Articles by Lee Pearcy

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I don’t go into Bryn Mawr’s Canaday Library as often as I used to, before the building of the wonderful Carpenter Library for archaeology, art history, and classics, but last week I found myself in Canaday’s main lobby to pick up a book from Interlibrary Loan. The lobby was busy. Students sat at long tables cluttered with books, scissors, glue, ribbons, and other craft supplies, and heaps of other books waited on carts. A librarian I know called me over to look and explained. The students were learning to fold books into hedgehogs, flowers, hearts, and other decorative shapes.



The books, my librarian friend assured me, had all been deaccessioned and were available online.

Here, I thought, is one of those moments when one can see the old order of knowledge giving way to the new. The books on the carts appeared to be mostly back issues of periodicals, which are indeed available online and therefore surplus to requirements at a modern academic library. To the undergraduate students especially, academic books—the physical, bound volumes—are beginning to be alien objects. In 2019, when last I taught a course at Bryn Mawr, I assigned a few books and had the bookstore stock them. Most of the students preferred to read them online, and the bound volumes languished in the bookstore. I had imagined a lost world, where “reading” for a course meant underlining, writing in margins (always in pencil, as one of my teachers advised me, so that you can eradicate stupidities when you’re older), taking notes in a notebook, and for much of my reading thumbing a dictionary and commentary beside the text that I was reading.



As I walked down Canaday’s front stairs, I thought of mummy cartonnage. In Egypt’s Ptolemaic and Roman periods, old papyrus documents, surplus to whatever the requirements of the day happened to be, were often torn into strips and converted to a kind of gesso-covered papier-mâché used to make mummy casings. When these cartonnages are dismantled, sometimes an important text, or parts of one, can be read—thus we know, for example, about Sappho’s poem on old age, and some new bits of Simonides. Classicists have to envision time in centuries and millennia, not the three or four decades that it’s taken to push into oblivion those books on the carts, waiting to be turned into hedgehogs. Will someone, someday a millennium or so from now, sit patiently unfolding a hedgehog hoping to recover what remains of volume 27 of Rheinisches Museum für Philologie?

~Lee T. Pearcy
March 29, 2024



This fall I’ll be offering some informal workshops at Bryn Mawr on Latin verse composition—the translation of English into Latin verse.  In view of all that has been written about the impact of artificial intelligence on academic work, I thought I’d better take another look at ChatGPT and see if it was any good at producing Latin elegiac couplets.

The short answer is, it’s not very good at all; or at least, I haven’t been able to get it to produce a line that scans, and it doesn’t seem to have much understanding of prosody or meter. I won’t bore you with the details, gentle reader, but I’ll be glad to hear from anyone who can produce a better result than I have.

At first thought, this seems puzzling. Making Latin verses, after all, seems like a mechanical process—so mechanical, in fact, that in the 1830s an English inventor, John Clark, produced a machine to do just that. (John’s cousin Cyrus founded Clark’s Shoes, which still owns the device.) If gears and wires and cogs can produce a Latin hexameter, and play “God Save the Queen” at the same time, why can’t ChatGPT?

There may be several reasons. The simplest possibility is that I’m asking the wrong questions, and that I haven’t yet hit on the combination of prompts, definitions, and rules that would lead ChatGPT to scan a verse correctly and produce metrical lines in Latin. Another possibility is that ChatGPT doesn’t (yet) have enough metadata about Latin words. It doesn’t, for example, know which syllables are long by nature. To ChatGPT, that is, venit = “he came,” with its long first syllable, and venit = “he comes,” with its short e, are indistinguishable, at least as far as their metrical shape is concerned. But the possibility that interests me most has to do with the nature of poetry and a possible limit of large language models like ChatGPT.

In poetry, words have heft. They are not mere signifiers pointing to something in the world, in the way that “cat” points to the animal curled up by the fireplace. They have a material presence, a shape and weight—even an agency–that come from the essential nature of language as sound in the air and give poetry its special powers. In Latin verse, that materiality manifests itself in the shape of words—dactyls, spondees, trochees, iambs, and the like—and in their positioning into feet and lines. In Vergil and Ovid and Horace, words don’t simply mean different things. They are different things.

