Joseph Pucci is a Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Brown University. His classes deal with topics such as medieval Latin, late antiquity, literary selfhood, and the western tradition. He is the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books, including “The Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity” and “The Full-Knowing Reader: Allusion and the Power of the Reader in the Western Literary Tradition.” He is currently teaching a class at Brown called “The American Presidents and the Western Tradition.”
How did you decide you wanted to give ancient traditions a renewed place in modern times?
I don’t know that I’ve created a space for them. I didn’t start with that in mind. The simple answer is I was always interested in medieval history. There’s no way to make sense of it without knowing antiquity.
How much space should we allow ancient traditions—the Greek and Roman tradition—to fill our imaginations?
There is no limit. I am thinking of the novelist Madeline Miller—a Brown alum. Her novels are based on ancient materials and figures. Antiquity fills her whole mind. She transforms this material into a novelistic form and writes these beautiful novels. It’s whatever the mind wants it to be or not to be.
How do we balance incorporating knowledge and lessons from the past, present, and future within ourselves—particularly when they compete for space in our minds?
We privilege our contemporaneity. It is more difficult to think about older things because we have to put more energy into contextualizing them to make sense of them. I believe in people pursuing what they are passionate about and then letting the chips fall where they may.
I would love to talk about your work analyzing American presidents. Why do some figures, such as Washington and Jefferson, seem to take up more space in our histories and imaginations as time goes on?
As we look into people of the past they become more remote and more mythologized. You see them more in silhouette than detail. It is a function of any current moment. The older figure is the more remote and somehow more attractive.
Do we make some of these historical figures too large, or does history properly allocate space to them?
It depends. We certainly can make too much of them or too little. It is the historian’s job to create the right kind of space. Washington shouldn’t seem this huge Washington Monument figure, but rather a more accessible human figure.
Much of your study is spent with a focus on the past. Is it possible to spend too much time looking back?
If you want to spend time there, you should. We all have our obsessions and our excesses. I think that anyone can be obsessive and just be caught in the past. On the other hand, I think it’s important for all of us to spend some time in the past.