THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE CLASSICS IN AMERICA: GREECE, ROME, AND THE ANTEBELLUM UNITED STATES by Carl J. Richard, Reviewed by James Tatum
 

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE CLASSICS IN AMERICA: GREECE, ROME, AND THE ANTEBELLUM UNITED STATES
By Carl J. Richard
(Harvard, 2009) xiii + 258 pp.
Reviewed by James Tatum on 2009-09-01.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Carl Richard shows how Americans in the generations between the Revolution and the Civil war democratized the teaching and learning of Greek and Latin. Between 1800 and 1860, he argues, proportionally more citizens considered the classics relevant to their daily lives than at any time before or since. The chapters organized around a clear theme are the most accomplished and readable; e.g., on the dialectical opposition of Pastoralism and Utilitarianism (Chapter 3), Romanticism (Chapter 5), and Slavery (Chapter 6). The conclusion to this last chapter is eloquent about the ambivalent legacy of classicism in its American incarnation:

Slavery was an important element of classical civilization, not an aberration, a universally accepted practice, not a passing evil, and Greco-Roman slavery exerted a profound influence on the antebellum South. While the classics provided vital inspiration to the forces of republicanism and democracy in the United States during the American Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and the age of Jacksonian democracy, they also provided equally essential support to the proslavery forces of the Old South. While they helped build the modern Athens, they also helped cleave it asunder (203)

The author has thought long and hard about the uses of classics in another, recent book addressed to a more general audience, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). An elegant appropriation of Laocoön's famous line in Vergil, "I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts," this title nicely sums up his point here as well.

If Richard's metallic age of choice sounds archaic to those who think they may be living in an Age of Plutonium, all he is really doing is playing with Ovid's familiar myth of the ages in his Metamorphoses, where the poet briskly simplifies Hesiod's more complicated myth in the Works and Days into a fable of change and decline, a steady progression from a golden age, to one of silver, then bronze, and finally lead. Jove finally washes away the last and worst of the ages with a flood of biblical proportions.

         The Golden Age follows the author's earlier The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard, 1994), and both together constitute a carefully considered sequel to comprehensive books on longer periods of history: Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (2001) and Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: the Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (1984). Preferring greater depth to their wider range is a reasonable move after such pioneering studies. Richard's more restricted focus on the half century or so leading up to the Civil War enables him to go into much greater detail as he reports and quite carefully documents the results of his researches, and for this reason alone his work will be a valuable resource for anyone studying nineteenth-century American intellectual history and the role that classical languages and literature played in it.

This is a revisionist's argument, and a bold one. Reinhold and other students of American versions of the classical tradition found their Golden Age chronologically, in the generation that fought the Revolution and created the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution. Though most of us probably associate the eighteenth century with classicism at its flood tide, we fail to realize that the high water mark for the study of Greek and Latin in the United States might actually have come later, in the Romantic and Victorian periods. Richard makes a persuasive case that it did. As one of the consequences of the American Revolution, the study of Greek and Latin ceased to be the marker of an aristocratic class and by 1860 was available to a far wider spectrum of the nation, including women, freedmen, and even some slaves.

This of course complicates the metallic history of American culture. If the antebellum period was made of gold, Richard does not say what metal he would award to the generation of Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. The utility of thinking about "ages" in history is a question I shall return to at the end of this review.

A specialist in the role of classics in American intellectual history, Richard has picked up a few endearingly classicizing habits. Like Horace, he seems given to beginning his books with the trope of carmina non prius audita, claiming to sing songs never heard before: "It is a surprising fact that this is the first book-length study of the founders' classical reading" (1994, 1), "This is the first book-length study of the influence of the Greek and Roman classics in antebellum America" (2009, ix). Even Horace's admirers will murmur about an obscure poet of the late Republic named Catullus, who arguably got there firstest with the mostest where Latin lyric poetry is concerned.

Harder to admire is an occasional density of reportage that could have been managed more carefully in the editing of the book. In the long first two chapters on classics in social, educational, and political life (pp. 1-82), our view of Richard's forest is sometimes blocked by way too many trees. Out of much industry and research he is inclined to give detailed accounts of who read what, when, where, how, and why. The cast of American characters is large and constantly changing, with a number of enduring figures we would expect to find, ranging from the Adams family of Massachusetts to the Calhouns of South Carolina. But the classics they all value tend to remain much the same, and the same ancient names and texts appear again and again. After a while the reader begins to shudder at formulas like "X was not the only one who...." At his best Richard distills a wide range of historical source studies into as little as a single sentence or short paragraph. It's here that you are likely to find the answer to such questions as, What about all those American towns like Troy, Athens, Ithaca, Rome and the like that are everywhere in the Eastern and Midwestern United States? How did they get their names? He is also astute in pointing out at several places the significance of civic architecture like court houses and state capitols, which throughout this period were almost invariably cast in some variation on a classical theme.

Richard is particularly cogent when he questions Mark Twain's characteristically half-serious, half-facetious theory (in Life on the Mississippi) that the novels of Sir Walter Scott had glorified feudalism, giving poorly educated Southern planters and slavery's champions the illusion that they were living in an age of gallant knights and ladies. Twain thought Scott was as responsible as anyone for the Civil War, and his theory would have a long life. Recall the opening credits of David O. Selznick's "Gone with the Wind," with its twaddle about a vanished civilization of knights and their ladies unscrolling to a lugubrious rendition of "Dixie."

