To Understand Ourselves
August 27, 2009 |  by Michael Dirda

What we can still learn from Basil Gildersleeve..soldier, citizen, scholar, and the first teacher hired at Johns Hopkins University.

At the age when most of us were still parsing our Little Golden Books edition of The Poky Little Puppy, or hesitantly pronouncing the three syllables of “Run, Spot, Run,” Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve—all of 5 years old— was reading the Bible from cover to cover and practicing his Latin and Greek. Like the famously precocious John Stuart Mill, young Gildersleeve was home-schooled by his busy father, the publisher of a religious newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina.

By the time he was 13, Gildersleeve was turning Anacreon into English verse, had “got through” Caesar, Sallust, Cicero, Virgil, and Horace, and knew Greek well enough “to make out the New Testament.” In his spare time he read the plays of Corneille, Racine, and Molière—in French, of course—and devoured Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. It’s little wonder that such an extraordinary little boy grew up to become an even more extraordinary man.

Ask any teacher of Latin or Greek to name America’s greatest classical scholars and at the head of the list will be Basil Gildersleeve (1831–1924). When Johns Hopkins University was still little more than an excellent idea, its founding president, Daniel Coit Gilman, poached the middleaged Gildersleeve from the University of Virginia, making him his first hire. While teaching in Baltimore from 1876 until his retirement in 1915, this distinguished teacher trained dozens of classicists, established the American Journal of Philology, and exemplified the kind of deep, deep humanistic learning that is so rare today.

Yet this Johns Hopkins eminence wasn’t just some dry-as-dust pedant. In the course of his long life, Gildersleeve never shirked his duties as a soldier, a citizen, and a public intellectual. As a young man, he fought on horseback during the Civil War, defended the South in scores of fiery political editorials in the Richmond Examiner, and throughout his career contributed articles to popular magazines about education, history, and culture. In everything he wrote, Gildersleeve brought to bear an engaging style as well as undisputed scholarly authority and his own lived experience. When this veteran lectured, he could knowledgeably compare ancient accounts of men in battle with the contemporary reality of Civil War firefights. When he wrote for a general audience, he could just as readily produce delightful and genial essays, including one speculating about the stressful home life of Socrates and his wife, Xanthippe.

Gildersleeve began his academic career at the age of 14 when he trundled off to what is now Washington and Jefferson College, where he spent a year before transferring to Princeton. He was, to say the least, underimpressed by both schools, judging the classes dull and his teachers shallow and pedestrian. At Princeton, he put forth the minimum amount of effort: “I gave a couple of hours to my classes each day, and then ho! for the wide field of literature—English, French, German, Italian, Spanish.” Despite all this “multifarious, jubilant reading” for pleasure, he still managed to graduate fourth in a class of 79. He was 19.

For a while, Gildersleeve considered becoming a journalist or littérateur (to use his own word). He certainly never forgot that time in Richmond when he actually glimpsed Edgar Allan Poe, dressed in black, “closely buttoned up, erect, forward looking, something separate in his whole bearing.” He even heard him recite “The Raven” in a local hotel: Poe’s “voice was pleasant. There was nothing dramatic about his recitation. . . . He was sensitive to the music of his own verses; and that was the element he emphasized in his delivery.”

Though he would dabble in poetry and essay writing throughout his life, Gildersleeve initially took a job in Charleston teaching Latin and Greek at a private school run by—such a wonderful name—Socrates Maupin. But he soon decided to save up his money and travel to Germany, the home of his hero Goethe. Originally he seems to have intended something of a grand European tour, like that of the protagonist in his (no doubt wisely) unfinished novel, “Schlaufhausen: or, One Year of Mr. Alfred Thistledown’s Life.” While study would naturally be part of Gildersleeve’s continental jaunt, he never quite expected it to lead to his becoming a trained classical philologist, an expert on the grammar and syntax of Greek and Latin.

During the 19th century Germany was the undisputed intellectual capital of the Western world, especially for classics and philosophy. If British scholarship displayed what Gildersleeve called an “airy donnishness” and French learning charmed with its “elegance,” the Germans stood for “thoroughness.” In Berlin, Gildersleeve paid reverent homage to August Boeckh, whom he regarded as “the greatest living Hellenist.” This renowned savant proved to be socially inept and even rude, but the visiting American nonetheless decided to remain in Berlin to study with him and his colleagues. Despite his own prodigious learning, Gildersleeve felt himself “wretchedly equipped.”

