Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Classic Virginia Classics

As for me--the story of the last eighteen yeears has been evenetful as such a lapse of time must be eventful to every man who thinks--My path is thickly strewn with abandoned projjects, with hopeless failures; here and there a trivial success, all alaaong, I may say, with the traces of honest effort. ... Impatient in most things, I hace not been impatient of my obscurity. If I live long enough, I hope to do something for my proper sphere of work. If I do not--I am content.
So Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, in a letter of May 20th, 1873,  nearing the end of his 18-year career as Professor of Greek (really, "classics") at thee University of Virginia, reprinted in  The Letters of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (Ward Briggs, ed., 1987).  It's a career that makes a fit foil for the to the current uproar at the University of Virginia. where, it appears the "classics" still play an important, if obscure, role    Briggs fleshes out his account of the career in an essay, “Basil L. Gildersleeve at the University of Virginia,"  in a collection edited by Briggs and Herbert W. Bernario. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody hunkered down behind the defense line at the Virginia classics department today harbors copies of these close to his heart, to ward off incoming, and to remember an age almost incomprehensibly different from the present. 
Gildersleeve (and indeed, with him Virginia classics) appears by all accounts to be the very central-casting model of 19th-Century higher education: the son of a minister, he recalled as an adult that he had read the Gospel of John in Greek at the age of five, “and I have,” he said, “virtually thought in Greek ever since” (Letters 1). He got his classical education in Germany—then surely the best available. He came home, so it seems, in his early 20s already stern and austere—also, not least, a devoted Southerner who a few years later took a bullet for the Confederacy in the (ahem) War of Northern Aggression (Briggs said the wound “identified [Gildersleeve] for years to come as a symbol of broken Southern nobility”).

Gildersleeve came in time to play a pivotal, perhaps the pivotal, role in establishing classics as an academic discipline in the United States.  But much of his conspicuous work in the field cameto psass after he left Virginia for Johns Hopkins. His Virginia years evidently comprise largely the grubby and anonymous task of everyday teaching. “He was forced,” Briggs says, 
to prepare nearly 70 lectures 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.

In short, he appears to have lived his life in in an intellectual milieu which probably does not exist anywhere on the planet today. By way of backhanded summary and encomium, here is a comment from a review of his work on Gildersleeve's work in Greek syntax:

The acute observation, that the use of ἄν and κε in final constructions depends on the force of ὥς ὅπως, and ὄφρα as conditional relative or temporal adverbs explains much which before seemed inexplicable.”

--Quoted in John Vaio, “Gildersleeve the Syntactician,” in Briggs and Bernario, ed., at 37

Well, that's all right then. Basil Gildersleeve, the soul of Virginia classics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

my youngest son is a u of va grad, my three grandsons (sons of two harvard grads, plus a law degree from stanford, a masters from stanford, a law degree from g'town) chose Va over ivy league. except for rip-off crooked apartment renters in charlottesville it is a great school. and, it did the right thing -- it reinstated the defrocked president.