BMCR 2003.03.13

The Culture of Classicism. Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life 1780-1910

, The culture of classicism : ancient Greece and Rome in American intellectual life, 1780-1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. x, 244 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801867991. $49.95.

The title of Caroline Winterer’s new book puns on the word culture. The culture of classicism here includes both the individuals in society fostering classics as part of an intellectual pursuit and the refinement to be won from that pursuit. It is a clever gambit and opens up diverse paths of interpretation that allow Winterer, for example, to approach her subject as both a means (study) and an end (sophistication). What criticism I raise will not diminish the importance of her book to the study of the heritage of ancient Greece and Rome in the United States. The book makes in particular two significant contributions to the field: it expands the scope of inquiry beyond the opening decades of the nation’s history, where scholarly interest has tended to concentrate; and it shifts the focus from what has become familiar (the classicism of the founding fathers and the influence of nineteenth-century German scholarship) to what is less well-known (e.g. the classical curriculum, women readers of the classics, and the origins of the graduate program). Winterer’s main concern is the nineteenth-century classicist, and her study incorporates the work of Meyer Reinhold and others on classicism in the revolutionary and early national periods into recent historical analyses of American higher education. Her book is eminently readable and largely convincing, with much of interest to historians of American intellectual life and classicists, especially those teaching at American universities and colleges. It is the latter audience at whom the present review is aimed, for this book is in large part about them, America’s classical scholars.1

In the main, Winterer investigates how and why classical scholars came to be the sole guardians of a tradition that played a central role in the intellectual and civic life of the United States through the revolutionary and antebellum eras, only to recede after the Civil War into the ivory tower of an increasingly more specialized university. Absent, however, in the present study is any theory of decline as, for example, in Reinhold’s notion of a “Golden” (1760-90) and “Silver Age” (1790-1830) in the influence of the classics on American public policy and debate.2 Winterer is less interested in measuring influence and more intent on finding the place of the classical heritage in American society and on interpreting its function there. She argues for a “transformation” over the course of the nineteenth century in America’s relationship to classical antiquity. According to her “story of transformation,” by the early twentieth century classicism had ceased to be a meaningful part of the civic-minded citizen’s life and become an occupation for the academy, a province of recondite learning for the sake of the “culture” it could offer and intellectually at odds with the widespread materialism of a modernizing America.

At the end of the first chapter, “Antiquity in the new Nation,” Winterer points out that the criticisms of classicism launched at the end of the eighteenth century by the likes of such political heavyweights as Ben Franklin and Tom Paine neither attacked the relevance of the study of Latin and Greek to life in America nor did anything to dislodge it from the college curriculum. Yet in the next chapter, “The Rise of Greece,” she shows that in the early nineteenth century classicists began to alter not only what was being taught but also the way they were teaching it. She argues that this change was not a reaction to outside criticism, but came from classicists themselves, from a battle going on within the discipline that has been largely ignored by scholars of American higher education. We learn here about how classicists began to transform themselves from peddlers of forms and syntax into proponents of a more holistic approach to learning (and living) classical culture. They shifted their focus from Rome to Athens, from the narrow and particular (grammar and rhetoric) to the comprehensive and general (literature, religion, art, history, and philosophy), from the English-Scottish model to the German one, directly imported from those towers of continental “Wissenschaft” Goettingen, Tuebingen, and Heidelberg.

In the third chapter, “From Words to Worlds,” Winterer examines what this commitment to exploring ancient culture in its entirety meant for American society. She argues that as America became more secular, more diverse, and, ultimately, more democratic (a compelling reason for the newfound attraction to Athens!), classicism began to take root in a less aristocratic segment of society than before. As their audience broadened, classical scholars expanded the kinds of texts they read to include, for example, Homer and the tragedians. They promoted the ancients, especially the Greeks, as models for moral and spiritual transformation of the self, or what they called “self-culture.” Already in the antebellum period, according to Winterer, classicists began to conceive of classicism as “an antidote to modern materialism and civic degeneracy.” (p. 98)

