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BOOKS | HISTORY 

A Life in Ruins

EVA PALMER SIKELIANOS 

As a talented actor from a prominent New York family, Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874–1952) was keen on the Greeks from her youth. Undoubtedly, Greek tragedy was a preliminary source of inspiration. “What didn’t the Greeks have!” she exclaimed to her lover Natalie Clifford Barney, referring to Mounet-Sully’s powerful performance in Oedipus Rex. Yet she saw the latent grandeur of the Greeks everywhere, and throughout her life she kept finding new ways to revive them: as the lover of women using Sappho’s words to express her feelings; as the wife of a famous Greek poet, going “native” by adopting Greek tunics and advocating weaving; as the first woman to direct a major international festival of Greek drama and games in ancient Delphi; or as the sibylline old woman who, upon returning to Greece in 1952 and suffering a stroke, was buried as a cult hero in Delphi.


She is best known for her revival of the Delphic Festivals, on which she spent all her money. Yet, as Artemis Leontis reveals, Palmer’s most spectacular performance was her daily animation of a lost Greek life suggested by ancient ruins and living practices. For almost half a century, dressed in handmade tunics and sandals, she sought to make modern life freer and more beautiful through a creative engagement with the Greeks. Along the way, she crossed paths with other seminal figures of such as Natalie Clifford Barney, Renée Vivien, Isadora Duncan, Colette, Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, Richard Strauss, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Konstantinos Psachos, Khorshed Naoroji, Rabindranath Tagore, Nikos Kazantzakis, George Seferis, Henry Miller, Ted Shawn, Paul Robeson, Penelope Sikelianos Duncan, and of course Angelos Sikelianos, her husband of over thirty years. This story of a remarkable noncomformist in a wide global modernist network is the one Professor Leontis tells in Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2019), the first biography of Eva Palmer Sikelianos.

Artemis Leontis is C. P. Cavafy Professor of Modern Greek and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan and the author of Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland (Cornell University Press, 1995), Τοπογραφίες Ελληνισμού: Η χαρτογράφηση της πατρίδας (Scripta, 1997, translated by P. Stogiannos), and Greece: Culture and Customs (2010); editor or coeditor of Greece: A Travelers’ Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 1997) and “‘What these Ithakas mean…’: Readings in Cavafy (ELIA, 2002); former editor of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies (2014–2019); and co-curator with Laurie Talalay of the exhibit, Cavafy’s World (Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 2002).  


Writing Eva Palmer Sikelianos took her on a 10-year journey to recover the traces of a life.

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AUTHOR: Artemis Leontis 

COVER: Eva Palmer Sikelianos

PUBLISHER: Princeton University Press, 2019

 

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