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Culture

Edmund Keeley Featured in NY Times for Shining a Light on Modern Greek Culture

PRINCETON, NJ – The passing of Edmund Keeley, the Philhellene novelist, translator, scholar, and poet who “brought an appreciation of modern Greek literature and culture to the English-speaking world,” was featured in the New York Times on March 8. Keeley died at age 94 on February 23 at his home in Princeton, NJ.

“Alan Miller, the son of Professor Keeley’s partner, Anita Miller, said the cause was complications of a blood clot,” the Times reported.

“When Professor Keeley began his career at Princeton University, in 1954, Greece was still considered a land lost in time, at least for many Americans,” the Times reported, adding that “having spent part of his childhood there — his father was the United States consul in Thessaloniki — Professor Keeley knew otherwise.”

“He started translating modern Greek poets like George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis,” the Times reported, noting that both poets “later won the Nobel Prize in Literature — a feat at least partly attributable to Professor Keeley, who not only translated their work but also advocated for them in book reviews and journal articles in the U.S. and Europe.”

His “particular affinity for a third poet, C.P. Cavafy, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and often mixed informal Greco-Egyptian idioms with formal high Greek, a daunting challenge for translators,” was also noted in the Times which pointed out that “rather than try to replicate the poet’s intricate flourishes, Professor Keeley rendered the poems simply, retaining the power of Cavafy’s language even at the cost of some nuance.”

Borderlines: A Memoir by Edmund Keeley was published in 2005. Photo: Amazon

“His translation, with Philip Sherrard, of Cavafy’s poem Ithaka was read at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ funeral in 1994,” the Times reported, quoting:

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”

Professor Keeley “wrote novels, poetry and nonfiction, including travel, history and true crime books; his well-received The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair (1989) proved that Greek authorities had framed a left-wing journalist for the 1948 murder of George Polk, an American radio reporter who was found floating in Thessaloniki’s harbor,” the Times reported, adding that “unlike many scholars of Greece, Professor Keeley was not a classicist; he taught in Princeton’s comparative literature department, and for many years he ran its creative writing program, recruiting boldface names like Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks to the faculty.”

From 1992-94, he served as president of PEN America, which advocates for free expression in the United States and worldwide.

“He was the model of the man of letters,” Daniel Mendelsohn, a writer who has also translated Cavafy into English, told the Times in a phone interview.

“Through all his work, Professor Keeley sought to change what the world thought of Greece,” the Times reported, noting that “following in the footsteps of philhellenic novelists like Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, and alongside his near-contemporary Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British travel writer, he revealed a country that was not just about gods and ruins but was in fact home to a thriving, creative culture.”

“Like Mr. Fermor, he gravitated toward Greek village life, the more remote and untouched by modernity the better,” the Times reported, adding that “in a 1982 travel article for The New York Times, he singled out Galaxidi, west of Athens, as ‘a village that has remained steadfastly out of date in style and untarnished by modern thinking ever since it decided that the steamship would never become a substitute for the clipper ships they built there to run Napoleon’s blockade.’”

“Edmund Leroy Keeley was born on February 5, 1928, in Damascus, Syria, where his father, James Keeley Jr., was serving as an American diplomat — a career that one of his brothers, Robert, would later follow,” the Times reported, noting that “his mother, Mathilde (Vossler) Keeley, was a homemaker.”

In his “peripatetic childhood, typical for the son of a diplomat,” he spent “a few years in Canada, then Washington, followed in the late 1930s by Thessaloniki,” the Times reported, adding that “he graduated from Princeton in 1949 with a degree in English literature and in 1952 received a doctorate in comparative literature from Oxford, where he met Mary Stathato-Kyris, a Greek graduate student. They married in 1951.”

She passed away in 2012. A few years later, Keeley “met Ms. Miller, his partner,” and “his only immediate survivor,” the Times reported.
“Professor Keeley taught at Brown before returning to Princeton in 1954” and “remained there until his retirement in 1994,” the Times reported, noting that “at the time, scholarship about Greece at Princeton was limited to the past and centered in the Classics Department. Starting in the 1970s, Professor Keeley built what became the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, now one of the leading institutions of its kind in the country.”

“Through the center, he invited Greek artists and scholars to visit the United States and took scores of students on trips to Athens and its environs, standing at the front of the tour bus, microphone in hand, lecturing about his favorite Greek poets,” the Times reported.

“It would be fair to say that for the last half-century he was America’s leading cultural ambassador to Greece,” Dimitri Gondicas, now director of the Seeger Center, told the Times in a phone interview.

“Professor Keeley’s interest in Greece was always shaped by his family’s connection to it,” the Times reported, adding that “he was long haunted by rumors that his father, as an American diplomat, had played a role in the country’s efforts to quash left-wing dissent” and “his sense of guilt most likely informed his presidency of PEN America.”

“After he retired from both Princeton and PEN America, he turned to writing full time,” the Times reported, noting that “he had already written several novels, and he went on to write several more — eight in all, most of them set in Greece and revolving around the theme of foreigners coming into contact with Greek culture.”

Among his last works of poetry was title “Daylight,” and “appeared last year in The Hudson Review,” the Times reported, quoting in part from the “meditation on the COVID pandemic”:

“Why not leave it all to Nemesis
And take a long walk outside
In whatever direction holds the prospect

Of your recovering things to remember

From those lighter years in open spaces

That shore beside an endless sea.”

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