- The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Home, and the Antebellum United States
A professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Carl J. Richard has written many books on the importance of classical antiquity to the historical development of American culture. In this approachable, information-rich, and useful book, Richard takes the reader on a brisk and thoughtful tour of the numerous ways that the classics informed and also shaped the intellectual and cultural life of the antebellum United States. Scholars of the period will have frequent reason to consult and search through this work, filled as it is with a tantalizing assortment of thinkers making distinct uses of the classics and instances in which the classics seemed almost to have an independent life of their own in the shaping of American identity.
While the importance of classical Rome to the nation's founders has been amply documented, what remains less discussed and, if anything, even more interesting is the turn to ancient Greece—"the Greek Revival"—in the antebellum period. In the first chapter, "Classical Conditioning," Richard discusses the impact of the classics on education, home life, and society. One of the biggest shifts was that American educators had increasing access to classical grammar books, anthologies, and dictionaries actually produced in the United States rather than Europe. Replacing the "despised," clunky, and generally unhelpful anthology the Graeca Majora, the English-language edition of Friedrich Jacobs's vastly superior Greek Reader became a widely used standard text. Another notable figure, Charles Anthon, a Columbia University professor of Greek and Latin who drew on German scholarship, published nearly fifty editions of classical texts (10). Enhancing the fervor of the "New Hellenism" was the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, which certainly caught the imaginations of many. (I don't believe that Richard mentions this, but one of the legendary tales attributed to Edgar Allan Poe about his own exploits was that he joined the Greek army in his youth, a story that has never been substantiated, to say the least.) One of the benefits of Richard's perspective is that the South doesn't get the short shrift [End Page 172] it so often does in cultural studies of nineteenth-century America. Richard sheds a great deal of light on the importance of the Greek revival to Southern culture, especially and unfortunately the slavocracy.
One of the notable moments in the study is Richard's discussion of the key role the classics played in the intergenerational life of families. He charts the importance of the classics to the Presidential family John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, and then to his grandson, George Washington Adams. Throughout, Richard's touch is subtle: "Masters continued to give their slaves classical names, though none named them Spartacus" (32). The classics seeped into every aspect of American culture, crossing class boundaries; foreign visitors were wonderstruck by the fluency with the classics evident even among yeoman laborers (40). As Richard observes, "[t]hroughout the nation, from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, state capitols, governors' mansions, courthouses, customs houses, colleges, banks, hotels, private homes, and even churches, synagogues, and jails were constructed in the neoclassical form" (35). The first major democracy of world history, fifth century BCE Athens loomed over the developing United States: "American statesman learned that they could make classical references before even the least educated audiences" and still be understood (41). Important to antebellum politicians, references to Athenian democracy allowed them to "appear erudite without seeming aristocratic" (46).
The classics also crossed gender and racial lines. The women of New Harmony, Indiana, formed the "Minerva Club," while free blacks also made use of the classics (38). Notable antebellum women ranging from abolitionists such as Lydia Maria Child to feminist author Margaret Fuller, and Southern women such as the playwright Louisa McCord and the bestselling novelist Augusta Jane Evans, all found the classics variously...