Edmund Keeley dies at 94; Sheds light on modern Greek culture


From the start, Professor and Mrs. Keeley were at the heart of the campus social scene, throwing parties and picnics for new hires, graduate students, and visiting professors.

“Newcomers to Princeton felt welcome amidst a dazzling array of writers, poets, teachers and friends from Princeton and New York,” said Joyce Carol Oates, who arrived in 1978 with the intended to teach for just one year but, thanks in part to the generosity of Professor Keeley, remains on the faculty today.

At the time, Greek studies at Princeton was limited to the past and centered on the classics department. Beginning in the 1970s, Professor Keeley built what became the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, now one of the leading such institutions in the country.

Through the center, he invited Greek artists and scholars to visit the United States and took dozens of students on trips to Athens and its surroundings, standing at the front of the tourist bus, microphone in hand , lecturing on his favorite Greek poets.

“It would be fair to say that for the past half-century he has been America’s foremost cultural ambassador to Greece,” Dimitri Gondicas, who now directs the center, said in a phone interview.

Professor Keeley’s interest in Greece has always been shaped by his family’s ties to it. He has long been haunted by rumors that his father, as a US diplomat, played a role in the country’s efforts to stifle leftist dissent. His sense of guilt most likely influenced his presidency of PEN America.

After retiring from Princeton and PEN America, he turned to writing full-time. He had already written several novels, and he wrote several more – eight in all, most of them set in Greece and revolving around the theme of foreigners coming into contact with Greek culture.

He also dabbled in poetry. Among his latest works was “Daylight”, which appeared last year in The Hudson Review. A meditation on the Covid pandemic, we read in part:

Why not leave everything to Nemesis

And take a long walk outside

In any direction holds perspective

Of your things to remember

Of those lighter years in the open spaces

This shore at the edge of an endless sea.

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