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Glen Bowersock

Oral History Interview with Glen Bowersock, undertaken by Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study on July 13, 2009. At Dumbarton Oaks, Glen Bowersock was a Senior Fellow of Byzantine Studies (1984–1992) and the chair of the Senior Fellows of Byzantine Studies (1991–1992).

JNSL: We are here today on Monday, July 13, 2009 at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. My name is Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent, and I have the honor to interview Professor Glen Bowersock today. Good morning!

GB: Good morning!

JNSL: Okay, so I would love to hear your first impressions of Dumbarton Oaks, how you first came into knowledge of it, and some of the fondest memories of the people affiliated with it through the years.

GB: I can tell you how I first came to know about Dumbarton Oaks, since as you know I taught at Harvard from 1962 onwards, and Dumbarton Oaks was always part of the Harvard picture, through the two Washington centers, the Center for Hellenic Studies and Dumbarton Oaks. And I knew more at the time about the Center for Hellenic Studies. And indeed in the seventies, maybe early seventies, I became Senior Fellow for the Center for Hellenic Studies and went regularly to Washington. And that of course meant becoming very conscious of Dumbarton Oaks which was just across the ravine. And I often talked there with the director Bernard Knox about possible connections between the Center for Hellenic Studies and Dumbarton Oaks. But they never developed, and they still haven’t. So that has always been a great mystery to me. At any rate, under Robert Thomson I was invited to become a Senior Fellow for Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks at the same time that I was a Fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies. And everybody, including myself, hoped that this would bring the two places together. But it didn’t.

JNSL: What year was that?

GB: I can’t tell you exactly. I would think that I probably became a Senior Fellow at D.O. about ’84 or ’85, something like that.

JNSL: Oh, Okay.

GB: It was in the last two or three years of Robert Thomson. He invited me. It was after Giles had left.

JNSL: Okay.

GB: Before Giles came here to the Institute. And I overlapped as a Senior Fellows at both places for a number of years, being shuffled between the two institutions at meetings. But for reasons I’ve never fully understood, neither place seemed very interested in close cooperation. I don’t think it was one-sided thing. It was just that both places had their own ethos, their own atmosphere, their own agenda, and the cooperation that occurred largely was in library facilities, because Hellenic people would sometimes come to D.O. to use the later texts and editions in the D.O. library, and sometimes the D.O. people who needed earlier Greek material would go to the Hellenic Center. Maybe that’s the way it should be, I mean they do have quite different missions. The Bliss concept of Dumbarton Oaks with its Tri-Partite Landscape Architecture, Pre-Columbian, Byzantine, is obviously very different from the view of the founders of the Hellenic Center which was essentially Classical Greece as the model for the salvation of mankind. At the time, the Hellenic Center was created in the fifties, there’s a very good book about this, Jacques Barzin who was asked for an opinion said it sounded like nothing so much as the foundation of a church, and that sort of notion of Greek culture as a kind of religion that will solve the world’s problems still exists to some extent in the Hellenic Center ethos. It doesn’t exist at all in Dumbarton Oaks, because nobody ever imagined that Byzantium or Pre-Columbian Art or Landscape Architecture would solve the world’s problems. So, there is a kind of difference between the mission of the two places. Anyway, as you can see, my awareness of D.O. goes back a long way, certainly to the early sixties, and during the time I was a Senior Fellow which was the last years of Robert Thomson, the first six of Angeliki Laiou, I think I was nine years a Senior Fellow. I developed quite a close knowledge of how the place operated, at least from the Byzantine side, and had the privilege of sitting with some remarkable people on the Board of Senior Fellows, people whom I wish you could interview now, such as John Meyendorff, who was a truly extraordinary scholar, and whose presence really graced our meetings in a way that I’ll never forget. Or indeed, Robert Taft, from Rome, who came – who unlike Meyendorff who was a gentle and modest man – Taft was a distinctly immodest man and self-important person, but a very good scholar, and he contributed quite a lot to the brief periods – he didn’t come too often. And Sodini who joined the Board when I was still on it, a good friend. There were always the people from Harvard with the D.O. funding . . . that is to say, Ševčenko and Ioli Kalavrezou. And I suppose that I should say that I was – as I said earlier when we were having coffee – chairman of my department at Harvard at the time that Ihor Ševčenko came to teach at Harvard. He wanted very much to teach, and I think that the model of Ernst Kitzinger who had migrated to teaching at Harvard was very much in his mind, and I think he felt a little hemmed in at Dumbarton Oaks, didn’t have a large enough audience, and he had a lot to offer. His competence is extraordinary. So, while I was chairman he expressed a desire to move. This was not easy because the Blisses’ lawyers had tied up the money as you probably know. It had to spent in Washington.