The fourth and longest chapter, “Classical Civilization Consecrated, 1870-1910,” analyzes the fate of classicism in a new era in American history that witnessed the rise of a modern university bent on training scientists, engineers, and professionals in business. As attacks on the non-remunerative value of classicism mounted, classicists began to take a more daring approach to defining what they do. Rather than arguing for the “usefulness” of Latin and Greek as they had done in the past, they presented classicism as an alternative to the materialism surrounding them. Knowledge of classical antiquity was supposed to provide a means to moral and spiritual edification, or, as Winterer has it, “it offered culture … the end product of self-culture was to be cultured.” (p. 110) She traces this change in strategy back to the invention of the “humanities” in the mid-nineteenth century, when classicists redeployed the concept of “humanitas” from the Renaissance “to describe a kind of elevating, holistic study of literature, music, and art.” (p. 117) The humanities made their way into the academy as part of a new curriculum of “liberal arts,” with classics at the core. Via the liberal arts curriculum classicists managed to secure for themselves a place in the modern university, but the cost was dear: “the civically oriented classicism of the Revolutionary and antebellum eras now faded, replaced by classicism as the road to internal self-perfection rather than a forum for public participation.” (p. 142)

In the fifth and final chapter, “Scholarship versus Culture, 1870-1910,” Winterer pursues the notion of “becoming cultured” through classics under the rubric of what she calls “cultivated erudition.” She tracks the struggle between the specialist and the non-specialist as played out, above all, on the archaeological front in the early 1880s with the founding of the American Institute of Archaeology, its first dig at Assos, and the opening of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She also analyzes the beginnings of professional classicism and that peculiarly American conundrum, the graduate program in classics. Although many of those involved early on were committed to producing well-rounded classicists fit to communicate with specialist and non-specialist alike, Winterer concludes that “implicit in the new structure of American higher education was the idea that erudition must necessarily divide knowledge into popular and expert kinds.” (p. 178) She closes her book with a brisk epilogue wherein she suggests that the elitism traditionally associated with classicism has placed it at odds with the egalitarianism ever more characteristic of the modern university and American society at large.

Winterer’s prose moves swiftly and with punch, and she displays an easy familiarity with her subject matter. Her discussions of certain scholarly projects that animated classicists in the nineteenth century (the Homeric question [84-92], discovering the Greeks through archaeology [e. g. at Assos 163-70]) are well-informed and diverting. Most importantly, she accomplishes what she sets out to do and provides an answer for how and why “the classical world quite rapidly receded from its important position in American intellectual and civic life, pooling instead in the esoteric byways of elite, high culture, where it remains today.” (p. 1) She suggests that behind the question of culture (and ultimately class, i.e., elite vs. non-elite) lies a problem of ethos, and she shows, convincingly and without sentimentality or condescension, that in a largely materialistic and anti-intellectual society the only place left for the classics was the ivory-towered redoubt of liberal arts colleges and universities where they could contribute to making Americans cultured. I may raise some doubts, however, about the notion of “becoming cultured,” or more generally about Winterer’s use of the term “culture” (and its relatives “cultured,” “cultivated”). I return to the pun I mentioned at the outset on the different meanings of culture (fostering an idea, the individuals pursuing it, and the refinement won from the pursuit). Again, it adds a witty twist to Winterer’s title and serves to focus her interpretive gaze throughout the book. But I wonder whether she has not created out of “culture” a hermeneutic monster, a convenient catchall that blurs, to an excessive degree, the distinction between what classicism is (an intellectual pursuit) and why we pursue it (high-culture). I find it hard to accept Winterer’s answer to “why” here, even if we understand, as she does, that “being cultured” means more than having good manners and involves a kind of moral and spiritual edification. Simply put, this fails to jibe with my own reasons for becoming a classicist, and I fear that on this point Winterer has placed too much confidence in the semantic vigor of a single word. Doing classics for culture rings hollow and risks missing the capacity of ancient Greece and Rome to inform and fascinate the intellect directly. Overall, however, Winterer convinces, and her book makes a good read.3


1. Winterer, 1: “Curiously, for all the debates about the degree to which classical ideals shaped the ideology of the American Revolution, no one has systematically investigated the group of Americans who knew most about the classical world: classical scholars. This study focuses on those scholars and on the intellectual world they helped to create in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” Often these scholars remain nameless, as in evidence from the contributions of “anonymous” that Winterer digs out of various literary journals of the nineteenth century, pp. 61, 72, 93.

2. Among scholars of American history, Reinhold’s terms never seem to have caught on and were singled out for criticism by R. A. Ferguson, CP 82 (1987) 85-89, in his otherwise positive review of Reinhold’s important collection of essays, Classica Americana (Detroit 1984).

3. The book is handsomely produced and free from error, with an exemplary eight-page Index.