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Jane Shumate Alison '83, Writer and teacher


Why I chose classics

I went to Princeton in the early 1980s and concentrated in the classics department. This was not altogether a choice; it just never occurred to me not to study something that I loved. This may seem dreamy, perhaps, but I had come from public schools in Washington, D.C., and was at Princeton by way of scholarships and loans, so practical concerns were significant. I just assumed that pursuing this arcane subject that so absorbed me would have to lead somewhere. I wasn't wrong. And I may also have been a little shrewd: classics was a much rarer field than English, and that meant not only extra attention from faculty -- the ratio was almost one-to-one -- but also that I had a certain panache for doing something abstruse.

Career opportunities

In any case, studying classics did lead somewhere. To start with, jobs. My first upon graduating was as an assistant at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and this involved my classics background directly: I consulted classicists as they prepared grant proposals. It was almost a fluke that such a job existed, yet even had I not worked directly with classicists, my training in Latin and Greek language and literature gave me the critical and linguistic skills I would need to do any part of the job. Later, though, I was an editor for a newspaper and a publishing house, and along the way I had interviews in fields that were as far removed from Hesiod as television and publicity -- jobs in which I had no experience -- simply because, interviewers told me, they had never before met an applicant with a classics degree and were curious.

But this concentration led to other things, too. For me (as for many others over the past two thousand years), classical literature inspired art; my thesis featured, maybe unwisely, several of my drawings. These, however, later led to an exhibition, and that in turn led to illustration work, and this, together with my training in Greek mythology, got me involved in a screenplay.

After working for several years, I decided to go back to graduate school in classics, and, of course, my earlier choice of major was crucial. It turned out, though, that I did not want a Ph.D. in classics after all -- but now my earlier degree helped me be accepted to programs in comparative literature and creative writing. I chose the latter, went to Columbia University, and finally settled into what is now my career as a writer and a teacher of creative writing.

Becoming a novelist

The first novel I wrote had nothing to do with classics, except perhaps in some subtle way involving epic structure. The second had nothing to do with it, either. But the third novel sprang straight from what most engrossed me at Princeton, the subject of much of my thesis: Ovid. And this was the first novel I had accepted and published (The Love-Artist).

Since then I've published another novel (The Marriage of the Sea), and a new one (Natives and Exotics) is due out in 2005. Who knows if these books would be published if the first hadn't been, but certainly the first would not exist if I hadn't sat in East Pyne every day from 1979 to 1983 with a Latin dictionary and a scuffed green Oxford edition of Ovid, Horace, or Vergil, with one professor and five other students.

A few years ago I returned to Princeton and saw a former professor of Greek, John Keaney, walking outside East Pyne. Many Thursdays in 1980 I had cut his nine o'clock class because it was just too early, and now I was about to duck out of his way until I realized that, after 15 years, he of course would not remember me.

But he stopped dead, put his hands on his hips, and said my name.

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