For a large language model like ChatGPT, though, words are nothing except abstract symbols to be manipulated according to a set of probabilities. A word points to nothing except the word that is most likely to follow it in a particular context. There is no connection between between word and world, between signifier and signified, not even so arbitrary and tenuous a link as that between “cat” and the furry animal by the fire. Asking ChatGPT to recognize some other quality in words—their shape or scansion—and to produce Latin verse by arranging them into patterns amounts to asking it to treat words as objects and to do things with them. My attempt, at least, was no more successful that if I’d asked ChatGPT to fix my dishwasher.

When I contemplate the grim future laid out in some projections of the effect of artificial intelligence, it is no small consolation to know that words are not all there is, and that making things work in the world—fixing dishwashers, writing Latin verses, painting a picture—is still a human thing.

~Lee T. Pearcy
September 10, 2023

If anyone had asked me about the phrase “summer reading,” I would have guessed that it’s fairly recent, perhaps coming into use with the rise of industrialized schools and the long summer break, and that it’s become steadily more frequent over the last 50 years. Google’s Ngram Viewer puts the lie to both conjectures:


There’s a blip in the 1820s (why?), another peak in the 1870s, and an up-and-down but declining roller-coaster thereafter. In the absence of more data, speculation about causes is futile, but for whatever reason, people seem to be thinking less, or at least writing less, about summer reading.

Still, among those of us whose life has been lived on the academic rather than the civil calendar, late May invites attention to a particular kind of reading: not strictly professional (I have those books on tap too), but in some combination entertaining, instructive, and mind-stretching. Here’s my list for summer 2023:



  • Sophy Roberts, The Lost Pianos of Siberia

This came off the stack first—Roberts, who began her working life as an assistant to Jessica Mitford, writes a combination travelogue and memoir about tracking down pianos in the most Godforsaken parts of Russia. So far, so good—I’m about two-thirds of the way in, on the Kamchatka peninsula.

  • Scott Samuelson, Rome as a Guide to the Good Life

Combines two of my enthusiasms: Rome and philosophy.

  • John Guillory, Professing Criticism

At one point earlier this year, this got a lot of press in journals favored by academic literati—I thought I should investigate.

  • Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait

Another combination of enthusiasms, this time art history and historical novels.

  • The new Library of America volume of Charles Portis’ works

Despite being a fellow-Arkansan, I’d never read True Grit or anything else by Portis.

  • Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding

Continuing the Southern theme. Although she’s from Mississippi, not Arkansas, Welty writes about the South I know.

And finally, one book not in the picture because the good people at Harvard University Press haven’t sent it yet:  Statius, Thebaid. Despite a life reading and teaching Latin, I’d never looked at the Thebaid until earlier this year, when Bryn Mawr asked me to fill in for a professor who couldn’t serve on a dissertation committee. I had about a month to read the dissertation and as much of the Thebaid as I could, and I was hooked.


~Lee T. Pearcy
Memorial Day 2023

If Bryn Mawr College had a cranky old female relative with embarrassing opinions whose appearance at family gatherings led to arguments and demands never to invite her again, it would be M. Carey Thomas. In the early 20th century, Thomas (1857–1935) was a pioneering advocate of women’s education and suffrage, an academic of some distinction (she was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich), and a brilliant academic administrator. As dean and then president of Bryn Mawr College from 1882–1922, she created the college that exists today, and her stamp is still visible in its reputation for academic rigor and in many of its peculiarities and customs, like its lack of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter (“All of my ladies are Phi Beta Kappa,” she is supposed to have said). Those brainy, self-confident women who made James Thurber nervous are the daughters of M. Carey Thomas.

And yet . . . like her contemporary Woodrow Wilson, whom she hired to teach at Bryn Mawr before he moved on to other jobs, Thomas had the misfortune to be a progressive in the early 20th century, and so she believed in the progressive ideas of her time: not only in women’s suffrage and education, but also in eugenics and the superiority of the white race.

