Arts and Culture

Mary DeForest's Epic Adventure Led to the Latinometer -- a Classic Bullshit Detector

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From Woodstock, Mary moved on to Mount Holyoke College, where she was a classics major and says she "fell under the spell of Jean Pearson, a charismatic teacher rather like the Maggie Smith character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" -- a film about a passionate instructor who indoctrinates her students through emotional fervor. When Mount Holyoke fired Pearson, Mary graduated early and moved on to study classics at the University of Chicago, her teacher's alma matter. "The University of Chicago proved not to be Ms. Pearson's source of inspiration," she remembers, "so I dropped out in January and got jobs."

Jobs and political causes. Mary marched against the Vietnam War. Her father feared Communism was spreading and believed a U.S. intervention in Vietnam was necessary to preserve democracy; Mary battled with him about the war and her waning faith in the virtues of the United States.

She also took on one lover after another, two of whom were named Ronald. She nicknamed one Ronny and moved with him to Manhattan's Lower East Side, into an apartment where they shared a bathroom with other tenants. "I would turn on the light and all these roaches would be sucked into the walls," she recalls. "Then one day the cockroaches came at me, and I retreated."

One night she and Ronny were cuddled up on the couch watching The Tonight Show when they heard a knock. "Police, open up," a gruff voice yelled, saying that they were being busted for pot.

Demanding to see a warrant, she opened the door -- and was faced by one guy sporting a swastika tattoo and another brandishing a knife. They pushed Mary and Ron onto the couch and tied them up. "I knew I was going to die," Mary says now. And in a certain way, she was okay with that: She wanted to experience the insights and visions that Greek warriors had moments before death. "I was waiting for this epiphany, but all there was was Johnny Carson on the television," she remembers.

Soon they broke up, and Ronny moved to a commune in upstate New York. "Ronny was in the Navy. I guess he did a lot of speed," she says. "He got sick and started hearing voices. He was nuts. He got so involved in the voices. He went mad." In a fit of rage, he wandered onto the highway and threw himself in front of a car.

The other Ronald, whom she called Ron, was a teacher. "He was a teacher of pyschologically disturbed children -- one of those people who are so silent, you start caring what they think," she says. "I was looking for horrible experiences just to see if I could survive them."

Soon she realized that Ron was one of those experiences. She moved back to Chicago and finished her master's degree, despite the classics department's lack of creativity and irritating emphasis on translation. After graduation, she hitchhiked her way across Europe for six months, bicycling across Crete and visiting the temples of the gods. On her return to the States, she continued her epic adventures.

"I used to hitchhike," she remembers. "Nothing happened to me, but once I had a scary guy [who] had a truck full of pigs. They were snorting in the back of the truck. He kept looking at me out of the side of his eye, like, 'Does your father know where you are? Does anybody know where you are?' I thought sure as anything he was going to kill me and feed me to those pigs. Then we stopped off at a rest area, and I thanked him cordially and got out of the car. And that is why you should not hitchhike."

For years she worked odd jobs, saving money to travel. She describes herself as a siren: She would lure men and enchant them into long journeys. When each doomed relationship flopped, she moved on to other men. Most were artists -- but, swept up in romance with her, they quit creating.

One day she left Chicago with a boyfriend, determined to hitchhike to Alaska. They stopped in Denver and ended up breaking up. Mary took a job at a used bookstore. She met another man and persuaded him to join her on a bike trip to Prescott, Arizona, taking her cat along for the ride. For days at a time, the cat would wander off and the travelers would be stuck in gas-station parking lots, eating bologna sandwiches and waiting for the cat to return. That relationship was doomed, too.

In 1974, Mary met a handsome young artist, Bob, while doing market-research surveys for money. Six months later, they biked from Milan to Paris, falling in love along the way. Back in Colorado, Mary enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado. Looking for ideas for a dissertation, she studied with Charles Beye at the American School of Classical Studies. He was writing a book on Apollonius and gave a seminar on "The Argonautica," which tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts' journey to find the Golden Fleece.

