Carl Blegen in the Warm Greek Sun

I thoroughly enjoyed the small volume titled Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narrative edited by Jack Davis, Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, and Vasiliki Florou and published by the Lockwood Press.

The tone of the volume is pure American School. I mean that in a nice way. The contributions which deal primarily with his professional life evoke sun-dabbled fall afternoons in the American School saloni drinking tea and reminiscing over the great figures in the field of archaeology. There was praise, some light-duty prosopography linking Blegen and friends to their equally distinguished peers (and occasionally to students), some veiled references to Blegen household arrangements (and equally broad assurances), and enough references to intrigue Blegenophiles and historians of American archaeology alike.

Blegen, it would seem, was a genuinely nice person with only the barest suggestion that he could be Minnesota-nice (a kind of deceptive niceness designed to move people along without unnecessary conversation or disagreeableness). He was genuinely nice, generous with his time and knowledge, and respectful to those who disagreed with him. For example, Blegen and Arthur Evans famously disagreed on the origins and character of the Bronze Age civilization on mainland Greece. Evans was convinced that Helladic civilization was an offshoot of the Minoans that he studied on Crete whereas Blegen regarded mainland Greece during the Bronze Age as independent. Y. Galanakis’s and Y. Fappas’s contributions to the volume outline how despite the sometimes rancorous scholarly debate, Evans and Blegen remains personally cordial. The correspondence between Blegen and his close friend and collaborator Alan J. B. Wace showed just a touch of annoyance that they couldn’t bring the Evans around to their point of view. 

The contributions from N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, R. Pounder, and E. French provide some insight into Blegen’s personal and family life. Vogeikoff-Brogan offers what scant information is available about Blegen’s family life prior to his career in archaeology. I was a bit surprised that the rather substantial collection of material from Carl’s brother, Theodore, in both the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Historical Society archives [update: Jack Davis just informed me that copies of the outgoing correspondence from Carl to his family, including Theodore, in various Minnesota archives were presented to the archive at the American School, so this was available for the authors of the book.]. I’d be curious to know whether some of these papers preserve correspondence between Carl and his brother Theodore who became a prominent American historian and academic, serving as president of the OAH and as the dean of the graduate school at the University of Minnesota. (One wonders if he corresponded with Carl about his work to debunk the Kensington Runestone toward the end of his life.) 

R. Pounder’s contribution is perhaps the most intriguing articles in the collection. He examined the rather unusual marriage of Carl and Elizabeth Blegen and Bert Hodge Hill and Ida Thallon Hill. Elizabeth and Ida had an existing, intimate relationship and Blegen and Hill were close friends. The four lived together in Athens as a quartet of presumably three intimate couples (Ida and Elizabeth, Carl and Elizabeth, and Bert Hodge Hill and Ida). Equally intriguing was that both Carl and Elizabeth become close to their teachers with Hill exerting an important and formative influence over Blegen’s early career in Greece, and Ida being Elizabeth’s teacher at Vassar. In a world increasingly concerned with both the structure of a proper marriage and the problems with asymmetrical power relationships between students and faculty, Pounder presents the Blegens and the Hills in a disarmingly innocent way.

E. French is the daughter of Blegen’s close friend and collaborator, Alan J.B. Wace, and offers some personal memories of her encounters with Carl in their family home. Her contribution is one of the few that capture some of Blegen’s puckish side as she described him and her father racing a train to get the best hotel rooms at Mycenae ahead of some German colleagues. Apparently the “Govs” as they affectionately called each other in their correspondence, were known for “naughty boy behavior” as young archaeologists in Greece, but beyond the tale of their daring train chase, little of that comes through in this volume. 

This is a subtle book which I suspect was intentional. There is no indication that Blegen revealed himself easily to the contributors choosing instead to allow his prodigious professional accomplishments be his legacy. His humor comes across through calling Alan Wace, “gov” in his correspondence, and his tendency to call academic works in progress a “bilge.” (One wonders how many contemporary archaeologists would refer to their life’s work in such informal terms!). His modern sensibilities come through in his unusual personal life and faint references to his interaction with the famous Greek modernists collectively known as the “Generation of the Thirties.” It would have been useful to understand how these interactions influenced Blegen’s own artistic sensibilities including his literary output which he presented at the Literary Club in Cincinnati. Finally, I wish the volume talked more about Blegen’s intellectual legacy through his students and colleagues. His life in the field spanned such a crucial period for the development of Mediterranean archaeology that I really wanted a more formal accounting of his intellectual, practical, and academic influences. But, in the end, I suppose that many of these explicit statements of Blegen’s place in archaeological history can be safely left understated much like the man himself.

One last thing, the color photo of Blegen by Manuel Litran on page 188 is remarkable. In particular, it draws attention to Blegen’s eyes. There is something about the eyes of an archaeologist that reflects the visuality of our field. I’ve often thought that a photographic exhibit of archaeologist’s eyes would be a compelling thing. This photo would certainly have an important place in that collection, and that image as well as those painted throughout this book makes it a worthwhile addition to any library. 

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