Yesterday’s progressive is today’s Bad Person, and so Bryn Mawr’s leadership, which is fully as progressive as it was in Thomas’ day, has set out to expunge the racist, anti-Semitic eugenicist M. Carey Thomas from the public face of the College.  But this is Bryn Mawr.  Unlike in ancient and modern enactments of damnatio memoriae, no statues have been toppled, no inscriptions rudely chiseled out, no portraits defaced. There have been committees, studies, agonized deliberations, heartfelt acknowledgements of “the harm and hurt Thomas’ legacy of exclusion, racism, and antisemitism has caused for so many,” and so on. First a moratorium was placed on the use of the names “Thomas Library” and “Thomas Great Hall” for two of the most prominent architectural features of the campus.  Then the change was made permanent.  The John Singer Sargent portrait of Thomas, one of the College’s great treasures, was put into long-term storage, along with the Paul Manship bust of Thomas. That was not enough. An inscription in raised Gothic letters on the front of the building now known as “Old Library” proclaims, “The M. Carey Thomas Library.” Earlier this week the president and trustees announced that the inscription would be removed and, along with the Sargent and Manship portraits, become part of some kind of exhibit somewhere at some time. Thomas’s ashes are buried in the cloisters of the building that used to be named for her, but the trustees affirm their belief in the “sanctity of human remains” and declare their intention to “preserve them as they exist today.” I’m waiting for another committee to form, perhaps with an exorcist.

The lesson, I think, is this: progressive thought, like conservative or any other kind of thought about our social and political condition, is necessarily imperfect and incomplete. We get some things right, and some things wrong. In 1923, votes for women and eugenics were ideas that a decent person might hold. In 2123, it may turn out that intersectionality is part of a consensus shared by every right-thinking person, and that uttering the phrase “Black Lives Matter” will get you expelled from decent society.  Or the other way around. When we presume to judge the past, we should imagine ourselves as the past of the future. We should remember that all of us owe who we are to Bad People, and that those Bad People are also sometimes good, and worth remembering.

~Lee T. Pearcy
March 22, 2023

Update 4/12/23:  Well, maybe not an exorcist, but this event certainly qualifies as a Service of Purification.  And since M. Carey Thomas’ earthly remains are buried in the Old Library cloister, maybe she’ll show up.

The other day I was asked a question I’d never heard before, and because I am, or once was, a teacher of elementary Latin, it struck me as peculiar. I needed to make a routine medical appointment, and the person on the telephone put me through the usual litany—date of birth, address, current medications, and so on—but at the end, she added three others. The first two asked for my gender and my gender assigned at birth. I have encountering these often enough that I know to answer both with “male.” (No one ever asks, “Assigned by what or whom?” The answers might be interesting.) But then the voice on the phone asked, “Do you respond to the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’?”

For a moment I remembered the first lesson in one of the textbooks that we used in elementary Latin. In the classic fashion, it began with the indicative active present tense of amo, “I love”: amo, amas, amat. These were labeled, “first person,” “second person,” and “third person.” Seventh graders can be relied on to enrich their teachers’ lives by asking profound questions, and almost always some child wondered why the verbs were called by these numbers. I usually explained by asking them to imagine a dialogue in which “I” talk to “you” about “him” or “her.” Because seventh graders (and, indeed, most people of whatever age) have no difficulty as seeing themselves as the primary person in any conversation, they understand that if you are talking about yourself, you use first-person verbs. If you are talking to another person about that person, you use second-person verbs to describe their actions. If you and the person to whom you are speaking are talking about a third person, you use third-person verbs to describe them. Pronouns have the same labels: first person for ego, second for tu, and third for ille or illa.

I decided not to make the telephone clerk’s life difficult by pointing out that I can’t really “respond” to third person pronouns. My personal pronouns are “I” and “me” (and in pompous or academic moments, “we.”) I respond to “you” and, in the increasingly rare moments when I’m dealing with elderly Quakers, “thee”. He” and “him” may be used to refer to me, and I find it more important to listen to how people want to talk about me than to presume to tell them which pronouns to use when they do.

By “Do you respond to the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’?” the nice woman on the telephone meant, “When people use ‘he’ and ‘him’ in a conversation that might be about you, do you recognize that those pronouns might refer to you?” So I responded to the “you” in her question, answered with a yes, and we moved on to the portion of the litany dealing with Covid symptoms.

~Lee T. Pearcy
February 21, 2023

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