Joseph Solodow, erudite scholar, memorable Classics teacher
Joseph Solodow, a linguistic polymath whose erudition yielded several unique scholarly contributions and who taught in Yale’s Department of Classics from 1985 through last year, died unexpectedly on Oct. 4 . He was 76.
Solodow was one of a cohort of learned scholars, found here and there at universities, whose contributions are singular and distinctive. His work ranged from the recondite to the accessible.
Kirk Freudenburg, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Classics in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, described Solodow as someone who had a “deep and abiding interest in the workings of the Latin language” and was “an impressive philologist,” and a “lover of words.”
Solodow’s monograph on the Latin particle “Quidem,” perhaps his most recondite work, is entirely devoted to the use of a single notoriously versatile word in Latin literature, one which can be translated in different ways depending on its context. Victor Bers, a professor emeritus in Yale’s Classics department, called the work a “masterpiece.”
Solodow also wrote a widely known book on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (“The World of Ovid’s Metamorphoses”), which was described by one critic as “the best general book on the ‘Metamorphoses’ in English.”
But his most well-known book is “Latin Alive, The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages,” published in 2010. It narrates the story of how Latin developed into modern French, Spanish, and Italian, and deeply affected English as well. (Naturally, Solodow knew all these languages very well.) “Latin Alive” is never anything but learned — and yet in the clarity with which it tells its story, and in the fascination of the highways and byways that Solodow describes languages traveled, Solodow is able to grip the reader with his tale.
In addition to writing works of philology, criticism, and linguistic history, Solodow was also a translator. In 1994, The Modern Language Association awarded him the Scaglione Translation Prize for his rendering of G. B. Conte’s monumental history of Latin literature into English.
Besides his position at Yale as a lecturer, Solodow was also a professor of world languages and literatures at Southern Connecticut State University, where he concentrated on teaching Spanish, but also introduced some Latin classes, and began a Jewish Studies Program. Through his teaching at both institutions, he taught students from the very most elementary to the most advanced — and at each school, and at every level, students valued and admired him.
While at Yale, Solodow taught an unusually wide range of courses: the history of Latin literature, Virgil, Ovid, elegiac poetry, images of early Rome in Augustan literature, Roman dining, Roman friendship, Roman myth and pastoral, Roman comedy, Lucretius the Epicurean vs. Seneca the Stoic, Latin prose composition, and the Greek historians.
Encomia from his students, who all remembered his gentlemanly, old-fashioned formality, his refusal to use technology when a datebook would do, and his ability to bring the past alive, could fill many pages.
Matt Thomas ’19, ’23 M.A., who now teaches high school Latin in New Jersey, noted that Solodow introduced him to a love of etymology and Latin — and that he now “continues to share [Solodow’s] insights with students whenever I have the chance.” Claire Saint Amour ’22, now a Mellon scholar at Cambridge, who called him “the most responsive person I ever knew,” remembered his teachings “about the vagaries of textual transmission, and about the kind of loving attention he paid to the ghosts and vestiges of language.” She noted that his writings “are so distinctive that he seems to live and speak from their pages.”
Tommaso Gazzarri, a former graduate student now teaching at Union College, noted Solodow’s wide and imposing range of learning. “Joe often invited us graduate students to his place,” he said, “and our discussions ranged from Meso-American art to classical literature. I have always admired his mastery of ancient languages but also, as an Italian national, his equally outstanding knowledge of my native language.”
One friend remembered a discussion with Solodow of translations of Thucydides, ranging from a 19th century translation by Richard Crawley to more contemporary ones by Steven Lattimore and Rex Warner. Without consulting any book, she recalled, Solodow could give critical examples, off the cuff, on all of them. But the interesting thing, she added, was that the discussion, which might have been heavy, “was never boring.”
Joseph Solodow was born in Brooklyn, New York to Russian-American parents who both knew a variety of languages: his father knew Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, Polish, German, and English; and his mother French, German, and Latin. As a boy, Solodow developed a love for Latin from his teachers at Erasmus Hall, the school in Flatbush that educated progeny of working-class Jewish parents. He graduated from Columbia University and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University.
During his early career he held appointments at Columbia, Bard College, and the University of California, Berkeley before finding homes at Southern Connecticut State University and at Yale.
“Joe was universally admired,” Kirk Freudenburg said.
Added Bers: “Lunch with Joe often turned into linguistic badinage, in which he could always get the last word. Although a distinguished professor of Spanish and the translator of a famous three-inch-thick Italian history of Latin literature, his intrinsic kindness and good humor always let me get up from the table with only a sweet taste in my mouth.”
Solodow’s first wife Graziella Patrucco de Solodow died in 2014. He is survived by his partner, Laura Harris; his brother, Michael; sister-in-law, Mikki; and three nephews. A memorial service will be held in the coming months.