Gilbert Highet and Classics at Columbia
Most eloquent among the sons of Scotland, educated at Glasgow and Oxford, you have for the last forty years enriched the world of classical letters with the richness of your scholarship. You have been at once a support and an ornament to humane learning in this, your adopted country. Generations of Columbia students can testify to the scope of your erudition and the precision of your wit. In nearly a score of booksdoctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis [from Catullus 1, meaning learned, Jupiter, and full of labor]you have charted the enduring forms and themes of literature, with a spirit as indefatigable as it is passionate. A Varro in learning, a Cicero in eloquence, you have not only defended the vitality and grace of the classical tradition, you have also embodied it. So spoke President William McGill 70HON at the spring 1977 commencement in awarding Gilbert Highet the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters for his stellar achievements as a world-class educator. Indeed, during his long and warm association with Columbia, Highet became the most famous classical scholar in the United States, with a career that streaked through the sky like a blazing comet. Consummate teacher, author, and literary critic, he used the classroom, his publications, and the electronic media to bring the classical world to the specialist and the general public. For countless thousands who had never studied the classical languages, he breathed new life and meaning into the literary masterpieces bequeathed to posterity by the Greeks and Romans.
Highets defining moment (professionally) came in 1937, when Columbia hired him as a visiting associate on a one-year appointment. President Nicholas Murray Butler had originally (albeit unsuccessfully) attempted to recruit Maurice Bowra for the position, which carried with it an attractive salary. In declining the offer, Bowra allegedly informed Butler that he (Butler) would never be able to lure an Englishman to America but that he might well be able to lure a Scotsman for the money. When the Scotsman arrived at Columbia, he joined a classics faculty that included LaRue Van Hook, Wilbert Carr, Clinton Keyes, William Dinsmoor, and William Westermann. In 1938, within one year of accepting the temporary appointment, Highet became Professor of Greek and Latina remarkable accomplishment for a man who was just turning 32. Highet came to realize that during the 1930s American classical studies had suffered serious damage, partly brought on by the social and economic upheavals that followed World War I. In the painful aftermath of the Great Depression, classicists witnessed the onslaught of educational reform that banished Greek and Latin from the center of the liberal arts curriculum. Convinced that classics needed a fresh direction to survive this assault, he worked with Moses Hadas 30GSAS, then an untenured member of the faculty, on revitalizing the humanities program. In Humanities A, where Columbias freshmen read the classical works in English translation, Highet kept his pupils on the edge of their seats in his early days on Morningside Heights.
Highets American career was just beginning to soar when he was called up to serve in the British Army at the outbreak of World War II. From 1941 to 1946 (on leave from Columbia) he served in the British Mission to the United States, in the British Intelligence Center in New York, and in the British Zone of occupied Berlin. Under Sir William Stephenson, the Canadian special operations executive, he carried out many missions, shrouded in mystery over the decades by the British Official Secrets Act. During the war he pioneered the art of preparing psychological profiles of Nazi leaders such as Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, and Himmlerbased on his psychoanalysis of Roman emperors. With limited information about his German subjects, he succeeded in predicting their behavior under different circumstances, in documents regarded as highly significant in those days. As America armed herself for battle, he shuttled between New York and Washington, and traveled to Canada and South America and Great Britain on military airplanes and ocean liners. On the shores of Lake Ontario, in a secret Canadian training facility, he prepared the first draft of the recently released volume The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas. As a member of the British Army of Occupation, he entered the smoldering remains of Hitlers bunker and became responsible for helping to recover the gold reserves hidden by the Nazis. During the war he also completed his three-volume translation from the German of Werner Jaegers Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, still the classic model of the translators art.
When Highet returned to the United States in the summer of 1946, he left his duties as a lieutenant colonel to take up those of a college professor. Although he had offers at the end of the war to pursue a more lucrative career, he turned them down to resume teaching at Columbiaa decision that he claimed he never regretted. He regarded the ex-soldiers who came in on the GI Bill as highly intelligent and remarked that in those postwar years he got from his students almost as much stimulus as he gave them. In full bloom as a teacher and scholar, he became Anthon Professor of the Latin Language and Literature in 1950 and an American citizen in 1951, committed to his adopted homeland. He continued to strengthen instruction in the humanities with his colleague Moses Hadas, who himself became Professor of Greek and Latin in 1953, then Jay Professor of Greek in 1956. In the spring of 1953 Oxford University asked Highet to allow his name to be entered as a candidate for the Corpus Professorship of Latin, which would open at the end of that academic year. He wrote to President Grayson Kirk 53hon that although he had aspired to that position for many years, he would not permit his name to be submitted because Columbia had treated him so well. Devoted to Columbia and to the students whom he found so stimulating, Highet taught the Greek and Roman classics on a campus that featured an exceptional liberal arts professoriate. He belonged to a faculty that included such luminaries as Mark Van Doren 21GSAS 60HON, Lionel Trilling 25C 38GSAS, and Jacques Barzun 27C 32GSAS, who all helped enhance Columbias reputation in the nation and the world.
