Edmund Keeley dies at 94; Shined a light on modern Greek culture

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Edmund Keeley dies at 94; Shined a light on modern Greek culture
In an undated image provided by Randall Hagadorn, Edmund Keeley in 1993. Keeley, who as a novelist, translator, scholar and poet brought an appreciation of modern Greek literature and culture to the English-speaking world, died on Feb. 23, 2022, at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 94. Randall Hagadorn via The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Edmund Keeley, who as a novelist, translator, scholar and poet brought an appreciation of modern Greek literature and culture to the English-speaking world, died on Feb. 23 at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. He was 94.

Alan Miller, the son of Keeley’s partner, Anita Miller, said the cause was complications of a blood clot.

When Keeley began his career at Princeton University in 1954, Greece was still considered a land lost in time, at least for many Americans. Having spent part of his childhood there — his father was the U.S. consul in Thessaloniki — Keeley knew otherwise. He started translating modern Greek poets like George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis.

Both those poets later won the Nobel Prize in literature — a feat at least partly attributable to Keeley, who not only translated their work but also advocated for them in book reviews and journal articles in the U.S. and Europe.

He had a 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. Rather than try to replicate the poet’s intricate flourishes, Keeley rendered the poems simply, retaining the power of Cavafy’s language even at the cost of some nuance.

His translation, with Philip Sherrard, of Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” was read at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ funeral in 1994. A portion of the poem, one of Onassis’ favorites, reads:

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.

Part of what made Keeley such an effective translator was that he was a writer himself. He 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.

Unlike many scholars of Greece, 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.

Later still, he served as president of PEN America, which advocates for free expression in the United States and worldwide, from 1992 to 1994.

“He was the model of the man of letters,” said Daniel Mendelsohn, a writer who has also translated Cavafy into English.

Through all his work, Keeley sought to change what the world thought of Greece. 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 Fermor, he gravitated toward Greek village life, the more remote and untouched by modernity the better. In a richly informed style that reflected the many layers of history that constitute Greek society, he wrote in praise of those places where cars and cameras had not yet penetrated.

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 Feb. 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. His mother, Mathilde (Vossler) Keeley, was a homemaker.

He led a peripatetic childhood, typical for the son of a diplomat: a few years in Canada, then Washington, followed in the late 1930s by Thessaloniki. 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 died in 2012. He met Miller, his partner, a few years later. She is his only immediate survivor.

Keeley taught at Brown before returning to Princeton in 1954. He remained there until his retirement in 1994.

From the beginning, Keeley and his wife were at the heart of the campus social scene, organizing parties and picnics for new hires, graduate students and visiting professors.

“Newcomers to Princeton were made to feel welcome amid a dazzling ensemble of writers, poets, professors, and friends from both Princeton and New York,” said Joyce Carol Oates, who arrived in 1978 intending to teach just one year but, thanks in part to Keeley’s generosity, remains on the faculty today.

At the time, scholarship about Greece at Princeton was limited to the past and centered in the Classics Department. Starting in the 1970s, 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.

“It would be fair to say that for the last half-century he was America’s leading cultural ambassador to Greece,” said Dimitri Gondicas, who now directs the center.

Keeley’s interest in Greece was always shaped by his family’s connection to it. 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. 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. 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.

He also took up poetry. Among his last works was “Daylight,” which appeared last year in The Hudson Review. A meditation on the COVID pandemic, it reads in part:

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.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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