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  • Helen F. North (1921–2012)
  • David Porter

With the death of Helen F. North on January 21, 2012, just days short of her ninety-first birthday, classics and the liberal arts lost one of their great teachers, scholars, and champions. Helen was a member of the classics department at Swarthmore College from 1948 until her retirement in 1991, with sojourns to teach at Barnard/Columbia, Vassar, Cornell, and elsewhere. She was on three different occasions a director of the American Philological Association, served on numerous APA committees, was its president in 1975–76, and received its Distinguished Service Award in 1996. She played leadership roles also at the American Academy in Rome, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Phi Beta Kappa, the American Philosophical Society, and a host of other organizations; she was awarded honorary degrees by Yale University and Dublin’s Trinity College, among others; and she won fellowships from Guggenheim, ACLS, NEH, et al. Among her many publications she is best known for Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature, which won the APA’s 1969 Goodwin Award, and From Myth to Icon: Reflections of Greek Ethical Doctrine in Literature and Art, which grew out of her 1972 Martin lectures at Oberlin College. After her retirement, she remained actively involved in research and writing, with an office in the Swarthmore Library adjoining one occupied by her long-term colleague the late Martin Ostwald.

While this bare-bones account suggests the range and depth of Helen’s contributions to our field, no listing can capture the force of her personal presence, or her impact as a teacher. To have a seminar with Helen North was to confront the life of the mind at its most challenging and most exhilarating. I still savor the freshness she breathed into our first encounters with the Odyssey, with the Symposium and Phaedrus, with Petronius, Augustine, the Archpoet. I recall seminars that began at 1 p.m. in which we all—Helen included—suddenly realized at 4:30 that we’d totally forgotten our 2:30 break. Helen brought high standards to these afternoons, and conveyed her disappointment with shoddy performance, but one always knew that behind her fierce rigor was her determination to wring the best from each of us, and to assure that each savor the deep joy of reading these authors in the original languages with precision and assurance.

Part of the exhilaration Helen conveyed was that of passing along to us her own insatiable engagement with classics—and of luring us into further explorations. As we read Plato’s Republic she would make constant references to works we were not reading—Plato’s Laws, Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Augustine’s Civitas Dei, always with the implicit suggestion that without knowing these works life was incomplete. She loved the “You’ll all remember” trope, in which she’d suggest that of course we all recalled what some author we [End Page 549] often didn’t know had written about something we were reading, with the clear subtext that we should recall it. The further explorations one glimpsed in a seminar with Helen regularly reached beyond the classics—not surprising, given her breadth of knowledge, her delight in making connections. It was Helen who introduced me to Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and that poem evokes the way any class with her led toward countless arches “wherethro’ gleams that untraveled world. . . .” It was thus no surprise that when she came to Carleton College in 1975 as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, she offered eight different topics for lectures and presentations, among them “Classical Mythology in the Poetry of Yeats,” “Megalithic Tombs and Shrines and Prehistoric Religion,” “Mithras and the Oriental Cults in Roman Religion,” and “The Iconography of the Cardinal Virtues from Late Antiquity to the Age of Baroque.”

One of the worlds into which Helen drew us was that of scholarship itself. In the late 1950s she was deep into the research that would lead a decade later to the publication of her magisterial book on sophrosyne, and one of the excitements of seminars with her was sensing not only how rigorous and all-encompassing was her commitment...


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