Richard is less humorous. He doesn't think historical romance had nearly as much to do with the inevitable conflict as political philosophy and classical example. Aristotle's analysis of slavery and its nature in the Politics is far more nuanced and thoughtful than most American accounts of it summarized here, but that is just a reminder that Aristotle was as susceptible to simplification and misrepresentation as any other ancient writer when viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. For the Yale graduate (Class of 1804) John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the argument for "natural" slavery was more than justified by both classical political theory and the example of classical, democratic Athens.

In this account of the classically educated Calhoun, the Great Nullifier gets about as sympathetic a portrait as he could have today ("It was Calhoun's tragedy that he foresaw the approaching calamity but could not avert it," p. 83). Squarely in the middle of this Golden Age (ca. 1835), however, Calhoun declared that if he could find a black man who knew Greek syntax, he would admit that blacks deserved the same education he and his sons had had.

That is not the worst thing Calhoun had to say about them, but it is the one thing black America remembered him for, long after his death in 1850. Born into slavery, the African American classicist William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926) managed to begin his education before the War in Georgia and then go on to study Greek, Latin and German at Oberlin, completing his formal education before the German research university and the Ph. D. were established at Johns Hopkins in 1876. He would be an influential public voice in African American higher education as president of Wilberforce University in Ohio. Along with W. E. B. Du Bois and others, he fought vigorously for the right of free black people to study the liberal arts, as exemplified by Greek and Latin. But the single thing for which he was best remembered throughout his life was the publication in 1881 of an introductory Greek textbook, First Lessons in Greek. He and his book quickly became a living, visible refutation of Calhoun's notorious pronouncement.

Even so, fifty years after Calhoun's death the African American classicist, educator and political leader Alexander Crummell (1819-1898) could still recall Calhoun bitterly in his 1897 presidential address to the American Negro Academy, "The Attitude of the American Mind toward the Negro."

One of the utterances of Mr. Calhoun was to this effect "That if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man." Just think of the crude asininity of even a great man! Mr. Calhoun went to "Yale" to study the Greek Syntax, and graduated there. His son went to Yale to study the Greek syntax, and graduated there. His grandson, in recent years, went to Yale, to learn the Greek Syntax, and graduated there. School and Colleges were necessary for the Calhouns, and all other white men to learn the Greek syntax. And yet this great man knew that there was not a school, nor a college in which a black boy could learn his A, B, C's. He knew that the law in all the Southern States forbade Negro instruction under the severest penalties. How then was the Negro to learn the Greek Syntax? How then was he to evidence to Mr. Calhoun his human nature?... Mr. Calhoun was then, as much as any other American, an exponent of the nation's mind upon his point. Antagonistic as they were upon other subjects, upon the rejection of the Negro intellect they were a unit.

Calhoun's comment about blacks and Greek syntax were of no concern to those who named a Yale College after him in 1933, nor to many other white American minds until 1992, when Yale's graduating seniors put up a plaque at Calhoun College that deplored naming the place after one of slavery's great apologists, at the same time arguing that no attempt should be made to rewrite the earlier history of the college or the university by expunging Calhoun's name.

In what sense does the story of Scarborough, Crummell, and John C. Calhoun constitute the Golden Age of the Classics in America? Richard has an important story to tell and for the most part he tells it well. But he and other students of classical tradition and its more recent developments in reception studies would do well to reconsider this metallic approach to human history as they engage in what Herodotus and his successors helped to invent: historiê, "research," or "inquiry." Poetry is not the stuff that history is made of.

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid himself dramatizes the essential emptiness of using metals to characterize humanity. Though his Myth of the Four Ages ostensibly recycles a myth of Hesiod, Ovid re-creates it. While Hesiod tells of "races" (Greek genos, plural genea), Ovid writes of ages (aetas, aetates). Hesiod's word is cognate with an Indo-European root from which we get such words as "gonads" and "genes." It has nothing to do with the time-marker of the Latin aetas, which is cognate with the ancient Greek aei, "always," and from which our word "age" derives. Furthermore, Hesiod has a fifth, non-metallic Race of Heroes between the Race of Bronze and the Race of Iron. The asymmetry of four metal races and one non-metal race has inspired a lot of commentary, much of it conveniently summarized by Stephanie Nelson in her book on the metaphysics of farming in Hesiod's Works and Days and Vergil's Georgics (God and the Land, Oxford, 1998: pp. 68-76). For the present purpose we only need note that Ovid finally does get around to speaking of a "race" of human beings, but not in connection with gold or any other metal. And then he uses the Latin word genus, which he well knows is cognate with Hesiod's genos.

         As the despairing survivors of Jove's flood-Deucalion and Pyrrha-survey the devastation of their world, the goddess Themis tells them, "Throw your great mother's bones behind you." Deucalion finally realizes that since Earth is their mother, the bones that Themis speaks of must be its stones, and these are what they should gather and throw them behind their backs. As they do, the stones become a race of creatures that look at first like statues carved from stone, then gradually metamorphose into living, breathing beings. From the stones Pyrrha cast, women are born, and from Deucalion's come men. At this point Ovid says, "From this we are a hardy race (genus durum) and in our endurance of hard work give proof of what we have come from." The Latin durus can signify both a hard, tough race, and a harsh one-both the race that can be cruel to its fellow creatures, and the race that can endure that tough treatment. A genus durum, a race born from stone, better describes the period of history that Carl Richard writes about than any Golden Age confected by any poet. You need only reread Voltaire's Candide to see the point.

James Tatum is Emeritus Professor of Classics at Dartmouth College.

        


Leave a comment on James Tatum's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search Review 19.org
Loading