Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 12. Training and Travels

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 12. Training and Travels

Before going abroad, though, he must make the American grand tour to Washington and Virginia. During the winter of 1814–15 he travelled by slow stages and sometimes under difficulties as far as Richmond, everywhere supplied with introductions to and from eminent persons such as John Adams, President Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. He met, among others, Eli Whitney, Robert Lenox, John Randolph, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton; attended the Hartford Convention; saw the ruins of Washington, then recently burned by the British; and at Monticello got the news of their defeat at New Orleans. Already he was exhibiting the social gifts which later distinguished him—a power of holding substantial conversation when that was in order; a tact that kept him wisely and quizzically silent during an outburst of bad temper on the part of Adams, and in the presence of Jefferson’s philosophical oddities; together with a cool sub-acid judgment in estimating and reporting such phenomena as these and the ways of men in general. He made an especially favourable impression upon Jefferson, who twice—in 1818 and again in 1820—invited him to a chair at the University of Virginia.

In April, 1815, Ticknor sailed for Liverpool with Edward Everett and several other friends. At Liverpool and on the way to London he paid his respects to Roscoe and to Dr. Parr. In London he met Hallam, and various lesser scholars. At Göttingen Ticknor settled down to a monastic regimen of study, specializing in Greek. He met the Homeric Wolf, “coryphæus of German philologists,” then on a visit to Göttingen; and, during an eight weeks’ holiday trip across Germany, Gesenius and Goethe. For a full year he continued his classical studies without any notion that his field was to lie elsewhere. From Byron in London he had got hints for a tour in Greece, and he was preparing to make it, when late in 1816 Harvard offered him the College Professorship of the Belles Lettres and the Smith Professorship of the French and Spanish Languages and Literatures, then just established upon the death of its founder Abiel Smith. Accordingly Ticknor gave up his Greek tour, and after a few months in Göttingen began in the spring of 1817 an extensive course of travel and study in the Latin countries. In Paris he worked with great diligence at French and Italian. In Rome by November he studied Italian and archæology. Leaving Rome late in March of 1818, he made his way slowly to Spain via Italy and southern France. In Madrid he at once settled into his habitual studious ways. During the summer and autumn of 1818 he made several excursions and a considerable journey in Spain and Portugal; whence in November he went via England to Paris again. Here he privately studied Spanish literature, Portuguese, and Provençal. In London in January, 1819, he dropped study for awhile, and was taken up by the great Whigs—Lord Holland, Sir James Mackintosh, Richard Heber, Hookham Frere, Lord John Russell, and Sydney Smith. He visited the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield House and the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey; again touched classical studies in a sojourn at Cambridge; and before February reached Edinburgh. Picking out, as was usual with him, a specialist to help him in his studies, he read Scotch poetry. Here he frequented the Tory circle of Mrs. Grant of Laggan, and made the acquaintance of Scott, whom he visited at Abbotsford for a few days; proceeding thence to Southey at Keswick and to Wordsworth at Rydal Mount. At Hatton he saw old Dr. Parr once more, who condemned everything contemporary but gave Ticknor his blessing.

In London again, early in April, Ticknor went with Irving to the “damning of a play” and afterwards to the Lord Mayor’s ball, which he also damns in a series of contemptuous remarks about the “City crowd.” Though he had already disparaged Godwin as the “notorious William Godwin,” he dined at his house; and then proceeded to disparage him further, together with the company he met there, including Hazlitt, Hunt, and Lamb. Ticknor was as much at home with the “big Whigs” as with the grand Tories, especially the great Tory of Abbotsford; Whig Toriusve mihi nullo discrimine agetur, he might have said; but he could not abide a Philistine or a Bohemian.

At the end of April, 1819, after a brief visit to Roscoe in Liverpool, he sailed for home, and reached Boston early in June, with an equipment far beyond that of any previous American student. His teaching at Harvard began in the same year and continued until he resigned in 1835. Like Everett’s, it was so far in advance of his time and of the training his students brought to it that he founded no school of research and made no disciples in advanced scholarship. But he greatly improved elementary instruction in the modern languages, and could find sometimes (as in 1831) a class that would read Dante with him; he established for his own subjects a departmental system, with considerable freedom of election, and with promotion and grouping according to proficiency; and he went as far as the college authorities would allow in establishing an elective system within his own jurisdiction. These reforms being opposed, actively by some other members of the faculty, passively by President Kirkland, Ticknor felt, after sixteen years of service, that he had done all the missionary work that could reasonably be expected of him. He resigned his professorship, and made a second sojourn in Europe (1835–38), Longfellow having been chosen to be his successor.

This second residence in Europe Ticknor undertook not primarily as a student but as a ripe scholar; and although he had as yet produced no great work, he was everywhere received as one whose standing was assured. The acquaintances he formed or renewed are too numerous to be even catalogued in full. In England he saw a good deal of the scientific men. At Dresden he examined Ludwig Tieck’s collection of Spanish books, and he joined the scholarly circle of Prince John of Saxony. In Berlin in the spring of 1836 Ticknor visited the church historian Neander, and saw Alexander von Humboldt frequently. In Vienna, in June, he examined the old Spanish books in the Imperial Library. After a summer in Switzerland and southern Germany, he moved towards Rome, which he reached in December, and in which he remained until May of 1837. He went north for the summer again, to Venice, Innsbruck, and Heidelberg, and to Paris for the winter, where he looked over the Spanish library of Ternaux-Compans and frequented the study of Augustin Thierry. By March, 1838, Ticknor was in England again, having long talks with Hallam. He once more visited Southey and Wordsworth at Keswick; was disappointed in the Spanish collection at the Bodleian; met at breakfast “a Mr. Ruskin,” who had a most beautiful collection “of sketches, made by himself, from nature, on the Continent”; and heard Carlyle lecture.

Arriving at home in June, 1838, Ticknor settled down to research, to extensive correspondence with many friends, both European and American, to the collecting of Spanish books, and to the writing of his History of Spanish Literature, which was published in 1849 and was at once recognized as a work of international standing. He found time also to work hard for the Boston Public Library, of which he was a trustee; doing for it what his friends Buckminster and Cogswell had done respectively for the Athenæum and the Astor. Upon the third and last of his European tours, undertaken in 1856–57 for the sake of the library, he had little time for his own studies, but he was lionized—being now the author of a famous book—as never before, and moved in the most brilliant society. At home again from September, 1857, Ticknor took up once more his life of study and business, serving the library until 1866, revising the History of Spanish Literature for its third and its fourth editions, maintaining a voluminous correspondence, and, after the death of Prescott in 1859, writing his Life (1864). At this time, too, Ticknor resumed his active interest in Harvard. He died in 1871.