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Finley in America

Fred Naiden

     In his video interview with Keith Hopkins in 1985, Moses Finley makes his longest known comments about his years in the United States. He describes not only some differences between his own training and that of most ancient historians, but also differences between intellectual life as he knew it in New York City in the 1930s and 40s and academic life in Cambridge.

      The paper takes up two subjects that Finley mentions only in passing—his style of public lecturing and his first book. Finley says that he came to prefer a popular, not a pedantic, lecturing style thanks to his experience as a teacher in the US, especially at City College of New York. That is true, but it is not the whole truth.  Along with being popular, Finley’s style was incisive and polemical, on the one hand, and abstract, on the other.  It had a touch of the Germanic and an altogether different touch of Yiddishkeit.  Finley learned this style in progressive middle-class and student movements operating in tandem with two important political forces of 1930s and 40s New York—the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Communist Party of the United States.  The Moses Finley of this period used his birth name, Moses Finkelstein. He was a Jew often among Jews and evidently a Communist often among fellow travelers.  His experience shaped something more important than changeable convictions.  It shaped his temperament, from his penchant for generalizations to his equal penchant for lapidary criticism.

      Speaking about his first book, Studies in Land and Credit (1952), Finley says that it made his reputation, and was more important for his career than his second book, The World of Odysseus (1954).  This too, the paper argues, is not true.  Studies in Land and Credit met with objections from H. J. Woolf and other reviewers. The World of Odysseus astounded readers for reasons that Finley summarizes in the interview, when he says it was the first attempt to read Homer as a social document.  Why does Finley make too much of the first book and too little of the second?  Because some features of the now little-known Studies in Land and Credit reappeared in his later work, including his conception of the roles of markets and banking.  Taking his career as a whole, Finley was an economic historian focusing on middle and late antiquity, not a Homerist of any description.  As much as his first book owes to William Westermann, not Max Weber, it was fundamental for him.

      The Finley of the interview is a complicated figure. This paper demonstrates that the Finley who stays off-camera, so to speak, is even more complicated and surprising.

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The Impact of Moses Finley

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