A legendary teacher
When Gilbert Highet entered the classroom, one felt as though the curtain were going up on a Broadway play, with a living legend in the lead. He reminded students (not surprisingly) of a British Army officer of the kind portrayed by Jack Hawkins in motion picturestall, erect, handsome, clean-shaven, and impeccably dressed. He consistently gave his audience a commanding performance, whether he spoke or sang or stood or walked, with a presence comparable to that of Laurence Olivier or John Houseman. With his Scottish-English burr and his riveting, rapid-fire delivery, he dazzled students with his dynamic lectures, brilliant in their organization and brimming with critical insights. The inspired anecdotes, the poignant pauses, and the sudden bursts of laughter formed part of a magnificent, comprehensible structure that gripped the heart and held one spellbound. He loved Vergil and taught the Aeneid (in the original Latin) every year to packed classes; he loved his darling Juvenal and the Roman satirists for exposing decadence and corruption. He detested Plato and Julius Caesarthe one, for outlining the principles of dictatorship; the other, for becoming the accomplished dictator who crushed the life out of the Roman Republic. Imitating a Roman soldier, he brandished a window pole; impersonating Marius at the gates of Rome, he crouched down, then sprang across the floor to battle his great rival Sulla. With his powerful and speculative mind, he gave his students an extraordinary intellectual experience, capped by a showmanship perhaps unparalleled in the American college classroom.
Labor of love
Highets complete bibliography, spanning a fifty-year period, consists of roughly a thousand itemsa monumental achievement for a classicist. He authored 21 books, which (excluding the translations referred to a little earlier) fall into three categoriespedagogy, scholarly research, and essays of a general nature. (His wife, Helen MacInnes, published 21 books of her own as a best-selling novelist who became famous for her tales of intrigue and espionage set during and after World War II.) His articles demonstrate an extremely broad range of interestsfrom essays on the classical authors and the classical tradition to essays of a nonclassical and more general nature. His reviews of books about classical and contemporary literature enjoyed a large audience during the years that he held prestigious editorial appointments with several major publishers. As chief literary critic for Harpers magazine (195254), he reviewed new books every month in his own column, in a potpourri format, involving clusters of books on various themes. As chairman of the editorial advisory board of Horizon magazine (195877), he reviewed numerous books, including his critique of William Shirers The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. As a member of the board of judges of the Book-of-the-Month Club (195478), he wrote over 400 book reviews, which appeared continuously in Book-of-the-Month Club News. Clifton Kip Fadiman 25C, a fellow judge, regarded him as the most erudite member of the board, with a histrionic talent that would rescue their meetings from excessive sobriety.
In the area of scholarly research, Highet authored books with widespread appeal for the classical scholar and the educated layperson. The Classical Tradition (1949) examines Greek and Roman influences on Western literature from the fall of classical civilization through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This herculean feat reveals not only Highets mastery of comparative literature but also (as the critic Edmund Wilson wrote) his ability to cover an enormous amount of literary material. Juvenal the Satirist (1954) considers the life, work, and influence of the Roman poet Juvenal, with its central contribution being a detailed literary analysis of each of his sixteen satires. This admirable studythe first of its kind for Juvenals poetryreveals Highets razor-sharp critical acumen and his vast knowledge of previous scholarship on the individual poems. Poets in a Landscape (1957), a pilgrimage through places associated with seven Roman poets, received the Italian governments ENIT Prize (Ente Nazionale Italiano per il Turismo). The Anatomy of Satire (1962), a study of satire under its three main forms (monologue, parody, and narrative), received the Award of Merit from the American Philological Association. The Speeches in Vergils Aeneid (1972) analyzes all the speeches in the Aeneidthe speeches and their speakers, formal and informal speeches, and the speeches and their models. This exhaustive labor of love represents the culmination of Highets experience with the Aeneid, which he came to believe gained immensely from its affinities with the Iliad and the Odyssey.
In his books of essays of a general nature, Highet published lectures connected with his radio program of the 1950s, People, Places, and Books. In 1952, on WQXR (the radio station of The New York Times) and under the auspices of Oxford University Press, he began to speak weekly on a variety of subjects in literature and the arts. By 1959, when the program ended, his talks were carried by over 300 stations in the United States and Canada, and by the British Broadcasting Company and Voice of America. His lectures, both educational and entertaining, exhibited a broad range of classical and nonclassical topicsfrom language and literature, to history and philosophy, to music and art. His eloquent voice captivated the publicwhether he spoke about Horace and Apuleius, or Shakespeare and Dickens, or Washington and Jefferson, or Bach and Brahms, or Bosch and Bruegel. John Crosby, who wrote for The New York Herald Tribune, described the first season of these popular radio talks as scholarly and flavorsome, and deserving of publication in book form. The critic Edmund Wilson consented to Highets doing a broadcast about him on six humorous conditions, which included the recording on a silver spool and a case of Old Forester whiskey. Highet eventually revised a large number of the radio talks for Oxford, for publication in five volumes of essays, which stand as a lasting memorial to a program that charmed the nation. One may still savor his winning words in his People, Places, and Books (1953), A Clerk of Oxenford (1954), Talents and Geniuses (1957), The Powers of Poetry (1960), and Explorations (1971).
