Steve Mitchell


Perhaps the most insightful, and incisive, piece of literary analysis I have ever heard or used came as an off-the-cuff quip from Holly — I regularly repeat it, with attribution, to students studying medieval literature because it tells them exactly what they need to know to understand that Middle High German behemoth, Das Nibelungenlied. It happened in the early 1980s in a meeting about our course in the Germanic Languages and Literatures seminar room in the former Ticknor Library in Boylston Hall. The rest of us were struggling to design a way to make this literary monster—some 300 tightly-packed pages in A.T. Hatto’s Penguin translation—both appealing and understandable to a large group of students in a Core course on the Germanic Hero, a class chosen by them exactly because they had no discernable interest in such a topic and they apparently reckoned that this would be among the least painful inoculations against the humanities they could find with which to fulfill the college’s requirements.

How to get them interested in understanding such a poem—through philological details? historical context? gender studies? what would help make sense of court poetry where beautiful maidens and their attire are described in lavish detail on one page, and entire nations are wiped out by doughty warriors standing knee-deep in blood on the battlefield on the next? After listening to the would-be-learned discussions the rest of us were having for a few minutes, Holly brightly and with characteristic verve chimed in with the following jaunty comment (or at least these are the words I recall), “It’s really easy. Think of the poem as two magazines, Bride and Soldier of Fortune.”

How perfect! It was a brilliant boutade, and as I learned over the remainder of that term, very typical of Holly’s insightful—and very witty—approach to life. With those few words, Holly managed to capture not only the key contents of the poem, but also the context and differing audiences to whom such poetry would have mattered and to whom it would have been delivered (and very likely, by whom it would have been sponsored). I quoted her on this point at the very next lecture. And I waited see how the students would respond—they accepted her observation with a degree of mirth and awe, and I have not stopped quoting her on the issue in the 30 years since!

Certainly, one of Holly’s great gifts is her ability to surprise and delight—but if you don’t know that, it can come as a bit of a shock. She set me up perfectly for such an experience early in my acquaintance with her and Greg, when I was invited to visit them at their home. Having described the location of their residence over the phone, Holly ended our conversation with those ritualized words we all used in the pre-Googlemaps world, “And if you get lost…,” naturally to be followed by “just ask someone” or “just call.” Not Holly! She began the closing statement exactly as one would expect, but completed it not with the reassuring and expected “just ask,” but rather, “And if you get lost—you’re an idiot!”

Indeed, her capacity to surprise and delight is legendary: on the occasion of one of her birthday parties, a large, very large, multi-layered birthday cake was in place in the parlor. And at some point in the evening, this seemingly outsized pastry began to move ever so slightly, and then more and more, until out of the cake, like Athena appearing fully clothed and in armor from Zeus’s head, a Walküre, surely Brünhild herself, complete with helmet and spear, began to emerge, singing, if memory serves, an aria from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Who else could it be other than Holly, and who, other than Holly, would have attempted such a wonderful escapade? And who other than Holly could have pulled it all off with aplomb?

At the time in the late 80s when Holly and Greg were Co-Masters of Currier House, my wife, our infant twins and I lived across the street in the so-called Botanic Gardens, as part of North House (then undergoing renovations). I was myself undergoing that gruelling academic ritual of the tenure review and needless-to-say in need of a lot of encouragement and buoying up on a regular basis. Holly and Greg never, ever failed to be there for me, and although, admittedly, I do not recall the process itself with much fondness, I will always remember their unstinting support; moreover, there was one mirthful and highly memorable episode that came from it. Somehow in that process, one of us—it could have been me, but I really don’t recall—used the expression ‘favorite fears’. That caught on among the four of us and was often enough referred to that at some point after The President decided in my favor, we determined to hold a ‘Favorite Fears Party’. And, no, I won’t say who came outfitted how, but it was an arresting and playfully ridiculous way to discharge the accumulated energy and emotions of that spring and summer.

These little episodes speak mainly to Holly’s sublimely puckish side—obviously, Dr. Davidson is also a serious, much published and well-respected scholar. And one instance of her in this role in extremis stands out in my memory, that is, when she organized a conference on Ferdowsi, the Shahnameh, and Lord’s The Singer of Tales. What made this workshop so special was that perhaps six or seven Iranian scholars were successfully invited and allowed to attend. Although their actual presence at the event was in some doubt until the last minute, in the end, the government (theirs, not ours, I believe) gave in and they did all arrive and attended the meeting, mainly sitting in rather stony silence in the back rows if I recall correctly. But what I remember most vividly is Holly opening the meetings with a prepared address, delivered in Farsi, very elegantly , I thought, yet in what nevertheless seemed to me to be an uncharacteristic fashion, for I do not believe her arms moved so much as an inch and she seemed to give the address in a monotone without the slightest change in facial features. For a woman typically possessed of such energy and vivaciousness, this change in demeanor was clearly a strategy. She had, I assume, masked herself in what would be for the visitors the appropriate and expected behavior for a female scholar. What I sensed intuitively was that Holly was in fact by no means giving ground at all—rather she wanted to be taken seriously by these scholars and was not about to give them any easy non-scholarly way out. Let them disagree with me, she seemed to be saying, but if so, it will be on my terms. That too would be ‘very Holly’.

Over many years, Holly has been a wonderful colleague and a divinely entertaining and generous friend—I trust that will continue to be the case over many more.