Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.16

Carl J. Richard, The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States.   Cambridge, Mass./London:  Harvard University Press, 2009.  Pp. xiii, 258.  ISBN 9780674032644.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Rudolph Masciantonio, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (
Word count: 1443 words

This book is a study of the influence of the Greek and Roman classics in the antebellum (i.e., post-Revolutionary War and pre-Civil War) United States. In describing this antebellum period as "the golden age" of the classics in America Richard contradicts the justly revered Meyer Reinhold, who designates the Revolutionary and Constitutional eras as "the golden age" in contrast to the early national and antebellum periods which are "the silver age". Richard wants to reverse the Reinhold's terminology and call the antebellum period "the golden age" and the founding era "the silver age". Richard says that the idolization of the founders has led Reinhold and others to think of the founders' age as "the golden age."

This book, which is one of several well-received works by Richard on classica Americana, has at least two overarching strengths. First of all, it is very reader-friendly. The author does not assume that the reader has background in Classics or American Studies. Rather he provides the background as needed in the text itself and in the copious endnotes. He anchors his narrative on well-known figures in antebellum America and gives the reader sufficient detail to appreciate the way the classics interacted in important ways with these figures. Secondly, he breaks new scholarly ground in many ways by examining the role of classics in areas and arenas that are new and different from what has been done in any detail in past scholarship for this period. He looks, for example, at the influence of the classics among women and African-Americans. He examines the influence of the classics in such areas as nationalism, romanticism, Christianity and slavery as well as the more familiar areas of influence such as education, and democracy.

In assessing Richard's treatment of specific topics, one sees that he marshals his evidence impressively and provides the reader with pertinent detail. He demonstrates, for instance, the contrasting role of the classics in the founders' era and in the antebellum period. He sees antebellum Americans in all sections of the country continuing to use the classics in the same way as the founding generation had used them, viz., as favored source of symbols, knowledge, and ideas (p. x). But Richard shows how the influence of the classics in the antebellum period expanded beyond the narrow confines of the eastern aristocratic elite, affecting new economic classes and geographical regions and how new groups of people were trained in the classics for the first time in America.

Also, Richard discusses a new pedagogy that greatly increased students' appreciation of the classics. The masterpieces of Greek and Roman literature were interpreted in a wider historical and inspirational context rather than as "a series of pegs on which to hang grammatical rules" as was done previously (p. xi). The expansion of classical interest beyond ancient political history to include classical mythology, as found in Greek drama and Roman poetry, gave people greater connection to the classics than had previously been possible.

Richard provides full treatment of the classical curriculum in the antebellum era and describes what he calls The New Hellenism developing during it. Institutions put more emphasis on the Greek heritage. However, while Greek became a more equal partner with Latin in the classical curriculum during the antebellum period, Latin was not displaced, and Americans retained a deep interest in Roman history and culture (p.17). He also gives thorough treatment to the assaults on classical language requirements. He sees the utilitarians as attacking classical language requirements in schools and suffering as complete a defeat in their efforts as their predecessors in the colonial and revolutionary period had (p. 89). The "Yale Report" argued that a classical education was required to keep men from becoming too narrow and materialistic. Many defenses of classical education by noted authors and intellectuals appeared in the antebellum period, and Richard nicely summarizes these for the reader.

Richard treats in depth the dark side of classical influence in the antebellum United States, viz., the appeal of antebellum Southerners to the classics in support of slavery. Greeks and Romans owned slaves, and Aristotle defended the institution. Antebellum abolitionists drew upon the histories written by the ancients themselves to argue that slavery had been the greatest flaw of classical civilization (p. xii).

Richard gives us insights into antebellum politicians, who learned quickly that one way to appear erudite without seeming to be aristocratic was to praise Athenian democracy. The founders regarded the Roman republic as the greatest political model of antiquity and had feared the instability of democratic Athens. The antebellum generation by contrast embraced Athenian democracy (p. 46). Intriguingly Richard says that antebellum Americans saw Julius Caesar as a great villain responsible for the end of the revered Roman Republic. Richard says that perhaps the most interesting use of classical political theory in the antebellum period was John C. Calhoun's failed effort to save the Union through a modern adaptation of mixed government theory. In this he drew heavily from Aristotle, Cicero, Polybius, and Livy. Calhoun argued that each "major interest" in a society must possess a veto. He wanted a dual executive consisting of one northern and one southern president (pp. 73-82). Calhoun's failure was the product not of a decline in American classicism but of its transformation. (p. 82). Richard provides insights into how Americans of the antebellum period saw their expanding nation as a new empire that would exceed the past empires of Athens and Rome in size and in fidelity to democratic principles (p. 105). Rome was seen as a model of expansionist nationalism.

Richard's insightful treatment of the romantics as pro-classics is based on their adherence to the Platonic evaluation of intuition over reason and experience. While the romantics rejected a rigid adherence to classical laws, they embraced the "classical spirit" as manifested in the Greeks' and Romans' closeness to nature and nonconformity (p. 125). In this connection his discussion of Emerson and the classics is particularly copious. He sees the Transcendentalists as valuing classical mythology for its passion and mysticism while the American founders revered the more rational elements of classical literature such as history and political theory. Richard cites many fascinating and important connections between the romantics and the classics. For instance, both Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle and Homer's Odysseus are absent from their homes for twenty years. Each returns to a dog outside his home. Herman Melville bases his Ahab in Moby Dick partially on Prometheus. Just as Prometheus defies Zeus, so Ahab defies God. Richard discusses the use of many Latin and Greek poets in Poe's famous "The Raven" as well as Poe's ode "To Helen". Richard's treatment of romanticism is a treasure trove for the student of American literature seeking to fathom its debt to the Greeks and Romans.

Richard treats thoroughly the love-hate relationship between Christianity and the classics that had existed since the beginning of Christianity and continued in antebellum America. Charles Sumner, an educator and scholar who cherished the classics, critiqued in detail the faults in Greco-Roman ethics as did others. Richard's quotations from these critics add to the vividness of the account. For instance, he quotes Thomas Grimke as asking: "As for their morals, who would be willing to have a son or brother like. . .the mean and treacherous Aeneas, the hero of the Aeneid, if indeed it has a hero?" (p. 165). Emerson, Hawthorne, Horace Mann, and Elizabeth Peabody are cited as defenders of classical morality.

Richard points out that just as antebellum southerners used the Bible in defense of slavery they appealed to the classics as well. Advocates of slavery viewed Athens as an ideal society in which the labor of slaves made political equality among the citizens possible. If Athens was the social model of most southern advocates of slavery, Aristotle was their favored spokesman. Most abolitionists responded that slavery was Athens' greatest flaw. The emotional hold of the classics remained, despite the antebellum debate on slavery. Mark Twain, an antislavery southerner, considered Greco-Roman slavery a painful embarrassment to be ignored, much as an adoring son of an alcoholic father might wish to dismiss his father's bouts of drunkenness as an aberration (p. 202).

I think that Richard's book has many strengths. There are no real weaknesses, though one might occasionally want a more precise definition or description of some of the terminology, e.g., classical pastoralism or Transcendentalism. Also one might want to know how Richard reached the conclusions that he did in discussing modern times. I hope that this engaging book will be widely read. It will help remedy what I perceive to be the widespread ignorance of the role and importance of the classical heritage in America.

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