He wrote one of the most distinctive and original prose styles of his time, paralleling the techniques of his Yankee contemporary, Henry James, anticipating those of Pound and Eliot. But he used that style to write Greek grammars and commentaries on obscure Greek and Latin poets and page after page of “brief mentions,” mini-reviews, of pedantic monographs. Like Browning’s Grammarian, he devoted his life to “settl[ing] Hoti’s business . . . and properly bas[ing] Oun,” but (an important difference) he never “decided not to Live but to Know.” He taught the first research seminar in America’s first research university (Johns Hopkins) and edited his field’s first scholarly journal, but he limped as he entered the seminar room from a wound he suffered while fighting for the South in the War of 1860-65. At a time when graduate education was not usually available for women, he opened his seminar to the ambitious M. (=Martha) Gary Thomas, the future president of Bryn Mawr College (most famous for her boast, “Only our failures marry“). Yet he reprinted his diatribe against Reconstruction and wrote an impassioned defense of the Southern cause for the Atlantic as late as the 1890’s.
Now nine classical scholars have written essays in celebration of B.L. Gildersleeve. This is the first book devoted to him, and these essays tell us why. The study of Gildersleeve requires expertise in Greek philology, the history of education in the United States, the social and political history of America on either side of the Civil War, the development of American literature, to name only some of the more important topics. In addition, we feel that envious emotion Pericles described in the Funeral Oration: we find it hard to believe that the men of the past were so superior to our contemporaries.
Yet the Gildersleeve archive at Johns Hopkins, now at last cataloged and cross-referenced, lures the scholar. In his own day, before World War I, Gildersleeve was a towering figure. European scholars put meetings with him in their memoirs. In our time, he survives as a scholarly presence, yes, but more, as a symbol of the possibility of combining scholarly achievement and creative spark, of being a successful teacher and also a brave and independent man. While so many fields in the humanities seem to have lost their moorings, some of America’s classicists have not forgotten where they came from. Following Yeats’s injunction, they “cast their minds on other days, that we in future days may be” creative and vital.
[Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve: An American Classicist, edited by Ward W. Briggs Jr. and Herbert W. Benario; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press]