His Quaker parents had gone to Baoding, then Paotingfu, some 80 miles from Beijing, to teach English for the Chinese government, following the Boxer Rebellion. Richmond Lattimore was born there in 1906 and was taught by his parents. A sister, Eleanor, later wrote children’s novels about China, and brother Owen became one of the century’s ranking Sinologists, although something of a naïf when it came to politics. After an eclectic education, Owen was a political advisor to Chiang Kai-shek in 1937, and in the heady days of iron Soviet expansion he became a vague Stalinist, even defending the Soviet Gulags with the same insouciance as Eleanor Roosevelt. Sen. Joseph McCarthy made him a principal subject in his hearings, but charges of being a Russian spy were dismissed after Senate hearings. He lacked the indolence that would have made his political incompetence harmless and it took a toll on his academic career, although he was a leading light at Johns Hopkins. Both the Soviet Union and Red China took umbrage at his promotion of Mongol culture, which reached an apogee when Mongolian paleontologists named a recently unearthed dinosaur after him.
Richmond, always called Dick, kept himself to the safer climes of ancient Greek studies. The Lattimore family returned to the United States in 1920 and Dick went to Dartmouth, establishing himself as a well-published poet before graduating in 1926. He insisted that a translator be a poet, as in the series of lectures at Johns Hopkins that were published in 1958 as "The Poetry of Greek Tragedy." The American Academy of Poets elected him to membership shortly before he died on February 6, 1984. After Dartmouth he studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and received his Ph.D. in 1934 from the University of Illinois for a dissertation on Greek and Egyptian epitaphs. While lecturing all over, his home base until retirement in 1971 was Bryn Mawr College as Paul Shorey Professor of Greek. Even while fighting in World War II as a Navy lieutenant, he wrote on Sappho and Catullus and translated Homer, Aeschylus, and Virgil for his book War and the Poet. So his journeying in that war, rhyming all the while, was his own Odyssey, and "many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea, struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions."
Every week, while not a professed Christian, he attended the church in Rosemont where I was rector, praying in his own way with his wife, Alice, with whom in 1935 he had begun one of the happiest marriages I have known. Their simple home was arrayed primarily with books and with Alice, whose unaffected virtues could have adorned the lintels of Bethlehem or Bethany. One of their two sons became professor of classics at UCLA, and both were Dartmouth men, so it was something of a college reunion on the day Dick’s granddaughter Judith became the first person I ever baptized.
After the monumental translation of The Odyssey and even more transporting Iliad, he Englished the four Gospels, the Book of Acts and Epistles, and the Revelation whose author he did not think was the Apostle John. There was one evangelist he preferred for his elegant Greek, and when recovering in hospital from surgery he said that his doubts about the Faith had disappeared "somewhere in Saint Luke." He announced that he would be baptized at Easter. At the public baptism, with closed eyes and head uplifted, Dick solemnly recited the Creed whose Greek was his vernacular. He instructed that at his funeral this story be told to all his academic colleagues.
In the Lattimore text of Book 19 of the Odyssey, Eurycleia recognizes Odysseus as she bathes him, and the water spills on the floor: "Pain and joy seized her at once, and both eyes filled with tears, and the springing voice was held within her." Having been bathed in another water, Dick kept his first and last Easter, and in one last springing voice his paean to Achilles became a right epitaph for the professor: "So, even now you have died, you have not lost your name, but always in the sight of all mankind your fame shall be great . . . ."
Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviourin New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available through Crossroads Publishing.