In his pedagogy, Boeckh stressed that solid scholarship was founded on mastering minutiae—such as a poet’s distinctive grammar and syntax—and then using that particularized knowledge as a springboard to the overall understanding of an entire subject. For example, one should first study intently a single period of history and from there “gradually broaden out in all directions.” In the case of philology, explained Boeckh, “by sinking deep into the particular, one most easily avoids the danger of becoming narrow, for, in consequence of the interrelation of disciplines, investigation in any particular field forces the student into many others.”

Gildersleeve adopted this inductive approach to learning. “Scrap knowledge is the bane of many scholars,” he once wrote. “Not to see a thing in its connections is not to see it all.” As late as 1896 he would note that “the teacher who does not rise from the particular to the universal . . . does not live up to the measure of his prophetic office.” Indeed, Gildersleeve’s profound understanding of syntax— the way sentences are put together—would present him with a miniature model for the interconnected structure of knowledge. Still, he always emphasized that the end of philological study is ultimately aesthetic: to better understand the Greek soul and to better appreciate the beauty of its literature.

During his three years in Germany, Gildersleeve studied first in Berlin and then in Göttingen—a city, according to the poet Heinrich Heine in his amusing travel book The Harz Journey, “celebrated for its sausages and University. . . . The inhabitants of Göttingen are generally and socially divided into Students, Professors, Philistines, and Cattle, the points of difference between these castes being by no means strictly defined. The cattle class is the most important.” Here, and then again later in Bonn, Gildersleeve worked 12-hour days, kept detailed notes of the lectures he attended, and only allowed himself Sundays for diversion, which might include flirting with the local beauties.

By now, though, the young American was enflamed by the great purpose of philology, of truly “finding out what the text was and what the text meant.” Gildersleeve composed his dissertation—in Latin—on the Homeric commentary of the Neoplatonist Porphyry, later wryly observing that “the ordinary doctor-dissertation is a thing to be written, not necessarily a thing to read.” Among his six formidable examiners was none other than the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. For the rest of his life Gildersleeve would keep a bust of his mentor Friedrich Ritschl on his desk. He would always remember Ritschl’s watchword, too: “Enthusiasm dwells only in specialization.”

After these three intensely studious years, Gildersleeve returned to the United States and, like all too many young PhDs, couldn’t find a decent job. He ended up working as a private tutor to a family in South Carolina, while also contributing the occasional article to the Southern Quarterly Review. His first, announcing a theme that would occupy him his whole life, was titled “The Necessity of the Classics.” Finally, after three years of somewhat desultory employment, in 1857 Gildersleeve was elected—through the influence of Socrates Maupin—professor of Greek at the University of Virginia.

This was no sinecure. According to Ward W. Briggs Jr., editor of Gildersleeve’s letters, the new teacher “was forced to prepare 70 lectures a semester with scant library facilities; he was forced to do his own primary reading, to do his own work without secondary literature or scholarly support; he was forced to cover all of Greek literature, language (at three levels), and Greek history each term, and for six years he had to do the same with Latin.” There was hardly time even to daydream about ambitious projects, such as a history of Greek life and culture in the second century A.D.

And after April 12, 1861, there would be even less time. On that day, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Gildersleeve’s hometown of Charleston. The War Between the States had begun.

In those days, Gildersleeve strongly regarded himself as “a man of the old South.” More precisely, he “was a Charlestonian first, a Carolinian next, and then a Southerner.” So when the war broke out, this Greek pedagogue had no doubt where he stood. As he was later to write in an essay on Pindar: “The man whose love for his country knows no local root, is a man whose love for his country is a poor abstraction.” Indeed, “take away this local patriotism and you take out all the color . . . in American life.” Gildersleeve firmly believed that the Confederacy was fighting for civil liberty, for the rights of the states against federal authoritarianism. Downplaying the issue of slavery, he maintained that the causes of the war could be reduced to a point of grammar: Was it “the United States is” or “the United States are”?

In a late essay “A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War,” Gildersleeve likens his own war to that of the ancient conflict between an imperialistic Athens and a confederacy made up of Sparta and allied city states. One Charlottesville student remembered that Gildersleeve regularly taught his pupils “to see the skies of Hellas in the azure of our own Virginia heavens . . . to see in Manassas and Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Appomattox an undying heroism akin to that of the Greeks.” Throughout his life, Gildersleeve would quietly remind his pupils that when he explicated Homer or Thucydides, he knew the true face of battle: “To those who have seen the midday sun darkened by burning homesteads, and wheat fields illuminated by stark forms in blue and gray, war is sufficiently concrete.”

