BMCR 2022.11.15

Edgar J. Goodspeed: America’s first papyrologist

, , Edgar J. Goodspeed: America's first papyrologist. California classical studies, 8. Berkeley: California Classical Studies, 2021. Pp. 178. ISBN 9781939926142 $34.95.

Edgar Johnson Goodspeed is perhaps best remembered as a pioneering Biblical scholar, a man whose “American translation” of the New Testament provoked lively controversy at the time of its 1923 release. Less widely known—but no less important when assessing his legacy—are Goodspeed’s forays into papyrology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Todd Hickey and James Keenan broach precisely this subject in their study of Goodspeed’s early career, providing a valuable, meticulously researched account of Goodspeed’s papyrological endeavors. The authors know the stakes are high. For, as their subtitle states, their book tells the story of “America’s first papyrologist.”

The strength of Hickey and Keenan’s work lies in the authors’ focus on archival material. Central to their research are the Edgar J. Goodspeed Papers at the University of Chicago, and especially two sources therein: an unpublished autobiographical manuscript entitled “Abroad in the Nineties,” and a compilation of documents labelled “Student Travel Letters vol. 2” (volume 1 has regrettably vanished). But the authors also consult sources outside the Goodspeed papers, ranging from Chicago newspapers to archival repositories outside Chicago to Goodspeed’s published works, and much in between. The authors make no claim of providing a full account of Goodspeed’s life; accordingly, the present work will only partially supersede Goodspeed’s 1953 autobiography, As I Remember. What Hickey and Keenan do provide, however, is the story of Goodspeed’s studies and travels in the period from 1896–1900, the most significant phase of his career from a papyrological standpoint.

And it is a fascinating story indeed. Goodspeed was still a doctoral student at the University of Chicago when he first encountered a Greek papyrus: a mathematical text belonging to Edward Ayer, first president of the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago. The papyrus was fortuitously housed on the University of Chicago campus when Goodspeed learned of its existence, seemingly in late 1896 (in their Appendix A, Hickey and Keenan discuss this troublesome date in detail). As he edited the “Ayer papyrus,” Goodspeed turned to acquiring his own collection of papyri, ordering a batch of documentary texts straight from Egypt, sight unseen. Editing pieces from his private collection would win him several publications in subsequent years. In September of 1898, just months after the conferral of his doctoral degree, Goodspeed embarked on a voyage to Europe and the Middle East, an experience which would significantly deepen his exposure to papyrology and afford the opportunity to expand his private collection. His time abroad lasted longer than expected; the young American did not return to the States until August of 1900, now feeling somewhat burned out on papyrology (p. 115).

Throughout the story of Goodspeed’s graduate education and travels abroad, the reader encounters an exceptionally rich cast of characters: the likes of James Henry Breasted, Wallis Budge, J. Rendel Harris, Frederic G. Kenyon, and Flinders Petrie, among others. Goodspeed took pleasure in rubbing shoulders with these luminaries of the scholarly community, boasting at one point that, just as he had “bagged” Kenyon and Budge, he would soon catch Petrie “like Proteus… when he emerges to look at his exhibition at University College” (p. 26). It is worth noting that, years later, Goodspeed remained proud of these early professional connections, recalling with obvious pride while penning his memoirs that no less a figure than Basil Gildersleeve had consented to publish his article on the Ayer papyrus.[1]

But Goodspeed’s most influential allies in these years were Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt—especially Grenfell, who gives the impression of being somewhat warmer toward the young American than was Hunt. In 1897, as Goodspeed worked on the Ayer papyrus, he had written to Grenfell seeking his advice; Grenfell had graciously obliged. Then, while traveling abroad, Goodspeed arranged (at Kenyon’s urging) to meet both Grenfell and Hunt in person in July of 1899 (p. 27). By this time the two papyrologists, already famous for their work at Oxyrhynchus, were preparing to excavate at Tebtunis. Grenfell enthusiastically sought to enlist Goodspeed’s help in the task of deciphering and editing the papyri they expected to uncover; Hunt went along with this offer of collaboration, though without matching Grenfell’s enthusiasm (p. 29). Goodspeed, for his part, at times doubted his own abilities were up to the task (p. 32), but at other times felt sufficiently emboldened to muse that he would only assist Grenfell and Hunt on the condition that they “take me in on the level”—meaning, presumably, that they credit him as an editor (p. 49). In the end, Goodspeed could not resist the offer of collaboration. While at Oxford in the summer of 1900, he devoted considerable effort to what would become the second volume of the Tebtunis papyri. But when P.Tebt. II finally appeared in print in 1907, editor status was granted to Grenfell and Hunt alone, “with the assistance of Edgar J. Goodspeed.”

