Friday, May 21, 2010

Cristina Mazzoni's "She-Wolf"

Cristina Mazzoni is a Professor in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Vermont.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Beast (Cambridge University Press, 2010), and reported the following:
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” It is clearly not up to me, the author, to comment on the quality of my own work; to reveal relationships between a particular page and the book as a whole, however, is precisely what my university pays me to do, for much of my workday. Page 99 of She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon discusses the work of Latin poet Propertius; he compares the poet’s verbal task to the maternal work of the Roman she-wolf—who rescued abandoned infants Romulus and Remus by feeding them with her own milk. The poet’s voice, an expression of his chest, celebrates Rome’s greatness much like the she-wolf’s milk, expressed through her teats, allowed for Rome’s very birth. But the she-wolf, as well as generous, is a fierce beast; so also the Romans, according to another author quoted on p.99—ancient historian Justin—“had the disposition of wolves, being insatiable of blood and tyranny.”

Given the book’s title and the time period discussed on this page, the reader of p.99 might conclude that She-Wolf deals with the ancient world; that, however, is only one-third true—the remaining two thirds of the book examine later periods, all the way up to the twenty-first century. Poetry, the subject of p.99, is not the book’s only focus—equally important are artworks as well as literary, historical, and political prose. Conversely, what of p.99 is typical of the book is a close reading of the complexities embodied in the Roman beast: sexual greed tempered by protective maternity, literal beastliness marked by metaphorical significance, selflessness made dangerous by natural ferocity. The texts quoted on p.99 provide just two examples of how the she-wolf, inherently ambiguous, has served to represent, at different times and through a variety of media, a number of disparate issues and ideas—among them, our moral imperatives towards others’ needs, the pervasiveness of misogyny, the status of immigrants, and the meaning and acquisition of a national identity.
Read an excerpt from She-Wolf, and learn more about the book and author at the Cambridge University Press website and Cristina Mazzoni's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue