Michael Putnam: Scholar, Teacher, Mentor

Madeline Miller Introduces the Winner of the 2019 Arete Award

Madeline Miller (l.) introduces Michael Putnam (with medal).

[Madeline Miller, whose novels The Song of Achilles and Circe brilliantly reimagine the world of Homer, was invited to introduce her teacher and mentor Michael C.J. Putnam, winner of the Arete Award, at the Paideia Institute’s 2019 gala. The following are her comments.]

It is an honor to be here today to celebrate the brilliant Michael C. J. Putnam. I have been privileged to call Michael my mentor for twenty years, and I count knowing him and his wonderful partner Ken one of the great blessings of my life.

The program gives you a taste of Michael’s many accomplishments and accolades in Classics. I have seen the list in full, and I can testify that it could go toe to toe against the catalogue of ships any day. Michael has excelled in every aspect of a life of arts and letters, winning numerous prestigious awards and fellowships including from the Guggenheim and the NEH. He has delivered the most significant lectures of our field, and been a life-long supporter of Classical organizations, offering vital leadership in the Society for Classical Studies, the American Academy in Rome, and many more.

And then there are his books. If you haven’t read Michael’s books, run home after this and get them. Each one represents a field-changing contribution to Classics. Taken as a corpus, they are a staggering achievement, which has re-shaped generations of thought, particularly about Vergil, and will be bedrock for generations to come.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge another side of Michael’s brilliance. I had the great good fortune to study with Michael at Brown, as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and so I know how fitting it is for Paideia to honor Michael. Paideia’s emblem is the great centaur Chiron, the master teacher, and Chiron would recognize an equal in Michael.

This is where I have a confession to make: Michael, you may remember that I chose not to go abroad in college. It was because I didn’t want to miss a single class of yours. And let me tell you, I made the right choice.

Michael was a revelation in the classroom: magnetic, entertaining and witty, passionate, eloquent and warm. On one hand, he would make a water-tight argument for an interpretation of a poem, on the other he would pause to have us consult the Sortes Vergilianae to see if Vergil had any thoughts on the upcoming Providence weather. It took me a couple of classes with Michael to realize that he knew his Aeneid so well that even with his eyes closed he could pretty much always land on the storm scene.

Michael could stride into a room filled with fidgety, distracted, sleep-deprived students, and electrify us all. His lectures were things of art, laser-focused on the subject at hand, while also drawing effortless connections to modern and medieval literature, Classical music, opera. My notebooks from his class are crammed to the margins with things he mentioned that I wanted to follow up on — Wagner, Dante, Elizabeth Bishop. He taught us by his example what it means to live a passionately engaged life of the mind, to stay open and curious, to appreciate the art around you. I learned how to close read a text from him, how to make a passionate case, how to teach, how to write, how to be generous with your students. He always had time for an encouraging word, or a bit of scholarly advice. It was Michael’s support and faith in my work that helped give me the courage to write my first novel.

Thank you, Michael, for all you have done for me and countless other students; for your contributions to Classics, your extraordinary scholarship, your kindness, your light. Without further ado, I give you the unparalleled Dr. Michael C. J. Putnam.

[Putnam’s speech on the occasion may be found here, and in a box link below.]

Madeline Miller is the author of the novels The Song of Achilles and Circe. A former high school Latin and Greek teacher, her novel The Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize for Fiction. Information about her books and readings may be found at her website.