GB: And to get Ihor Ševčenko paid for as a professor in Cambridge required going to court.

JNSL: Okay!

GB: And the general counsel of the University then, Daniel Steiner, did this. And so far as I am aware – I wasn’t privy to the negotiations – secured the court’s agreement that Ševčenko could be paid his D.O. salary for teaching in Cambridge, and so he came. To me this was very important because it was the first time that Byzantine studies were ever taught at Harvard. Not History, History had been done in the History Department with Bobby Wolf, but the first time that sort of texts, Greek language, all this had been taught. And it was not altogether welcomed to the Classics Department which viewed itself rather like the Hellenic Center in Washington as the custodians of pure Hellenism – and so it was at this same time that I also brought to the Classics Department the first ever Professor of modern Greek Studies.

JNSL: Okay!

GB: We had a gift from Trypanis who brought money to the Greek government to create the Sepharis Chair in modern Greek. And I wanted that for the Classics Department as well, so that we had the whole continuum of Greek from Mycenaean and Homer down to the present time, but again that didn’t sit too well with some colleagues. But it is the fact that George Tzaditis was the first Sepharis professor and Ihor Ševčenko was the first Professor of Byzantine Studies in the Classics Department at almost the same time in the – I would guess it must be about ‘75-‘76. So, in a sense Dumbarton Oaks was the emblem of Byzantium for me, particularly as a professor, and then I was three years as a dean at Harvard as well. I really tried to make its resources as accessible to the University in Cambridge as the Hellenic Center was. I mean Bernard Knox at the Hellenic Center had always sent the Fellows up to Cambridge to meet the members of the Classics Department. The members of the Classics Department, students and faculty alike, were always welcomed at the Hellenic Center. There was never that kind of exchange with Dumbarton Oaks. There’s much more now since we have Ioli Kalavresou in art, and we had until her tragic death Angeliki in the History Department. And we have John Duffy now in the chair that Ihor had – and so still though to my tastes there isn’t enough liaison between the parent university and Dumbarton Oaks. But to some extent I think Mrs. Bliss really wanted Dumbarton Oaks to be free-standing. And then she and her lawyers were always worried that the university might encroach too much. So, there is sort of a healthy tension that goes on there. It’s a great place, and I think that it’s what no doubt you would have heard or somebody will have heard from Fellows over the years. There was a certain alarm over having western medievalists at Dumbarton Oaks because it was originally thought to be, apart from Pre-Columbian art and Landscape Architecture, a center for Byzantium. And there was a lot of opposition when Giles went on the grounds that he didn’t know about Byzantium and didn’t read Greek, and there was a big opposition from the Fellows. And I expected something similar with Jan Ziolkowski, but nothing actually happened to my knowledge, partly because he’s such a good diplomat, such a nice man, and so open to all kinds of things – nonetheless, it is remarkable that Giles and Jan, sort of the two sides of the sandwich, with Robert Thomson and Angeliki in between.

JNSL: Right!

GB: And even Robert, of course, was not a Byzantinist.

JNSL: Right!

GB: He was Armenian and also did Syriac and published some important things in Syriac.

JNSL: Right.

GB: And actually I learned Syriac from Robert Thomson when I was chairman in my department.

JNSL: Is that right?

GB: I wanted to learn this language, and he was a friend and he was teaching the course. So, I asked him if I could sit in on it, and he very kindly agreed. I did all the work, I learned it very well – at least I think I learned it very well, and he taught it in a way that I liked, that is to say, we used Robinson’s grammar, lots of paradigms, we used the script from day one. And some of the graduate students in the period, this is now 1972-73, had been taught by Tom Lambdin at Harvard by reading in transliteration for the first year and then switching into the script. But one of the students in that class, one of the graduate students that I remember well which is part of my memories of this whole world of D.O. and its people, was Guy Stroumsa.


