N. Gregson Davis

Emeriti Reflections

"Gregson has retired—for the second time. The news should not come as a great surprise, since he turns eighty in October, and yet I find myself asking whether he won’t decide to come back after all. Certainly, there is no one I can think of who is younger in body, mind and spirit at his age. It gives me great comfort that he will continue to be part of our classics family, continue writing and teaching us all, and continue delighting us with his genial and congenial presence.

"Gregson is a true cosmopolitan, in the first instance raised as an ‘Afro-Greek’, to borrow a phrase from his friend, the late Derek Walcott, by the English tradition of classical education on his home island of Antigua. Gregson excelled in that curriculum, but upon finishing his schooling did not take the next obvious step of enrolling at Oxford or Cambridge, opting instead for Harvard. He flourished there as well, winning the Latin translation prize all four years and finishing in glory as the Latin Orator at his graduation. Then it was off to California: graduate school at UC Berkeley, and the start of a teaching career in classics and comparative literature at Stanford, where he remained for over twenty years. The choice of an American education and career made him a transcultural and interdisciplinary cosmopolitan in a way that would have been far harder to achieve in Britain. Along the way, he became not only a (perhaps the) leading Horatian of his generation in this country but also an essential translator and interpreter of Aimé Césaire, the great Martinican Francophone poet. And, even in retirement he continues to spread his wings, fruitfully expanding our understanding of the connections between philosophy and the poetry of Vergil and other late republican and early imperial poets. And Gregson, essentially self-taught as a pianist and yoga practitioner, continues to practice both at a high level every day.

"In 1989, Gregson moved to Ithaca, NY to take up a position at Cornell, and as he took on more and responsibilities there, we started a concerted campaign to bring him to Duke. We all felt that would find a welcoming environment here for his interdisciplinary interests, but it has to be said that for persons of color familiar with academic communities in California and the Northeast, settling down in the American South would not be an obviously comfortable choice. Nevertheless, we persisted, and on perhaps their third visit, at a dinner party Maura and I hosted for Gregson and Daphne, I casually asked her how long they had been at Cornell. When she answered, well, I think it’s been five winters now, I had the first inkling that we might persuade them to come after all. Come they did, and made this place home for themselves and their wonderful children. They eventually built three houses in Chapel Hill and Durham, each one more beautiful than the last, thanks above all to Daphne’s impeccable sense of design. And the hospitality of Casa Davis has become legendary, thanks not least to Daphne’s cuisine, but also to the warmhearted way they have of making everyone feel immediately at ease." 

- Peter Burian


"Like Peter, I remember how very bold we felt in the department, in thinking that we might try to lure Gregson, whom I knew as the finest Horatian of our time, away from Cornell and of his joining us at Duke. We did get courage from a couple of cards up our sleeve.  One of my dearest classical friends, the late Brooks Otis, another superb student of Latin poetry, had known Gregson very well, and in fact Brooks himself had lured the young Gregson to join the faculty at Stanford. And a more recent colleague of Gregson's, at Cornell, Skip Gates, who had come to teach in the Duke English Department, gladly joined in our plot and conspiracy, and advised us. But perhaps, as Peter has suggested, our strongest card of all was Mother Nature. So one late winter, we invited Gregson and Daphne to come visit, and at the season when that incredible landscape of Cornell ---one of the most splendid landscapes in America--- was one glittering sheet of ice sloping down toward the lake (we had plotted this part with fiendish cunning), they arrived in Durham to find our campus all green and bright with early daffodils. The Davis family stayed with Louise and me.  How we loved that.  I lost my heart to them all­—Daphne, Gregson, adorable Sophie, then 5 (?), and Gregson's most charming aunt from Antigua; she ran the school that provided Gregson's early formation (French).  That was the beginning of this long, happy colleagueship and friendship, which I still cherish today."

- Francis Newton