Gildersleeve served the Confederacy in multiple ways: “The cause was one for which I wrote, prayed, fought, suffered.” During the academic year, he continued to teach at the University of Virginia, but in the summers he joined the local infantry or cavalry. He also contributed scores of rhetorically flamboyant editorials to the Richmond Examiner, some of which must now strike readers as shrill, embarrassing, and regrettable: He derided Lincoln’s “Yahoo coarseness” and referred to the Gettysburg Address as “a little joke,” complained about Jewish war profiteers, and hyperventilated about miscegenation. Most of these articles display what Gildersleeve called his “kaleidoscopic” style, mixing classical allusions and contemporary references, elevated diction and plain speaking. Insofar as the editorials reflect a patriotic loyalty to the South, one may forgive their intemperance, but I suspect that Gildersleeve wouldn’t have cared to see such journalism republished in his lifetime. (These Examiner articles, his later apologia pro vita sua, “The Creed of a Southerner,” and some related autobiographical pieces are now available in Soldier and Scholar, edited by Briggs.)

Such was Gildersleeve’s “desultory” wartime activity—until September 25, 1864. On that day, while he was serving under General John B. Gordon, a skirmish broke out at Weyer’s Cave, Virginia, and Gildersleeve was shot in the thigh by a bullet from a Spencer rifle. He nearly lost his leg. It took him five months to recover and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Years later, in Gordon’s wartime reminiscences, Gildersleeve was pleased to read that “he was a most efficient officer, and exhibited in extreme peril a high order of courage and composure. While bearing an order in battle he was desperately wounded and maimed for life.” The scholar claimed to be prouder of Gordon’s praise “than of any academic honors I had ever received.” There was, moreover, one unexpected benefit from his grievous wound: While recuperating, he met Elizabeth Fisher Colston, whom he married in 1866.

After the war, Gildersleeve continued to teach at Virginia, influencing students both in the classroom and through a series of Latin textbooks: He brought out Latin Grammar (1867), followed by Latin Exercise Book (1871), Latin Reader (1875), and Latin Primer (1875). During these years he also contributed articles to various magazines, publishing a biographical account of the Emperor Julian (known as the Apostate because he rejected Christianity and tried to restore paganism), an appreciation of the satirist Lucian, an overview of “The Legend of Venus,” and, not least, that humorous jeu d’esprit about Xanthippe and Socrates. Ugly, slovenly in his dress, shirking work to party with noisy and dissipated friends, generally shiftless and occasionally prey to weird philosophic trances—such is the famous philosopher from the viewpoint of his long-suffering wife. For Xanthippe, Socrates was little more than “an idler and lounger, a busybody in other men’s matters and strenuously negligent of his own.”

In 1875, after 20 years of teaching in Charlottesville, Gildersleeve accepted Daniel Coit Gilman’s offer to join the inaugural faculty of Johns Hopkins, a university designed to be a true graduate school for advanced research and study. At last, the now middle-aged Gildersleeve would have the chance to truly prove his worth. And so he did.

Gildersleeve would have taught on the original arts and sciences campus, located in downtown Baltimore. Here, Hopkins Hall, ca. 1885.

Gildersleeve would have taught on the original arts and sciences campus, located in downtown Baltimore. Here, Hopkins Hall, ca. 1885.

In his first year at Hopkins, Gildersleeve prepared lectures on Greek lyric poetry, led a seminar on Thucydides, and quietly complained to friends “that it requires good management to meet the demands of city life with my income.” He also began to put on weight, which he said “the ungodly will doubtless attribute to terrapin and oysters.” As his Hopkins graduate program grew ever more renowned and competitive for the best students, he complained that it had “roused Harvard to great activity and I must confess that I am somewhat concerned at this new evidence of her aggressiveness,” adding that “I am not Christian enough to rejoice at being thwarted.” As a Latinist, he regularly prepared what he called the “state papers” of Johns Hopkins—“resolutions on great occasions, tributes to deceased worthies, letters to other universities.”

In his spare time, Gildersleeve worked for years on a never-completed edition of Aristophanes’ Frogs “that was to have been illustrated by parallels from the annals of literary persiflage.” He also frequently complained of melancholia and laziness, and even when showered with honors would regularly say that he really “ought to have stuck to the newspaper vocation.” For pleasure he might read Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories or the “analytical novels” of William Dean Howells and Henry James. He did complain about these last that “while their heroes are taking a cup of tea an old-fashioned novelist would have his man commit all the seven deadly sins.”

Throughout his academic career, whether at Virginia or Johns Hopkins, Gildersleeve seldom interacted with his students outside the seminar room. Rigorous and demanding, formal in manner, he could sometimes even seem haughty (especially when young). Nonetheless, through his example and his profound knowledge of his subject, he could set minds ablaze with a passion for learning. In 1902, a festschrift of essays from 44 former students, published for their mentor’s 70th birthday, included contributors from, among other institutions, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Cornell, Union Theological Seminary, and Berkeley. By then, as the eminent Platonist Paul Shorey later observed, Gildersleeve had taken his place as the cisatlantic equal of Germany’s famously caustic Ulrich Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and England’s Sir Richard Jebb. ( Jebb, said Gildersleeve, was so nervous when he lectured that he “made a double spiral twist out of his legs” and would cast “from side to side an agonized stare at his auditors.”)

