The enduring influence of Edmund Keeley
The life of a vital literary figure for Hellenic Studies at Princeton
Last month, the American writer and translator Edmund Keeley (1928-2022) passed away at the age of 94. Known for his masterful translations of several modern Greek poets, including Nobel Laureates George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis, “Mike” Keeley was the author of eight books and the editor or translator of 26 more titles.
I’m writing about Mike because, as a member of the vast Princeton University Hellenic Studies community who also often writes about the Hellenic world, I and so many others owe to some extent the intellectual path that we are on to the one blazed by Mike over the course of his long and storied career.
Keeley’s life was an Odyssey of its own. The son of an American diplomat, Mike was born in Syria and grew up partly on the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, Greece, an agricultural school founded by an American missionary. Playing soccer with Greeks on the campus, Mike picked up the language before his family moved to Washington, D.C. before the German invasion of Greece during World War II.
He told his own life story eloquently in his memoir, Borderlines. Mike talked his way into Princeton (a very different time) before impulsively enlisting in the U.S. Navy the day after the first atomic bomb was detonated at Hiroshima.
After he concluded his service and his undergraduate studies at Princeton, he returned to Greece in 1948 and found himself surprised at how the country had transformed and how he himself had changed in the intervening period. As he wrote in his memoir, “It was as though I had crossed the border into a country I recognized as once mine but whose language had changed while I was abroad elsewhere.”
That return to Greece kindled a lifelong interest in Hellenic culture. Mike pursued graduate studies in Greek literature at Oxford; his guide was a fellow student, Mary Stathato-Kyris, to whom he would soon be married.
He wrote his dissertation on the poetry of George Seferis, and for that research he interviewed the famous poet in a comical scene he narrated in his memoir. For six hours, the eager Keeley quizzed the poet about his style, utterly exhausting Seferis, while Seferis’ wife Maro listened in.
“The poet just stared at me,” Keeley wrote, “but from the other end of the room, Maro Seferis’s voice rang out in a deep lament: ‘Put in a comma for the boy, George, help him, for heaven’s sake.’”
That initial conversation later formed a fruitful exchange as Keeley became Seferis’ chief English translator, making his poetry much more widely accessible. In 1963, Seferis received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Greek citizen to receive such an honor.
Mike became a professor at Princeton and, over four decades of teaching, helped found what became the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies. Keeley’s contributions regarding the Modern Greek Studies Association and the creation of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies helped found the discipline of Hellenic Studies in the United States, a discipline that considers the long view of Greek history and cultural studies, from the classical period, through the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, to the modern.
I didn’t know Mike that well, but during my undergraduate career I knew him as a presence at the weekly lunches offered by the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies. Once he corrected me on how to pronounce “Seferis”—it wasn’t Sé-fer-is, but Se-fé-ris.
I had more discussions with Mike while conducting research for Princeton and the Hellenic World, a forthcoming book profiling important figures related to the surprisingly long-running relationship between Princeton University and the greater Hellenic world, which traces its beginnings to the University’s founding in 1746, decades before Greece declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Generous and sharp in his advanced age, it was a privilege to consult Mike for that project.
After all, any American researcher today who is working on topics related to the broad scope of the history of Greek society has probably encountered the work and legacy of Mike Keeley. His strength as a writer was in traversing two worlds—the United States and Greece—and trying to express his understanding of his other homeland in Greece to which he had been given such knowledge during his youth.
As Mike wrote in the closing pages of his memoir, “At some point I finally came to see the double vision I grew up with and later cultivated, even the double loyalty, as a potential resource, both for my attempt to understand the corners of the world I was given to know and for my long effort to put that understanding on the page.”