Beye's teaching inspired Mary to write her dissertation, "Heroes in a Toy Boat," about the poem. She argued that the poem's narrative form was structured like Medea's eye and showed how the writing related to Woody Allen's self-reflexive cinema. But while she struggled to get her thoughts on paper, she was distracted by Bob's television habit. They fought about it constantly. To save their relationship, they took a bike trip from Germany to Greece through Yugoslavia -- and continued fighting the entire way. By the time they returned to the U.S., it was clear their romance was over, and they parted ways.

After graduate school, Mary moved to Omaha to teach at Creighton College. She took up with an alcoholic who told her he'd had a vasectomy when he hadn't. After learning she was pregnant, she had an abortion. When he found out, he smashed through the window of her apartment, stormed in and beat her. She played dead. Thinking he had choked the life out of her, he left. That was the end of that relationship. (Years later, she learned that another woman had shot and killed him during a fight in Denver.)

Her epic journey next took her to a tenure-track position in the classics department at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. The department chair didn't believe in the grading system, and students considered the major the easiest in the school. Drunk frat boys lumbered in and slept through classes. Mary and the department chair clashed. "I actually believe in people learning things. It was a bad scene," she recalls.

She spent the greater part of the '80s struggling to finish "Heroes in a Toy Boat" and write academic papers; she needed to publish to get tenure. "I always had a hard time writing," she says, adding that while that didn't come easy, the joy of scholarship did: "It was like playing on the playground. You have that whole playground to yourself." She explored how literature's past shapes the present -- and developed a theory that the present shapes the past as well: New authors influence the dead. Mary argued that Odysseus is Toad from The Wind in the Willows; Mary Poppins is the great mother goddess revamped. She published a one-page essay about Jane Austen. "Half of the page was a picture," she jokes. But pedantic classicists frowned at her ideas and sent her cutting rejection letters, which she saved.

For affirmation, she sent copies of her manuscripts to her critical heroes, including Northrop Frye, Robert Kellogg and Wolfgang Isser. Much to her surprise, she received responses -- and a few even praised her work.

In nearby Ithaca, she met the owner of the Blue Fox, a used bookstore, John, and they fell in love. He moved his shop to Clinton. He delighted in hiking, poetry and romance. The couple biked across Scotland together, admiring pagan relics. "He was a wonderful man," she says, even if he was prone to conspiracy theories -- which he shared with her father, irking Mary to no end.

As a gesture of reconciliation with her mother, who'd fallen ill and who had always wanted her to stop having affairs and settle down, she married John. The couple renounced their birth names and adopted DeForest.

For the last few years of her mother's life, Mary flew back and forth between central New York and Washington, D.C., doing her best to fulfill both her scholarly commitments and her daughterly duties. The travel exhausted her. She still recollects the smells, sights and sounds of her mother's nursing home with horror. In 1986, Harriet passed away.

When it came time for Hamilton to decide whether to grant Mary tenure, the one-page Jane Austen article was her only published work. The referees who decided her fate praised her unpublished writing and saw promise in her future, but criticized her weak publishing record. While one peer predicted that "she will become one of the foremost writers on classical literature in her generation," another academic described her work as "a wart on the tumorous body of Homeric scholarship."

"Where is the line between actual scholarship and total lunacy?" she asks. She was exploring that line at her own peril. For more than a decade, she had devoted herself to excellence in teaching and critical scholarship. Her students loved her, yet Hamilton denied her tenure. At the news, she stormed up the hill toward the college, shouting, "This whole place could vanish from the face of the earth!" Lighting struck a tree across the street.

It was time to move on. She became a "gypsy scholar," traveling from one university to the next, leaving John behind.

During her travels, she reunited with Bob, the boyfriend with whom she'd traveled to Yugoslavia. She told John, and they divorced; he later married Mary's best friend. Mary and Bob moved back to Denver. The two couples are still friendly today. "I don't like being estranged from people," Mary says. "When you know you've made somebody unhappy, it's hard to enjoy life."

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris

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