Although Gilbert Highet became famous for his books and lectures, he may seem somewhat out of place in todays world of literary criticism. In this age of poststructuralism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism, some may see him as a liberal humanist, with an unwavering belief in the moral value of the literary classics. Indeed he was, in the sense that he believed in the universal value of the classics and that the great authors can provide the standards by which people may lead happy and productive lives. As scholars were shifting from the poets personality to the poets persona, he pursued his biographical approach to interpreting poetryan integral part of his work on Juvenals satires. Facing considerable criticism in this area, he defended his objection to the exploitation of the persona theory in a masterful article: Masks and Faces in Satire, Hermes 102 (1974) 32137. All in all, he presented his audience with a humane form of scholarshipfree of the vacuous, jargon-filled kind of literary criticism plaguing some areas of current classical scholarship. He enabled his readers to experience (heaven forbid!) something called literary appreciation, to travel through a world of truth and beauty, elegance and splendor, or just plain meaning. He would explore those aspects of great writing that make the classical authors worth reading, without burying the soul of a masterpiece beneath a technical theoretical superstructure. He would emphasize how the authors presented themselves (whether real or a persona) and how they expressed their innermost thoughts, with powerful imagery and quotable statements.
Although Highet rose to eminence in Americas cultural pantheon, some classicists regarded him as a popularizer, in the negative sense. Jealous perhaps of his outstanding achievements and his virtual celebrity status, they could not understand that he had done more than anyone to revitalize the study of Greek and Latin. A frequent focus of media attention in the United States and abroad, he became the most recognized and most talked-about classical scholar in American history since Thomas Jefferson. A popularizer in the positive sense, he provided the classics establishment with something that it desperately needed (as it does today)respectability with an audience of nonspecialists. The very antithesis of the stereotypical academician, he paraded the classical authors from the groves of academe into the publics living room with his incisive books, articles, and lectures. He invited his audience to a celebration of classical literature, on a journey in search of broad knowledge about classical civilizationa journey open to both specialists and nonspecialists. Every step of the way, he continuously referred to the literature, music, and art of later civilizations in order to emphasize the majesty, strength, and influence of the classical tradition. The journey came to an end on January 20, 1978; at his memorial service in St. Pauls Chapel on the Ides of March, Columbia paid tribute to the most accomplished classicist of his time. There Alan Cameron, who succeeded him as Anthon Professor, remarked that never again would the profession see the entire field of classics through the perspective of one mans vision.
In 1954, the midpoint of Highets long and extraordinary career at Morningside, Columbia celebrated the 200th anniversary of her founding. For that occasion Highet wrote Her SonsAlert and Grateful, Life 36 (February 15, 1954) 12631an article in which he showed his respect and admiration for Columbias students. He described her sons (in those days her daughters attended only Barnard) as diverse and talented individuals, molded by the faculty, by one another, and by the energy of New York City. For that occasion too he wrote Mans Unconquerable Mind, on the powers of knowledge and the intellect, and The Migration of Ideas, on the influence of great thoughts upon human affairs. He concluded the first of these books by praising the achievements of the worlds great universities, in words that one may apply to the 250th anniversary that Columbia will soon celebrate. After referring to the laboratory in which I.I. Rabi worked, he stated: Even to tread the floor of such a room, knowing no more than the outlines of the work done there, is to forget ones own petty self, to revere the ardors and efforts of the great thinkers and teachers who have helped to make our world, and to feel, like the majestic roll of some vast river, the urgent march of the mind, imperfect but marvelous, unique in every individual and yet super-personal, the mysterious power which has brought us out of bestial savagery toward civilization and wisdom, and will take us further still. It is to dedicate oneself again to the purpose of the university, which is to acquire and to extend knowledge for the service of all mankind.
What shall we say about him in the papers?
Stepped out into the path of a speeding car
No. Not such a stupid end for a man of mind.
In Claremont Hospital after a long illness
Among his scholarly works the most important
He had continued yes yes yes no. No.
Suddenly, by a stroke, after a class
No. Not that either, although possible.
Yesterday on the third floor of the library
Among the immortals speaking silent Greek
That would be peaceful, yet perhaps too pat.
But no, the air is wrong, the place is wrong:
Where are the heights, the trees, the wind, the birds?
Write in the notice: on the slopes ofwhat?
Some insignificant hill, it doesnt matter,
But climbing, with the wind around him and
The sky above and his remembering head
Quite full of poetry and music, climbing
Together with his one true friend and love
Up through the stalwart trees to timberline
After a life of effort, rest and sleep.
Reprinted from American Scholar 32 (1963) 597.
Copyright © 1963 by the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
Highet at podium, with students, and at desk reading: University ArchivesColumbiana Library, Columbia University. Highet with wife, receiving honorary degree, and at home: Gilbert Highet Papers, Rare Book and Manscript Library, Columbia University.