One presumes this came as a professional disappointment to Goodspeed. But Hickey and Keenan already detect Goodspeed’s flagging enthusiasm for papyrology by late July 1900, when references to his work on the papyri become rather less prevalent in his correspondence (p. 108). This change conspicuously occurs just after a meeting with Grenfell and Hunt in which, Goodspeed felt, the duo had uttered less than flattering words about his own papyrological abilities. While the next decade of Goodspeed’s life would yield the American several publications of papyrus texts, his papyrological scholarship all but ceases after 1910. “Whatever the reasons,” write Hickey and Keenan, “Goodspeed’s effective withdrawal from the field meant that the seeds of papyrology sown in Chicago… had fallen on the stony ground” (p. 119). The great center of American papyrology would ultimately emerge not at Chicago, but in Ann Arbor.

The virtues of Hickey and Keenan’s book are many. For instance, their work augments our knowledge of the careers of individual antiquities dealers at the turn of the century, several of whom rubbed shoulders with Goodspeed during his travels abroad. Hagen and Ryholt have recently produced a valuable study of the antiquities trade in Egypt, including a prosopography of antiquities dealers; the preface to their work expresses the “hope that others will continue the work that we have begun here.”[2] By documenting Goodspeed’s interactions with dealers like Farag Ismaïn and Michel Kasira, Hickey and Keenan ably live up to the task (p. 44 n. 51; p. 46 n. 60; p. 69 nn 4–5; p. 72 n. 11).

Throughout the book, Hickey and Keenan quote liberally from primary sources. This is an important feat in itself, given that most of their sources remain unpublished; reading their book almost amounts to a trip to the archives. If the writing style at times feels somewhat condensed—a large section of the book is deliberately styled as a series of diary entries (pp. 79–107)—this comes in the service of achieving great clarity, which in turn increases the book’s utility as a reference work.

On the other hand, the authors devote little space in the main text to anything beyond raw biographical narrative and quotation of sources. Key themes of the book, such as Goodspeed’s status as the first American papyrologist, pass by quickly in the flurry of quotations; when the authors use their own voice to characterize Goodspeed, they usually do so in the footnotes.[3] Yet this is a deliberate choice by the authors, who treat their footnotes almost as a commentary on the “edition” of primary source quotations in their main text. “This is a papyrologist’s practice that is hard to shed,” the authors concede (p. ix). The approach is not without merit, but some points deserving the reader’s attention risk getting lost in the mass of detail.

These reflections in no way detract from this most successful work of scholarship. Hickey and Keenan’s work has taught me much I did not already know. I in turn can find little that the authors have overlooked in their thorough research. One document worth mentioning here (which I intend to present in future work) is a letter from J. R. Alexander dated December 21, 1896, containing the original offer to sell the texts which ultimately constituted Goodspeed’s first acquisition of papyri. Hickey and Keenan already suspected an 1896 date for such dealings (pp. 16, 122), but it seems likely that this message from Egypt would not have reached Chicago until early 1897.

A brief word on matters of production. The publisher offers this book as a print-on-demand paperback. If this form of publication entails any drop in a book’s physical quality, it appears minimal in this case. Text and images are both of sufficient clarity. Best of all, the publisher offers an open-access digital version of the book. The full text can already be viewed in a web browser, while a PDF version will be available for download beginning December 9, 2023. This is much commended.

Through their deft archival research, Hickey and Keenan have delivered a work of tremendous originality touching many areas of scholarship, ranging from papyrology and its origins, to the history of the antiquities trade, to the institutional history of the University of Chicago. The result is a book that not only tells a fascinating story, but also promises to serve as a fundamental tool of reference.



[1] Goodspeed, E. J. 1953. As I Remember. New York: Harper, p. 100.

[2] Hagen, F. and Ryholt, K. 2016. The Antiquities Trade in Egypt 1880-1930: The H.O. Lange Papers (Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica, 4, vol. 8). Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, p. 7.

[3] E.g., the footnotes remark on “the sense that Goodspeed craved a respite from papyri” (p. 115 n. 44), and on Goodspeed’s affinity for the phraseology the King James Bible (pp. 27–28 n. 89), and on the “emotional twists and turns” of his work on his “Andromeda” papyrus (p. 87 n. 76).