The author David Halberstam gave the principal address at the convocation opening Brown’s 1994-95 academic year. Time was when only the president of the university spoke, but recent presidents have instituted the policy of having a distinguished visitor give the main address. Halberstam is indeed a distinguished man with many significant books to his credit. Perhaps he will not mind being compared with Homer.

“Homer sometimes nods” is the way Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable reports the expression, which goes back to Horace’s Ars Poetica. I had always heard: “even Homer nods.” No matter. for both amount to much the same thing—even the best of authors can occasionally create a weak poem or line or make a mistake. I think we can all grant this, but some critics have taken the expression literally, and have sought out cases in which Homer in fact nods: i.e., contradicts either himself or common sense.

Such observers point with glee at the fact—as they would have it—that in his Iliad, Homer has Pylaimenes, a Trojan warrior slain in Book Five, return to weep for the death of his son in Book Thirteen. They chortle to think that the hero Achilles can forget in the course of a day—and but two books later—that an embassy of his friends had come to him the previous evening to beg him to return to battle. They become nearly hysterical when contemplating “blameless Aegisthus,” the Aegisthus who seduced Clytaemnestra and murdered Agamemnon; and are helpless with laughter when Homer endows Odysseus’ faithful wife Penelope with a “massive forearm.”

Homer’s defenders have ridden to the rescue. Already in antiquity scholars commented on Pylaimenes’ death and resurrection, and concluded that the text was faulty and Homer innocent of contradiction. It has been suggested that Achilles is not so much forgetful as Homer is (a bit) careless in conflating two versions of his Iliad into one—one story with the embassy, another without. Besides, it is argued, the poem was composed orally for a live audience, and such audiences are not likely to notice minor inconsistencies. Aegisthus and Penelope are victims not of Homeric ignorance or innocence but of the formulaic nature of Homeric composition. Homer was forced by the exigencies of rapid composition to use fixed phrases for certain characters even when they run counter to the best sense.

These defenses of Homer are often as weak as the attacks made on him. It would perhaps be well in this connection to remember what Horace in fact said (Epistles 2, 33:59-60):

                                                           Et idem

Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat     Homerus.

Verum operi longo fas est obrepere     somnum.

“Even I take it amiss when expert      Homer nods for a moment,

but it is excusable that sleep creeps      up if a work is long.”

Horace expects Homer to be perfect, and is annoyed when he is not. His only explanation for Homeric lapses is the length of the work.

All the above is pedantry at worst, scholarship at best, and I would not have bothered with it had a recent example of nodding not presented itself in Halberstam’s well-received book The Fifties. Interestingly enough (to me) Halberstam has erred in the same ways Homer did. And Horace’s excuse will do here as well, for the book is indeed very long.

On page 11 Halberstam writes: “A man named Whittaker Chambers . . . charged that Hiss . . . ” evidently forgetting that he had written on page 10: “Whittaker Chambers, who would be the key witness against Alger Hiss . . . ” The phrase “a man named” implies that we are meeting him for the first time. Shades of Achilles. Of course, he may be quoting Hiss’s own words: “I never knew a man called Whittaker Chambers”—without using quotation marks, hence using a formulaic utterance in a place where that formula is inappropriate. On page 800 it is clearly a formulaic use of language that has led him astray: “As I became aware of the vast press corps which was arriving in Tallahatchie County to cover the case, I knew instinctively that something important was taking place.” He of course did not know it instinctively; he had deduced from experience that a large number of reporters implies a story worth covering. Observation and intelligence, not instinct, guided him. He has been led to use the formula “to know instinctively” in a sentence to which it is not appropriate.

Formulaic language has misled Halberstam in the 20th century in spite of all our age’s mechanical marvels and its squadrons of editors and typesetters. Homer was on his own, performing live before audiences and without the aid of writing (probably). We have no reason to believe that Homer’s original audiences found fault with his poem. It was only later scholars who noted the difficulties. Chances are also that only those acquainted with Homeric scholarship have noticed the lapses in The Fifties.