I’m digging through my shelves, reading children’s books that I never got to when my children were, you know, children. One of them is Marjorie Braymer’s biography of Heinrich Schliemann, The Walls of Windy Troy.
This is a story of the rewards and risks of being an autodidact (self-taught scholar). Schliemann, the son of a German pastor, was nineteen, injured and destitute. He embarked on a ship to Venezuela, survived a shipwreck, and landed in Amsterdam.
Ever since he first heard Homer—music with the cadence and swing of the sea in it, language like the beat of armies surging across grassy plains—he was fired up with a burning desire: to find Troy. When told that Troy wasn’t real, just a story, his resolve hardened.
He needed to make money to fulfill his dream. To be a master of men, one has to master their languages. He picked up Dutch by immersion in the culture, then taught himself Spanish, English, French and Russian.
Soon he was reading English novels, always aloud, always in full voice, without stopping to translate. He had discovered this to be a more efficient system than studying grammar. Words and sounds and meanings made connections in his head, and he gradually got the sense of what he was reading. (emphasis mine)
When he struggled with Russian, he made progress by hiring a Dutch student (who knew no Russian) to listen to him read. That busts me up, but he actually learned enough Russian to move to and work in St. Petersburg. He wanted above all to learn classical Greek, but disciplined himself to learn languages that helped him in business first. After he garnered Greek, he added Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Arabic and Turkish. That accomplishment is dizzying!
His wealth and international prestige grew to the point that he could travel to Turkey and start digging. Believing in the exactness of Homer’s word, Schliemann chose to ignore received wisdom and broke ground at a site he felt more closely matched Homer’s words.
And, lo, he made epoch discoveries. Did he discover Troy? It’s hard to say. He found layers of civilizations. Initially he made sweeping claims. The science of archeology hadn’t yet been developed; Schliemann’s work destroyed some valuable layers as he dug deeper for Troy. There was not an established protocol for the ownership of the artifacts dug up. He had to learn humility by acknowledging his own errors and asking for help from other scholars. Clearly, his work has added to our knowledge of ancient cultures.
This is an instance where I greatly enjoyed reading a biography written for young adults. For me, this is enough. There are a handful of books by Schliemann and an armload about him, but, in the vernacular of friends declining an offer, ‘I’m good.’