The Van Dyke of Classics

Gregory J. Nagy

He was born in Budapest, Hungary, the son of a college professor of music, and he was raised on an American college campus after a brief stint in Toronto. He is one of the country's foremost scholars in Greek and Latin and is currently leading a new movement in the study of the classics. In 1980, Boston magazine named him one of the 10 sexiest professors in the Boston area.

The biography seems quite cosmopolitan, so it is somewhat surprising that Gregory J. Nagy (pronounced "Nazh"), professor of Latin and Greek, calls himself "by temperment, a Midwesterner." He was raised in the heartland--not on a farm, but on the campus of the University of Indiana, which he attended. "I find Indiana, and the Midwest in general just a very friendly place, having most of the cultural benefits that you get elsewhere," he says. "Maybe you just have to work more for it."

Perhaps it is the odd combination of Eastern European, intellectual and Midwestern values that accounts for Nagy's vast popularity at Harvard. In contrast to the elitism and even eccentricism which seems to afflict so many scholars. Nagy is both self-assured and self-effacing. He speaks with great knowledge and conviction about his work, but always with an undertone of modesty.

Best known to undergraduates for his Core curriculum course, Literature and Arts C-14. "The Concept of the Hero in Hellenic Civilization," Nagy has earned an unmatched reputation for concern for his students. Two years ago, his colleagues elected him to a three-year term on the Faculty Council. He is chairman of the Committee on Folklore and Mythology and a member of two other departments.

Married for seven years and father of two children, Nagy calls himself a family man "with a vengeance." He once took "a paternity leave" to become the primary parent for his son while his wife, Holly Davidson, pursued her Ph.D. at Princeton. "We still think we are newlyweds, but I guess we're not," he says. "As Dick Van Dyke would say, we're very happily married."


Nagy's small Widener Library office--located behind one of those forbidding iron fences--is sparsely decorated, mostly with pictures reflecting not his interest in Roman and Greek cultures, but the culture of Pakistan, a fascination of his wife's. There are few books, the desk is uncluttered, and there is a small clock radio for diversion.

The professor projects a very relaxed image, dressed in blue jeans and sneakers, his curly brown hair comfortably mussed. He reflects on his college days, on how a young student at the University of Indiana became hypnotized by the classics and linguistics. "Quite honestly, I drifted into it. It just seemed to go well." He says he was not one of those who grew up reading Homer and Plato and indeed found himself lacking in his knowledge of the basic classics when he came to Harvard as a graduate student in 1962.

As an undergraduate, he says, he merely took courses that interested him--usually having something to do with Greece or Rome--and was not anxious to fulfill his general education requirements. One memorable course was titled, "The Greek Erotic Novel."

"That was what college was all about, taking a lot of interesting topics," he says, adding quickly, "not that I had any clear professional notion of what I would do with it."

It is with this philosophy still intact that Nagy says he worries about what he perceives is an over-emphasis on academic success. While not blaming either students or professors directly, he says the current emphasis could be preventing students from fully benefiting from their years at Harvard:

"The University really expects students to work hard, and I like that....but I can also see various dangers, the most important of which is that students become so concerned with having a good record that they can be tempted to lose track of what they are here for primarily, which is to learn how to think effectively and creatively."

"One of the few things I can do," adds Nagy, "is to make sure that when students read, they read slowly and carefully, and to make sure people have the opportunity to read things more than once."

"Opportunity" is a word that Nagy uses quite frequently in reference to Harvard. He says that the University offers so many educational opportunities to both students and professors that most do not take full advantage of them.

"A lot of times, I think students and professors don't put enough research into what opportunities are available," he explains. "I know a lot of undergraduates, who by their senior year, it is so clear what additional courses they might have taken--should have taken."

Nagy encourages students to seek out professors whose work they admire in order to establish a closer working relationship that the average lecture course provides. He also recommends that students take time off from conventional studies: "Undergraduate life is not something to be rushed."