GB: He was learning Syriac and was a graduate student at Harvard at the time, and I stayed in touch with him ever since. He has made a very distinguished career at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as you know. As you may know, he is now going to Oxford as the first professor of Abrahamic religion.

JNSL: Oh, I didn’t know that he would be – I had heard of this position. That’s interesting.

GB: So, in a sense I think that my friendship with Robert and the fact that I did three years was a wonderful thing, to be chairman and taking Syriac, because I could always tell my secretary that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday between, whatever it was, 10 and 11 in the morning, no appointments. Time was cleared for that class. I often recommended this to other people who had administrative positions, to learn something. So, when I went as a Senior Fellow to Dumbarton Oaks I knew Robert quite well and he was very open, as was I, to much more than Greek in Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, early Arabic.

JNSL: Right.

GB: And other sort of disciplines like sigillography – Oikonomis was a regular visitor in numismatics; Grierson came all the time when I was there. He had some sort of arrangement. And Robert Browning came regularly, so it was a remarkable community. But its radiance never spread across the ravine. (laughter)

JNSL: What was your impression of Grierson?

GB: Of Grierson?

JNSL: Yes. What was he like?

GB: He was like a little elf. He was a very, very energetic, dynamic, person. Rather self-centered in a harmless way, enormously learned – something a little febrile, or feminine about him, nervous, but really a prodigy – an extraordinary scholar not just of numismatics. The contrast between him and Michael Hendy, who spent quite a long time doing Byzantine numismatics at Dumbarton Oaks was very striking, because Michael, who just died as you know, was a good scholar and interested in economic history, but he didn’t have anything like that kind of enormous curiosity that Grierson had. Everything interested him. And he didn’t hesitate to express an opinion on everything. He was one-of-a-kind, I think, and DO was very lucky to have his presence and his wisdom for as long as they did. There were, as it were, a number of these people who came fairly regularly as I say – Browning, Grierson. I don’t know who is in that category now; I presume there are some fairly regular visitors from abroad. And as I said Sodini was on the Senior Fellows.

JNSL: It’s always interested me, through the years, the sort of, number of Europeans there, it seems to me, certainly in Byzantine Studies. There were very few Americans.

GB: A very good thing, too, because the Europeans had a great deal to teach. I may say that what we have in Byzantine Studies in this country is due to Europeans.

JNSL: Right.

GB: It isn’t a home-grown subject. And I think it was extremely important that Dumbarton Oaks foster these connections with Europeans, just as we do here at this Institute where I am.

JNSL: Right.

GB: More than half of our visiting members – called fellows anywhere else, we call them members – are from abroad – more than half! We’ve sometimes taken some criticism for not supporting more Americans, but I think it’s very, very valuable that this should be a truly international center. And many of the things that we do, Americans have not had quite such an impact as Europeans have.

JNSL: Right.

GB: And this also applies to the scientists. I mean where we’ve had lots of Russians, mathematicians, lots of Chinese, I think it’s a very good thing. And this was not the case at the Center for Hellenic Studies for many years. And that was something I really pushed very hard for. Bernard Knox was quite supportive, but the Center for Hellenic Studies didn’t have the kind of prestige, and so people didn’t think of applying to the center. Whereas Dumbarton Oaks – partly for really unrelated reasons, like Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto – but at any rate it is known, and the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, all these things give it a certain prestige which made Europeans apply. So, it’s always straddled the Atlantic, and I think that is one of its great, great strengths.

JNSL: And it still is that way!

GB: I know.

JNSL: It’s wonderful.

GB: Its always set a standard of elegance and style. Yes. I think it’s been important, too. The symposia each year were well-known for being elegant, well-catered occasions. To some extent Giles worked against that, because Giles, coming from a very upper-class English background was distinctly populist.

JNSL: Uh-huh.

