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Old Books in the New World

American democrats and the classics.

Mar 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 24 • By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
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The Culture of Classicism
Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910
by Caroline Winterer
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 272 pp., $45

I USED TO leave graduate classes in Latin and Greek composition at Stanford on Fridays to drive home to the San Joaquin Valley to help on our grape farm over the weekend. Neither of these antithetical worlds knew anything about the other. But the curious thing is this: People in rural California, given the chance, would have welcomed general knowledge about the classical foundations of their own American institutions, as well as information about the glory of Greece and grandeur of Rome. Yet very few classics professors--who spent hours teaching us how to complete hexameters in Latin and create purpose clauses with the genitive case of articular infinitives in Greek--had much of a clue about how to teach anybody anything like that.

Classics, the formal study of the languages, literatures, and culture of ancient Greece and Rome, has always held an odd position in American life. As Caroline Winterer shows in her elegant book "The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910," those professors who tried to teach the citizenry at large about how the Greeks and Romans created and struggled with democracy and republican government enjoyed little support--and often downright hostility--from both the public and universities.

At the very founding of our own nation, modernists in other disciplines--backed by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Rush--claimed that knowledge of the classical languages was an empty aristocratic pursuit. Greek and Latin were better left to a few class-bound New England dandies or southern plantationists who aped, rather than properly rejected, Europe's leisured gentry. These pragmatists felt such esoteric studies had no relevance to the new emerging muscular classes in our factories and farms and on the frontier. We had left Europe to build something new--and better--in America, and our citizens needed vocational skills and rudimentary literacy, not declensions and conjugations. Later nineteenth century academics such as Stanford's David Starr Jordan joined with such figures as Andrew Carnegie and Charles Francis Adams to remind Americans that universities were not "cloisters," but "workshops" where "reality and practicality" ruled.

MEANWHILE, within the discipline of classics itself, purists--under the influence of the great philologists, epigraphers, and historians of Germany and England--were also rejecting popular relevance. Bent on establishing classics as a truly scientific discipline akin to math or biology, they declared that only years of careful and narrow study of esoteric texts, Greek inscriptions, and archaeological finds--published in little-read journals and obscure doctoral dissertations--could ensure that classics was a legitimate field in a modern world. Only a brutal regimen of philologically based doctoral study--open to those of all classes and backgrounds--could ensure legitimacy for classics.

The new meritocratic guardians of language who emerged with Ph.D.s in the mid-nineteenth century could then certify and audit those with pretenses to knowledge about everything from Homer to gladiators. And perhaps the seemingly irrelevant pieces of their esoteric publications might someday magically all fit together in one coherent mosaic of the ancient world--one that would justify their decades of painstaking and misunderstood research. Or so they thought.

A few brilliant classicists withstood both these extremes--and for a brief period they succeeded in leaving the imprint of cultured classical erudition upon the general society. It was a heady time for classics between 1860 and 1920. Even newly created pillars of scientific classicism like the American Philological Society, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the American School of Classical Studies--unlike their stuffy European counterparts--reflected larger efforts to teach the public and undergraduates alike about Greece and Rome.