlining what donations he will make to Palaima to benefit PASP (then, referred to by Bennett as CRASP). He divides his books into categories like personal interests, antiquarian books, and his professional books for teaching and researching Linear B. He wonders what to do with all of them, including his Nestor offprints, and considers sending off some to the Burnam Library in Cincinnati, in addition to donating many to “CRASP.” To me, it is very interesting to read the thought process of a professor who is ready to archive his materials, arguing what to keep, what to donate. Bennett even refers, at the end of the paragraph, needing “good lists” in order to track what can also be disposed of.
Two days later, Bennett writes again. This is the first handwritten letter from Bennett while in Greece. The others (and most of his the ASCSA correspondence) were written on the computer, which he now states is “very much in demand”. The letter is brief (only two paragraphs) and his handwriting emphasizes its brevity with its looseness. In the first paragraph, he informs Palaima on a visit by Jean-Pierre Olivier to Tiryns for research on Cypro-Minoan potmarks. The next part of the letter is especially intriguing; he asks Palaima’s help in deciphering a modern Linear B tablet which he discovered in Carl W. Blegen’s archival collection at ASCSA (below)
September in Greece, summed up
It is three weeks before Bennett writes Palaima again, on September 8, 1986. The letter is loaded with trip details and adventure. A full two months into his Professorship at the ASCSA, Bennett feels at home. He recaps his attendance at the 6th International Cretological Congress, (Khania, August 24-30 1986), his giving lectures at the ASCSA, making excursions to Mycenaean tombs at Armeni and to the Idaean Cave with Yannis Sakellarakis, and researching with Jean-Pierre Olivier and Louis Godart, among others.
A letter on September 20, 1986 includes a forwarded excerpt from Loretta Freiling with an update from her end at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She relates to Bennett a recent controversy at Wisconsin: complaints by parents for what’s perceived as corrupt spending, like $250,000 for an email system, which was going unused. Again Bennett emphasizes how useful his access to the Blegen archives at the ASCSA is. He highlights the upcoming Centenary of C. W. Blegen scheduled for January 27, 1987.
As an archivist, I find interesting what materials he’s using at ASCSA (like Blegen’s archives) and what materials of his own he’s creating, like these letters. Throughout, he refers to something like a Pylos tablet database, as early as 1986.
Following this is a four-page letter from Bennett to Palaima, dated September 26, 1986. Here he goes into more detail so far than any other letter about his working on and drawing of tablets; comparisons with his methods to Jean-Pierre Olivier and Louis Godart’s; and sadly, problems with his eyes from the brightness of the sun or the light off the computer screens.
Letters like this continue for the duration of his year as professor at the ASCSA.
On many levels, these letters make for compelling reading. Taken as a whole, with his early correspondence with Kober, Ventris, Chadwick, and now these, Bennett’s correspondence in its entirety spans fifty years. Their richness for telling the story of Linear B decipherment and studies is to me unrivaled. But they are more than only academic correspondence. They touch on the theme of travel, capturing the atmosphere of many places like Rome, Austin, Madison, Athens at certain points in time. They stress the importance of on-location studies and document Bennett’s incredible eye for detail. He constantly shares his love of music, like the sound his flute makes while playing in the Queen’s Megaron parlor at the ASCSA, or attending operas in Rome. They echo other passages of Bennett’s earlier correspondence, like his letter to Sir John Myres in 1950 where he re-caps, in five pages, his meticulous study on Crete in the Heraklion Museum to complete research on Scripta Minoa II and his “most pleasant excursion to Phaistos.” In that letter, he remarks on the grave conditions of certain tablets, but also, his learning how to mend them. In 1987, he laments Pylos tablets coming apart in Athens, echoing those earlier problems still:
Bennett is gone but his spirit comes to life as strong as ever in his letters, his works and our memories. I hope this introduction to his correspondence leads you to investigate further to share his life and its warmth.
PASP aims to make more available in the coming year, to share more voices and stories from our collections.
Updated on October 31, 2019 by Garrett R. Bruner. firstname.lastname@example.org