History of Classics at Columbia

Classics at Columbia... in 1850

Professor Alan Cameron, Charles Anthon Professor of the Latin Language and Literature, entered “semi-retirement” after more than thirty years of service to the University and the Department of Classics. A detailed look into the professorship’s namesake and legacy was conducted.

Professor Charles Anthon faced his class with his customary glower. He was seated in a raised, enclosed pulpit-like sanctum sanctorium. His classroom was a rectangular chamber furnished with rows and rows of long desks with a solitary chair in front, where the unfortunate scholar would sit when called upon to perform, caught pincer-like between the baleful glare of Professor Anthon and his silent, gawking classmates.

“Read!” Professor Anthon would command. The scholar did so. “Badly read. Now scan!” would be the next order. The scholar complied. “Shabby as usual. Now translate.” Again, the scholar would obey. “Worth about two” would be a generous assessment, which, if the scholar had performed impeccably, would be followed by a swift “You may go!”

It was a different time. The year was 1850. The Columbia College campus – or rather, the Columbia College building – was located in lower Manhattan, just west of Park Place. A prospective scholar seeking admission had to demonstrate to the President that he was “accurately acquainted with the grammar of both the Greek and Latin tongues”, and following a successful exercise in Caesar, or Sallust, or the New Testament, would be permitted to subscribe to the statutes of the College and pay, in advance, the “annual tuition fee of ninety dollars”. For the next four years, he would be subjected to the rigors of thirty-two courses, of which at least fourteen were in Greek and Latin.

The student body back then was much smaller both in size and in distribution, as rarely did a graduating class exceed thirty seniors and rarely did a family name outside of New York’s Protestant elite wander into the student rolls. The faculty, too, boasted only six professors. Described by Professor Robert McCaughey as a place where “everyone was a legacy”, Columbia College might well be seen as a large family – with Professor Charles Anthon as Captain von Trapp.

From when he was first appointed as Adjunct Professor of Latin in 1820 to when a stroke forced his retirement just weeks before his death in 1867, Professor Charles Anthon was the omnipresent personification of Columbia College, described by his students as a “an absolute monarch, a king of books and quills… with his learning his scepter, and his works his crown”. Alumni who studied with Anthon in his early years might see – and some did – their sons and grandsons do the same.

Anthon took “omnipresent” to mean just that. In his forty-seven years of service, he rarely left the College grounds. Prior to Columbia’s move to midtown in 1857, he literally lived at the College – spacious apartments at College Hall were a faculty perk. He studiously avoided public gatherings, commencement ceremonies, and all cause for celebration, filling his days from four in the morning to nine at night with reading, translating, lecturing, and scholarship, punctuated only by an occasional stroll around the College green.

His personality, too, was a matter of legend. Often seen around campus with his books and a “dreadful rattan” tucked under his arm, he would alternately scowl at the younger students and wink at seniors. To the upper classes, he was affectionately known as “Pop” Anthon. But to the freshmen, sophomores, and unfortunate students of Columbia Grammar School (of which he also served as rector), he was known by two things: his liberal application of his “dreadful rattan, to communion with which a culprit was often invited to a private room”, and his second nickname – “Bull” Anthon.

History, however, has not been kind to Anthon. During his lifetime, he produced over fifty books, including dictionaries, grammar references, commentaries, and translations – books that either did not exist or existed in very poor and inadequate forms at the beginning of his career. There are charges of embarrassing inaccuracies (he estimated the Alexandra lighthouse to be visible at a distance of one hundred miles, which would have required it to be ten times as tall as the Pyramids of Giza), plagiarism, translations through intermediate languages (mostly German classical scholarship), and a strange incident involving the Mormon Church where Church authorities claimed he authenticated and translated a passage of “reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics” from the Book of Mormom, but which Anthon himself maintains he did no such thing.

The Classical Outlook, however, adopts a more generous view of Anthon’s career. Anthon’s contemporaries were just as guilty as he of questionable scholarship, and his books, while they did draw heavily from German sources, nevertheless did become standard textbooks at English-speaking universities around the world, including Oxford and Cambridge. Haste, combined with deadlines from Harper’s, which pressured him to turn out volumes at the “speed of a serial novelist”, rather than malicious and dishonest scholarship were his mortal sins. Nevertheless, he did succeed in giving generations of American and English-speaking students access to the great works of Greek and Roman writers, when “help was not generally available from other quarters”. For that, he is considered a Pioneer of Classical Studies in America by the American Classical League.

