James Werner Halporn

James Werner Halporn


Jim Halporn was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island and carried his accent from there for his whole life—much of it spent far from there. His mother, Louisa, taught English in the public schools. His father, Robert, brought much of the influence of his Gymnasium education and Viennese values to educating his son. (Much later, in retirement, Robert moved to Bloomington, where he took a number of Latin and Greek classes with his son’s Indiana University colleagues.)

After a year at St. John’s College, Jim entered Columbia College with the full intention of becoming a chemist, despite his strong interest in literature—from childhood he was a constant reader of anything at hand. That interest, the year at St. John’s, and the first-year humanities courses at Columbia influenced his decision by his senior year to major in classics rather than chemistry. He then concentrated on Latin and started Greek in order to prepare for the Masters degree program at Columbia; following that, he earned his Ph.D. at Cornell. His previous scientific training and inclination gave him a discipline and focus that was an asset to his linguistic and philological future. While at Columbia, he was coxswain for the junior varsity crew. Chosen for his very lightweight physique, his winter training consisted of smoking and playing cards while the oarsmen worked out. He was bemused to have earned a letter in the sport.

Jim’s experiences—both as a student and as a teacher of the Columbia humanities core—informed his teaching style and expectations throughout his career. He liked to talk, and he liked to provoke or elicit discussion from his students. Jim had studied under Gilbert Highet, that gifted teacher and scholar of the classics, and thought he had his best lessons in how to teach from him. One of his undergraduate students says, “He was an amusing and very engaging teacher—unsentimental, shrewdly critical, and just. He took pleasure in his students’ peculiarities, and never pressed us into a conventional mold.”

When Jim entered the field of classics his interests were more philological than literary and he edited the text of Cassiodorus’ treatise De Anima for his dissertation. This set him on the course of study of early Church Fathers and late antiquity that dominated his research activity. He often strayed into other areas of classics, however, during a distinguished career as a Latin scholar at Indiana University where he taught from 1960 to 1993 and served as chair from 1985 to 1993. As scholar, Jim made significant contributions in three areas: editions and translations of works by Cassiodorus; Latin meter; and Roman comedy.

His edition of De Anima by Cassiodorus is still the standard edition, quoted by everyone who has occasion to mention Cassiodorus and the remarkable age of Theoderic. In retirement he completed his translation of Cassiodorus’ Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning and On the Soul. Two months before his death he submitted a detailed and positive review of a work on Cassiodorus to a grateful university press editor. It must have given him satisfaction to be recognized as the reigning expert in this area, and to feel that with that report he was passing the torch to a worthy scholar of the next generation

Of his work on metrics, the best known to several generations of grateful students at all levels is the clear and succinct co-authored handbook The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry. The contributions of Jim and Martin Oswald to that work were translated into German in 1962 as Lateinische Metrik; the rubric beneath the title—Berechtigte Übersetzung aus dem Amerikanischen—must have amused him as a linguist.

Jim’s interest in Roman comedy may have been inspired in part by his maternal grandfather, a Yiddish playwright, who played scenes with him as a young child. Jim passed his expertise in that area down to the graduate students whom he taught, including Sander Goldberg—Jim supervised his special author work on Terence and his dissertation on Menander.

Jim left deep impressions on other graduate students he taught and supervised. John Wright, another of his Ph.D. students, credits Jim with turning him into a scholar—“it’s all thanks to him.” From his experiences as an M.A. student, Brent Froberg recalls that Jim “gave our written work the kind of sandpapering that it needed so that we could write clear, persuasive prose.” While that “sandpapering” sometimes drew blood, metaphorically, both in the heavily red-penned results and in battered egos, those who persevered emerged with polished work, which led in turn to jobs, publications, and successful careers.

In the mainframe era of computers (1960s), Jim explored their use in the humanities but was often critical of some of the early applications which he considered too crude for the useful analysis of literary texts. He was, however, quite impressed by the sophisticated digital tools that now support classical scholarship. At the last APA meeting he attended, he discovered electronic devices on display among the publishers’ exhibits. He heard Virgil being read on an iPod and bought one immediately after returning home. Following that, he embraced all things “i” and loaded his devices with apps.

After retiring from Indiana University, Jim moved with his wife Barbara to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was head of the Widener Library’s Collection Development Department. He was actively involved with the Harvard Classics Department as an adjunct professor for almost twenty years, attending talks and conferences, serving on the committee of at least one doctoral student, participating faithfully in a number of graduate seminars, catching up with journals in the Smyth Classical Library, and attending monthly faculty-student lunches, including the one in October, weeks before his death.

A voracious reader since childhood, a haunter of large research libraries since college—how fitting that he was able in retirement to spend so many pleasant and satisfying days in the Widener stacks!