William Munford was born 15 August 1775 in Mecklenburg County, Virginia to a distinguished family. In his youth, Munford studied Greek and Latin at Petersburg Academy until the age of twelve, at which time he entered The College of William and Mary. After graduating with honors, he benefitted from the tutelage of George Wythe – signer of the Declaration of Independence and a “second Socrates,” according to Munford – who encouraged him to keep up with his Greek and to embark on a career of public service. By the time of Munford’s death in 1825, he had indeed enjoyed great success as a lawyer and politician; he also left behind a complete manuscript of his translation of Homer’s Iliad (with accompanying Notes), which would eventually become the first by an American upon its posthumous publication in 1846.
Despite the enormous popularity of Alexander Pope’s translations of the Iliad and Odyssey in America during Munford’s lifetime, Munford in his Preface critiques Pope and offers a rationale for his own translation: “The author of this translation was induced to undertake it by fond admiration of the almost unparalleled sublimity and beauty of the original; neither of which peculiar graces of Homer’s muse, has, as he conceives, been sufficiently expressed in the smooth and melodious rhymes of Pope.” Munford then describes the proper role of a translator: “My opinion of the duty of a translator is that he ought uniformly to express the meaning and spirit of his author with fidelity, in such language as is sanctioned by the use of the best writers and speakers of his own time and country; … the rule of the translator should be to adhere strictly to the sense of the original; not presuming to omit ideas because he does not like them, nor rashly essaying to embellish or improve his author by additions or variations of his own.”
In this presentation, I will discuss the creation, literary merits, and reception of Munford’s Iliad. In particular, I will focus on two aspects of the translation’s reception in popular Antebellum Era literary reviews: (1) the extent to which a reviewer’s opinion of the translation seems to be influenced by his own personal (and usually explicit) attitude about Munford’s Virginia as a slave-holding state and (2) how a revolution in classical scholarship in the twenty years between Munford’s death and the publication of his work results in universal condemnation by reviewers of his Notes, which are largely an attempt to elucidate the Iliad’s ethical and moral dimensions by comparisons with the Bible.
Recovering the Monstrous and the Sublime