Yet Gildersleeve was never as highly productive as Jebb and Wilamowitz, and his most important publication remains a study of Pindar’s syntax. No, where he really shone was as the editor of the quarterly American Journal of Philology, which he founded in 1880 and edited for nearly 40 years. Though focused largely—and often minutely—on antiquity, its compass included articles on such topics as “The Evolution of the Lord’s Prayer in English,” the beginnings of the 18th-century heroic couplet, and the linguistic intricacies of Icelandic and Middle Scots. The contributors—an academic Who’s Who—ranged from Harvard’s great Shakespeare scholar George Lyman Kittredge to the wistful poet and sharp-tongued critic A.E. Housman.

For the most part, Gildersleeve reserved for himself a special column called “Brief Mention.” His pungent miniessays, seldom more than a page long, touched on new books and discoveries, ongoing controversies, the passing of famous scholars. He might discuss anything from an edition of “The Gathas of Zoroaster” to the indecipherability of his own handwriting. But more and more the editor allowed himself to grow positively “lawless” in using the column to comment on whatever attracted his wide-ranging mind. Above all, to the Schadenfreudlich delight of his readers, Gildersleeve regularly skewered shoddy scholarship:

“The best thing about Mr. Marshall’s Anabasis, Book I . . . seems to be the pleasantly written introduction. There is not a spark of novelty in the grammatical notes, and one is at a loss to understand what pleasure scholars can find in reediting such a well-worn book as the Anabasis is.”

“Dr. Jowett’s translations [of Plato and Thucydides], by reason of his peculiar conception of his task, withdraw themselves from philological criticism, and belong rather to the domain of English literature, which they undoubtedly adorn. He recasts his author rather than renders him, and there is no effort to reproduce the stylistic effect in English.”

Of an edition of the Isthmian Odes of Pindar, edited by J.B. Bury: “The most simple matters are stated with the air of one who sees a new planet swim into his ken, and the notes are loaded with statistics that are absolutely lacking point.”

As the years went by, Gildersleeve received deep personal gratification in seeing Americans—many of them his students—assume an ever more prominent place in classical scholarship and research. He himself periodically visited his counterparts in England and Germany, sometimes also stopping in Paris or taking a tour of Greece or the Italian lakes. (As he said in a letter, “All Europe is to an American of culture and reading a fairy land.”) In 1905 Gildersleeve was awarded honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, and in 1908 he was elected to the newly formed American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Gildersleeve remained healthy and productive into his mid-80s, when his hearing began to fail and cataracts increasingly clouded his vision. In his final years the “Mark Twain of Greek syntax,” as one German critic called him, regularly amused himself by composing sonnets in his head. Worn out by his debilities, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve finally died at 93 from pneumonia, caused by a bronchial infection, and was buried in Charlottesville. In the annals of Johns Hopkins his peers include only scholars and teachers of the greatest eminence, such as the distinguished physician William Osler and the renowned Dante authority Charles S. Singleton.

Yet what relevance does this pioneering scholar of Latin and Greek hold for the 21st century? In a volume of essays titled Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve: An American Classicist (edited by Briggs and Herbert W. Benario), Stephen Newmyer points out that Gildersleeve was arguing long ago that “a classical education exerted a humanizing influence, developed a force of continuity in historical perspective, made our own literature live through allusion, and inculcated syntactic exactness in its students.” Alas, as the great scholar himself ruefully noted, “The truly deplorable tendency of today is to break with the past altogether.” And yet, as Gildersleeve reminds us in his Essays and Studies, “we build on Greek lines of architecture; we march on Roman highways of law; we follow Greek and Roman patterns of political and social life. Not to understand these forces, these norms, is not to understand ourselves.”

Above all, Gildersleeve recognizes that the heritage of Greece and Rome is “inwrought in the structure of our history and our literature” and that “to disentwine the warp of the classics from the woof of our life is simply impossible.” In just the past hundred years, for instance, writers as various as James Joyce, Kenneth Grahame, Nikos Kazantzakis, Wallace Stevens, Derek Walcott, and the Coen Brothers have boldly reworked the timeless story of Odysseus.

In his own way, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve chose a hero’s path. He set for himself the highest possible standards, lived up to those standards in his life and work, and then inspired others to go and do likewise. What better legacy can any teacher leave?

Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize–winning book columnist for The Washington Post, is the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure.