The Real Pliny: Critical Distortion

I love dilettantes.  I am not stuffy.   In theory, I love the idea of gentlemen and gentlewomen picking up their fountain pens to scrawl book reviews.  

And I don’t expect critics to be infallible.

Still, there are limits.  My heart sank while reading two reviews of Daisy Dunn’s literary biography, The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny, the first by Charles McGrath in The New York Times, the second by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. 

Mind you, they enjoyed Dunn’s biography, as did I. The Shadow of Vesuvius is a delightful read.  Although it may sound unlikely, this well-researched book is light and charming.  (You can read my review  here.)  I have read Pliny’s letters many times in Latin, and Dunn’s book is charming.  But McGrath and Acocella, who are dilettantes rather than classicists, didn’t quite have the background.

Before I go on, let me tell you there were two Plinys, both influential Romans in the first century A.D.  They were Pliny the Elder, best known for his 37-volume encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis (Natural History); and his nephew Pliny, the author of nine books of elegant literary letters, which are still popular today.  Pliny the Younger–known simply as Pliny–is the subject of the biography. He chronicled historical and political events, ghost stories, court cases, a legend about a dolphin, senatorial scandals, his interest in poetry and Stoic philosophy, and included his correspondence with the emperor Trajan.   

Disconcertingly, the brilliant Joan Acocella and the witty Charles McGrath assert that Pliny the Elder was the more interesting writer of the two .  I realize they read the Plinys in English translation rather than Latin,  but where on earth does this come from?  It has the ring of a footnote by a Victorian classicist.  (Possibly Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch.)

As my husband said,  “Who the hell reads Pliny the Elder?”  (We are both Latinists.)  Pliny the Elder was a crank, a bore, a prig, and a fount of arcane misinformation, much admired by  monks and scholars in the Middle Ages.  A few  scholars  enjoy his quaint encylopedia, but it is not must-reading.    A writer for the Oxford Classical Dictionary gently praises Pliny the Elder and the context of his findings, but he states that the Elder “valued quantity over quality.”

Joan Acocella, the dance critic for The New Yorker, entertains us with a vivid account of her tourism in Italy, and records her impressions of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two towns destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  Pliny wrote two letters to Tacitus about his family’s experience.  His uncle decided to sail from their home in Misenum to investigate the phenomenon of a strange cloud (like an umbrella pine) rising above a mountain. (They did not know it was Vesuvius.)  Pliny the Elder died after going ashore to attempt to rescue terrified friends, while   Pliny and his mother survived after a harrowing flight from their home through a panicky crowd in ashy darkness. When it became light again, the ground was pillowed with ashes.

Acocella writes,

Of the two Plinys, Dunn focusses on the younger. Clearly, she would rather have done otherwise. The Elder was more famous, rightfully so. As his nephew said, the older man did things that deserved to be written about and wrote things that deserved to be read. His “Natural History”—Penguin Classics has a good abridged translation by John F. Healy—is not merely huge but piquant and readable.

.Unfortunately I cannot agree.  Actually, I know nobody who would agree.

Charles McGrath takes a slightly different slant.  He humorously apologizes for ignorance in the first paragraph, while smugly trying to establish his credentials– unsuccessfully.. He  writes,

If only Daisy Dunn’s book had been around back when I was an aspiring classicist. There were actually two Roman writers named Pliny — the Elder and the Younger, as they were known; an uncle and his nephew — and I could never keep them straight, let alone understand why they were worth studying. Dunn makes a persuasive case for both. Her ostensible subject is the Younger, about whom more is known, but she toggles back and forth between the two, and, perhaps without her intending it, the uncle even steals the show for a while. How do you compete with someone so intrepid that he dies while trying to inspect an active volcano?

The focus of Dunn’s book is Pliny (the real Pliny!), but you’d never know it to read these two reviews.  

Fortunately, Steve Donoghue in the Christian Science Monitor “got” it. 

As his delightfully involving letters make clear, the nephew was made of far more mortal stuff, fond of good food and comfortable living, very intelligent but given to obsequiousness. In particular his letters to Trajan show a winningly human combination of fussy officiousness and genuine public service, and Dunn is right to note that although the emperor’s secretaries doubtless wrote many of his responses, some of those responses came from the emperor himself and  “resound with the voice of authority.

Sometimes you have to leave  New York  to find an enlightened review.

For History and Biography Buffs: Daisy Dunn’s “The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny”

Daisy Dunn’s brilliant literary biography, The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny,  is a delightful read.  Although it may sound unlikely, this well-researched book is light and charming.

Actually, there were two Plinys, both influential Romans in the first century A.D.  They were Pliny the Elder, best known for his 37-volume encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis (Natural History), and his nephew Pliny, the author of nine books of literary letters.  In these letters,  Pliny (c. A.D. 61-c. 112)  chronicled historical and political events, ghost stories, court cases, a legend about a dolphin, senatorial scandals, and his interests in poetry and Stoic philosophy. He included his correspondence with the emperor Trajan.   

Pliny the Younger, known to us just as Pliny, is still popular today. (The letters translate well into English.)  Pliny’s hero was Cicero, but Pliny is a much less demanding writer.  His style is simple but elegant, and the letters are short, pointed essays.  His two letters to Tacitus about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. are perhaps his most famous.  Pliny stayed home to study and read Livy when his uncle, Pliny the Elder, decided to sail from their home in Misenum to investigate the phenomenon of a strange cloud (like an umbrella pine) rising above a mountain.  (They did not know it was Vesuvius.)  Pliny the Elder died after going ashore to attempt to rescue terrified friends.  

In the second letter, Pliny describes his own observations and experiences during the volcanic eruption.   When the tremors increased and the sky grew pitch-black, he and his mother fled in terror, and finally went off the road to escape a panicky crowd. When the sun finally appeared, the earth was pillowed with ashes.  But twenty years later, many of the towns destroyed by Vesuvius  had  been rebuilt and flourished

The British edition.

Dunn is fascinating on the subject of Pliny’s love of writing and the quiet life. During the festival of Saturnalia, a week of wine and banquets, he retired to his country villa and lived in sound-proof rooms. He was a lawyer and politician who preferred the quiet life; while at the villa he wrote poetry as well as letters. Later, he was was elected consul, the highest office in Rome, and served as governor of Bithynia, where he attempted to create a just system by which Christians could be tried.  (Nero had persecuted the Christians; Pliny and Trajan were more lenient.)

There is also much about Pliny’s side business in wine!

This book is so short you could easily read it over the holidays (240 pages of text, the rest notes).  One effortlessly absorbs history through anecdotes mixed with information, accounts of sizzling political scandals, vivid characterizations of Pliny and his uncle, explications of Stoic philosophy, and a lively consideration of contradictory interpretations of historical details.

I recommend you read it along with Pliny’s letters.   The two together would make a great gift.