Several readers over time have asked me to give some account of myself and my background. I would normally decline such a request, since fulfilling it inevitably smacks of vanity—a vice that all litterateurs suffer from, but that we all go to great lengths to keep hidden.
Notice the formulaic self-effacement of every scholarly introduction to a critical work or edition, for example. The author takes elaborate pains to thank others profusely, and to summon all blame for errors to himself alone. This polite custom has been around since the Renaissance, and its pseudo-modesty was as false then as it is now.
In any case, I have decided to give the personal information here to stave off any further requests. If anyone takes it amiss, well… honi soit qui mal y pense. Below is a brief sketch that was intended for a special issue of a magazine that, for various reasons, never appeared. I speak of myself in the third person, since that is what the editor requested. Here goes:
Joseph S. Salemi was born in New York City in 1948. He grew up in Woodside, one of the oldest settled communities in Queens County. His father, Salvatore Salemi, was a decorated World War II combat veteran who also served in Military Intelligence. His mother, Liberty Previti Salemi, was a legal secretary for a major New York law firm.
Salemi’s grandfather, Rosario Previti, was a Sicilian poet, translator, and journalist who translated the FitzGerald version of the Rubaiyat into Italian, and who was the American correspondent for the newspaper Don Giovanni in Messina. He wrote a series of satiric columns on American life and habits. “What I am as a satirist comes directly from my grandfather,” writes Salemi.
Salemi attended Fordham University, a Jesuit school in the Bronx, where he majored in English literature and philosophy. He did his graduate work at New York University, receiving a Ph.D. in Renaissance English literature in 1986, with a specialization in the polemical pamphleteers of the Marprelate Controversy and their rhetorical styles. He also studied Classics at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Salemi has been blessed with some stellar teachers and mentors, who trained him in a rigorously traditional style of scholarship. He studied Old and Middle English literature under Robert Lumiansky, Lillian Herlands Hornstein, and Robert Raymo. His teachers in Renaissance studies were Roger Deakins, Richard C. Harrier, J. Max Patrick, and C.A. Patrides. He read eighteenth-century literature with George Winchester Stone, Romantic and Victorian literature with Aileen Ward and Leonard Dean, and twentieth-century literature with M.L. Rosenthal and John Kuehl. He did his classical studies with John Van Sickle, Seth Bernardete, Ethyle R. Wolfe, Hardy Hansen, and Floyd L. Moreland. His mentor in Neo-Latin studies was Fred J. Nichols.
“I insisted on taking classes with the very best traditional scholars,” explains Salemi. “I refused to sit in a lecture hall where some politicized poseur would dish out race-class-gender drivel, or fraudulent French theory. I wanted genuine scholarship, and I knew it was disappearing fast in the American academy. I was very, very lucky. Almost all of my teachers have retired or died within the last decade. Many of them have been replaced by feminists, queer theorists, and affirmative-action nonentities.”
Salemi published his first scholarly article in 1975, when he was still a graduate student. “It was an analysis of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, at that time a much-discussed novel,” says Salemi, “and since then it has been reprinted three times, in three separate anthologies of criticism.” He has continued to produce scholarly criticism on a wide range of authors, including Chaucer, Machiavelli, Pietro Bembo, Castiglione, William Blake, Ernest Dowson, W.H. Henley, Stephen Crane, Samuel Butler, and Willa Cather. His 1980 article on Blake’s The Gates of Paradise is considered a major contribution to the understanding of Blake’s debt to the earlier emblem-literature of the Renaissance.
Salemi has also worked as an investigative journalist, writing for Sidney Hook’s monthly newsletter Measure, and for the California-based publication Heterodoxy. He was personally responsible for exposing the persecution of conservative faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin, a school with a reputation for vicious, politically correct intolerance. Salemi convinced Professor Alan Gribben, a tenured member of that school’s English department, to go public with the facts of that persecution, and Salemi then wrote the explosive follow-up article in Measure that led eventually to the total restructuring of UT Austin’s English department and the resignation of a dean and several faculty members. “Gribben and I didn’t coin the phrase political correctness,” says Salemi, “but we sure as hell made it a household word in America. The mainstream media and Chronicles of Higher Education followed our lead on the issue. The academic left has never recovered from the damage that we initiated in that case.”
He has written similarly devastating exposés that caused major shakeups at Dallas Baptist University, and at Pace University Law School. In the latter case Salemi faced down Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his team of lawyers, and brought about the resignation of another dean.
“I realized that, since academia is a closed corporation, its only vulnerable spot lay in the realm of publicity and public scrutiny,” says Salemi. “Once we got editorialists, columnists, alumni, and politicians to see what was really going on, the leftists ran for cover so fast that you would have thought they were sprinters. But you need right-wing faculty with the courage to speak out publicly. Academics as a class are deficient in that area. And when you are a hated minority, the pressure to be silent is even more intense.”
Salemi has published three books of poetry. The first two were Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, both from Somers Rocks Press. The latest is Masquerade, from Pivot Press. He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for the Expansive Poetry On-Line website, a task he now fulfills for The Pennsylvania Review. Besides his own poetry, Salemi has published translations from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. He has also published extensive translations (with scholarly commentary and annotations) from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione.
Salemi is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize, and the winner of numerous individual prizes for his poetry. His work has appeared in over one hundred journals and ten poetry anthologies. He is currently at work completing an epic-length verse satire on modern American life titled A Gallery of Ethopaths. Twenty-five individual sections of this poem have already appeared in print.
He is married to the translator Helen Palma, and lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.