GB: Ha! As a rebel! (laughter) And I mean, if you met him, he gives, quite rightly still, although he’s been in this country his whole life, a very upper-class, elegant impression. But I think for that very reason he tried to make DO more populist than it wanted to be, and he made everyone call him Giles, the gardeners, and all the rest. Robert Thomson said he had a terrible time when he got there to turn this back, so they didn’t call him “Robert” – because he didn’t really want everybody to be called by their first names. And also Giles got a good deal of criticism for simplifying the catering at the symposia.

JNSL: Oh, is that so?

GB: He cut back to save money. I mean, I think the opulence and the grandeur is part of the wonder, the marvel of Dumbarton Oaks. And it always had the money, and I dare say it still does –

JNSL: Right.

GB: – to pay for this sort of thing. I mean it’s very well endowed. And I thought that kept Byzantine glittering.

JNSL: Oh, I like that. And how would you characterize the tone that was set under Professor Laiou’s directorship?

GB: Well she, she was a professional Byzantinist.

JNSL: Right.

GB: This is a big big difference, because Tyler was not a professional Byzantinist, though he had interests. Giles was most conspicuously not. He couldn’t read Greek, still can’t read Greek, though he teamed up with Kahzdan to publish a book together. Robert Thomson worked in the general area and knew Greek very well, but his fields were Armenian first and Syriac second. So, in a sense Angeliki was the first really thorough-going Byzantinist to run the place. I mean, we had Byzantinists as Director of Studies, like Ševčenko, Kitzinger, there had been plenty of them there. But this was the first director who was through and through a Byzantinist, and she was Greek. And I think that this meant that she was perceived as favoring Greeks rather more than previous directors. I mean, that was probably to some extent true, but she had very close ties with Germany, with France, with Italy, she’s a very international person. But I think she put the emphasis on Byzantium more than had ever been before, obviously as director. She supported Pre-Columbian, she’s – I don’t know. Is Elizabeth MacDougall still there?

JNSL: No, she isn’t.

GB: She was there when I was there. I liked her a lot. We talked a good deal about how Pre-Columbian people faired at Dumbarton Oaks under Byzantinists, or landscape architecture. But I think with Angeliki what needs to be remembered is that she really was in the field and therefore could put much more direction from the top to what happened. As I mentioned to you earlier, when we were having coffee, she also was a person of immense style. She dressed beautifully, she spoke musingly in many languages, French and Greek particularly. And I felt that this was very, very good for Dumbarton Oaks, part of its international role. Giles would speak French, but certainly not Greek. I don’t think Robert Thomson – I never heard him speak any other languages – but I mean maybe he was an old-fashioned scholar who worked on texts. But Angeliki really could communicate with people who arrived in several languages, with a certain flair, and she looked good with a glass of champagne in her hand. I thought this was great.

JNSL: Yes.

GB: And I thought it fit with Dumbarton Oaks and what Mrs. Bliss had in mind, and she entertained very well. And she was very open to suggestions. My world was slightly different because I came from the classical side, and she was always welcoming to suggestions. Irfan Shahid is a case in point. I mean everyone would wonder why Irfan Shahid is on the roster? Why do we keep him here?

JNSL: Right.

GB: His work is highly controversial – it’s very thorough, I mean he knows an awful lot. And D.O. had got into a position of publishing his books because the money was available, when I’m sure no other publisher would have published them. The question was do we keep him going. And I think it was typical of Angeliki that she thought, yes, he’s a fine scholar, maybe controversial, maybe difficult, but this is what Dumbarton Oaks is all about.

JNSL: Right.

GB: And I always thought that this was wonderful.

JNSL: Right.

GB: And so I liked working with Angeliki. We always got on very well together because she liked gossip. And she was under the impression that I did, too. I don’t – but she would always pull me aside and say, “What is the gossip?” So she was fun. And I left the Board only because I thought I should. Most people served two terms of three years. I had already served three terms of three years, and so I resigned when she was director after nine years.  Ned was an interesting successor, because he brought something we had never had before, which was the Slavic side.

JNSL: Right.

