- Charles Anthon: American Classicist by F. J. Sypher
Charles Anthon—professor of Greek at Columbia, where he taught for almost fifty years (1820–1868) and simultaneously Rector of the Columbia Grammar School (1830–1864) and editor, for Harper & Brothers, of a vast series of grammars, commentaries, and encyclopedias—was probably the best known and certainly the most prolific American classicist of the early nineteenth century. True, that period marks the nadir of classics in the English-speaking world, and many of Anthon’s books, useful in their day for teaching, were plagiarized from European works. Anthon defended himself on this charge both vigorously and disingenuously; but there was no international copyright law, and he surpassed others only in the extent of his plagiarism: book piracy was not unusual.
Anthon was an effective if harsh teacher. He pushed his pupils through recitation and translation of the required texts, gave good grades to those who regurgitated Anthon’s own (dictated) translations, smiled upon those who appreciated his jokes to the proper degree, and shamed the unprepared with merciless sarcasm. He also beat them when necessary. As a result, he appears to have been much loved, at least in retrospect, known (affectionately?) as “Bull” or “Pop” Anthon.
Anthon was born and died in New York and rarely left it; in the summer, he merely moved upstairs to catch the breeze. He lived in and for his work, at which he was extraordinarily conscientious. But his life had little incident, which makes the biographer’s task elusive. F. J. Sypher, a former student of Gilbert Highet (Anthon Professor of Latin), has carefully set out the evidence for Anthon’s life, teaching, and scholarship; he makes good use of writings (including novels) by Anthon’s students and colleagues and has mined Anthon’s (unfortunately small) surviving correspondence with Edgar Allan Poe and the available official records of city and college. He fills out the meager record with information about the broad context of family and city.
More could be said, however, to illuminate this world. Nineteenth-century Columbia was like its city: self-satisfied, conservative, commercial, and closed, ruled by an Anglo-Dutch oligarchy. The college had only five full-time faculty, all Columbia graduates and all linked by descent or marriage to the trustees of the college, who ran it with more concern for parsimony than for education. Anthon stands out because he was in fact good at his job and knew Latin and Greek very well.
The narrow and parochial American college (not just Columbia) was only beginning its metamorphosis in Anthon’s lifetime. Although Anthon was good for his day, he cannot compare with his counterpart in the next generation. Basil Gildersleeve became professor at Virginia in 1856 (at age 25); outgoing, eloquent, and a great scholar, renowned in his lifetime through the “Brief Mention” in the American Journal of Philology, of which he was the founding editor, he also wrote on nonclassical subjects and was, if the term is not anachronistic, a public intellectual. Anthon was not, and had no interest in the worlds outside upperclass New York and his own classroom. But the biggest gulf between them is that while Anthon could read (and plagiarize) German textbooks, Gildersleeve actually studied in Göttingen and Berlin with real scholars teaching serious seminars and doing real research; he brought (through his work at Johns Hopkins) Altertumswissenschaft [End Page 579] to the United States. Anthon and the Latin grammarian Philipp Wagner admired one another; what Anthon thought about the revolutionary work of Ritschl or Boeckh we can only guess. The first generations of Americans to study in Germany transformed American education forever, and seen from a modern perspective, Anthon looks like an aging and unpleasant dinosaur. But it is still worth gazing, albeit with a degree of horror, at a diorama of a world that is gone.