Professor Charles Anthon’s legacy of dedication to Latin scholarship and commitment to the preservation and understanding of ancient texts, but thankfully not his legacy of corporal punishment, lives on in the person of Professor Alan Cameron, who for the past thirty years has served as the Charles Anthon Professor of the Latin Language and Literature – a legacy that began when Columbia College was only seventy years old, when the campus was one building, and when everyone, everyone, was a Classics Major.
A 19th-Century CULPA Review

The following text was penned by Edgar Allen Poe, who, during a visit to New York in 18XX, interviewed prominent members of the “Literati”.

DOCTOR CHARLES ANTHON is the well-known Jay-Professor of the Greek and Latin languages in Columbia College, New York, and Rector of the Grammar School. If not absolutely the best, he is at least generally considered the best classicist in America. In England, and in Europe at large, his scholastic acquirements are more sincerely respected than those of any of our countrymen. His additions to Lemprière are there justly regarded as evincing a nice perception of method, and accurate as well as extensive erudition, but his “Classical Dictionary” has superseded the work of the Frenchman altogether. Most of Professor Anthon’s publications have been adopted as text-books at Oxford and Cambridge — an honor to be properly understood only by those acquainted with the many high requisites for attaining it. As a commentator (if not exactly as a critic) he may rank with any of his day, and has evinced powers very unusual in men who devote their lives to classical lore. His accuracy is very remarkable; in this particular he is always to be relied upon. The trait manifests itself even in his MS., which is a model of neatness and symmetry, exceeding in these respects anything of the kind with which I am acquainted. It is somewhat too neat, perhaps, and too regular, as well as diminutive, to be called beautiful; it might be mistaken at any time, however, for very elaborate copperplate engraving.

But his chirography, although fully in keeping, so far as precision is concerned, with his mental character, is, in its entire freedom from flourish or superfluity, as much out of keeping with his verbal style. In his notes to the Classics he is singularly Ciceronian — if, indeed, not positively Johnsonese.

An attempt was made not long ago to prepossess the public against his “Classical Dictionary,” the most important of his works, by getting up a hue and cry of plagiarism — in the case of all similar books the most preposterous accusation in the world, although, from its very preposterousness, one not easily rebutted. Obviously, the design in any such compilation is, in the first place, to make a useful school-book or book of reference, and the scholar who should be weak enough to neglect this indispensable point for the mere purpose of winning credit with a few bookish men for originality, would deserve to be dubbed, by the public at least, a dunce.

There are very few points of classical scholarship which are not the common property of “the learned” throughout the world, and in composing any book of reference recourse is unscrupulously and even necessarily had in all cases to similar books which have preceded. In availing themselves of these latter, however, it is the practice of quacks to paraphrase page after page, rearranging the order of paragraphs, making a slight alteration in point of fact here and there, but preserving the spirit of the whole, its information, erudition, etc., etc., while everything is so completely re-written as to leave no room for a direct charge of plagiarism; and this is considered and lauded as originality.

Now, he who, in availing himself of the labors of his predecessors (and it is clear that all scholars must avail themselves of such labors) — he who shall copy verbatim the passages to be desired, without attempt at palming off their spirit as original with himself, is certainly no plagiarist, even if he fail to make direct acknowledgment of indebtedness — is unquestionably less of the plagiarist than the disingenuous and contemptible quack who wriggles himself, as above explained, into a reputation for originality, a reputation quite out of place in a case of this kind — the public, of course, never caring a straw whether he be original or not. These attacks upon the New York professor are to be attributed to a clique of pedants in and about Boston, gentlemen envious of his success, and whose own compilations are noticeable only for the singular patience and ingenuity with which their dovetailing chicanery is concealed from the public eye.

Doctor Anthon is, perhaps, forty-eight years of age; about five feet eight inches in height; rather stout; fair complexion; hair light and inclined to curl; forehead remarkably broad and high; eye gray, clear and penetrating; mouth well-formed, with excellent teeth — the lips having great flexibility, and consequent power of expression; the smile particularly pleasing. His address in general is bold, frank, cordial, full of bonhommie.

His whole air is distinigué in the best understanding of the term — that is to say, he would impress any one at first sight with the idea of his being no ordinary man. He has qualities, indeed, which would have insured him eminent success in almost any pursuit; and there are times in which his friends are half disposed to regret his exclusive devotion to classical literature. He was one of the originators of the late “New York Review,” his associates in the conduct and proprietorship being Dr. F. L. Hawks and Professor R. C. Henry. By far the most valuable papers, however, were those of Doctor A.

Edgar Allen Poe
The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Authorial Merits and Demerits


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