GB: And the Slavic side is clearly important, as we saw with John Meyendorff who, of course, had a fantastic command of modern Greek. But he was deep into Russian Christianity, and so in a sense Ned – who was very good as an administrator as well, and there were all sorts of physical changes as well – but Ned brought more of the Slavic connection, and I saw him quite a lot because he and I were classmates. And I went down there quite a lot. And now Jan, and that was a good move, because we had been through Byzantinists, Armenian-Syriac person, western European, Slavicists, and now we are back to a western European, but I think less controversial than Giles, because the temperament is so different. There was a lot of tremendous opposition when Giles arrived. And that was just in the days when I was first a Senior Fellow, and it was going on still.

JNSL: Did you ever pick up on stories about Mrs. Bliss herself from other people, or what she was like?

GB: No, I didn’t. I really didn’t. I met Tyler a number of times.

JNSL: Oh, you did!

GB: Yes, he was a funny little man who obviously – well he came from a generation in which, well, you know, if you were rich you did what you pleased. Of course, he was I believe the chosen one of Mrs. Bliss. Mrs. Bliss wanted him, and he obviously felt entitled to do whatever he wanted. And I believe he was the one that brought the silver treasure in his suitcase. The story is that he called up Mrs. Bliss and said, “This silver is available, it’s wonderful and I think we should get it. And she said, fine! I’ll pay for it. And he put it in his suitcase and brought it back. That was the beginning of many woes, but he was, he was very old-school, cultivated, rich, autocratic. You never, ever could have such a person like that again. It would no longer be tolerated. But he was fun, he was nice, and you know, people did things that way. And I sat with them a number of times, and he came to the meetings, and you felt that this was a man who was used to getting everything his way. But Mrs. Bliss loved him, I believe. I have no direct memories of her.

JNSL: Do you have any memories from the symposia that you would like to share?

GB: Well, I organized one with Sodini on the Middle East. I think they were wonderful, and there was plenty of money so you could bring people from anywhere. They were beautifully published in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers, and the entertainment was splendid. And we spent a lot of time in the Board of Senior Fellows scrutinizing proposals for the symposia to make sure that they were intellectually respectable, that they were good people to do it. I’ve always felt the symposia were very important part of what Dumbarton Oaks does in the world, and then they were edited, put in D.O. papers, and I don’t know, who edits the D.O. papers now? There used to be somebody who had the same name as I do, it was Glen somebody.

JNSL: Yes, I’m not exactly sure either.

GB: He did a beautiful job, this Glen, whoever he was, and I enjoyed dealing with him. So, all I can say is that I have direct experience speaking at and organizing symposia, but nothing anecdotal except I really think they were a really important part of what D.O. did.

JNSL: No Byzantinists falling into the swimming pool, or anything like that?

GB: No, no.

JNSL: Well, maybe we can wrap this up then. I am so grateful. Are there any closing remarks you wanted to share?

GB: No. I treasure my connection with Dumbarton Oaks. I think in the long run the issue between the relation between the two Harvard institutions in Washington might be explored further. It may be that their destiny is simply not to collaborate. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. It seems that if you have these two places situated across the ravine that there ought to be more collaboration. But I think now under the present director of the Hellenic Center they’ve gone off on their own development with a branch in Greece, and it seems to be going its own way. But since I am an ardent believer in the continuity of Greek culture – and not necessarily the continuity of people – but I do think there is something to be said for Greece in archaic times through the Roman period, through the Byzantine period, through the early modern to modern period, this is a magnificent theme. And as you may know it is developed exactly in this way at Princeton University in the Hellenic program which I warmly support and have supported. And it’s very well-run exactly with that perspective. Dumbarton Oaks can’t do that because its mission is limited to those three areas. But on the other hand it seems to me that some creative administrator on high could bring together the Hellenic Center and Dumbarton Oaks into a larger picture that might even ultimately – the modern Greek side came to Dumbarton Oaks through the person of Angeliki, because she was a modern Greek! (laughter)

JNSL: Right!

GB: And so a lot of Greeks came. But the study of modern Greek and modern Greek history has not been and is not likely to be part of D.O. But I think this should be kind of opened. I guess at this stage of my life, I would lay great stress on openness and flexibility, not digging in one’s heels, because the world doesn’t work that way. And you have read some of my things, and you will see that I am very interested in the sort of blending of cultures, one into another, and that sort of mixture of one culture into another. So, I think that without losing its identity, D.O. can contribute to that.

JNSL: Well, thank you very much!