Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 25. Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve

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

XXV. Scholars

§ 25. Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve

Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, still living as the dean of American philologists, was born in 1831 at Charleston, South Carolina. After his graduation at Princeton in 1849, he studied under Boeckh, Schneidewin, and Ritschl at Berlin, Bonn, and Göttingen, where he achieved the doctorate in 1853 with a dissertation upon Porphyry’s Homeric studies. At the University of Virginia he was from 1856 to 1876 professor of Greek, and from 1861 to 1866, professor of Latin. Upon the establishment of the Johns Hopkins University in 1876 he was appointed to its first professorship, that of Greek, which, as Emeritus, he still holds. He gave powerful aid in making the university a true school of research and his own department a training ground for philologists. In 1880 Gildersleeve established the American Journal of Philology, which from the first took high rank as a repository of solid contributions to philology modern as well as classical, and which published from time to time the results of his own research, both in extenso and in the notes and short reviews which filled his special department, “Brief Mention.” Gildersleeve’s great power of literary appreciation and expression is grounded upon endless interest in the minutiæ of syntax and metre. His Latin Grammar (1867) had already reached a stage of induction which enabled its analysis to stand as the method of the Syntax of Classical Greek (1900, 1911) still in course of publication. The edition of Persius (1875) shows the combination of these qualities, its Introduction taking high rank as a literary and historical essay, and its notes guiding the student through the intricacies of Persius’s language and allusion. Professor Gildersleeve himself confesses that he used his edition of the Apologies of Justin Martyr (1877) and his edition of Pindar (1885) chiefly as a repository of his syntactical theories—an assertion doubtless flavoured with Socratic irony. His Syntax has recorded and explicated usage without resort to metaphysics. Through his publications he has exercised a very great influence upon many scholars who were not his students, but who acknowledge that they “have all been to school to Gildersleeve.”

The technical content of most of Professor Gildersleeve’s writings has perhaps kept the larger public from appreciating his literary merit. Nor can even so much of his work as might be open to popular appreciation, like the collected Essays and Studies (1890), hope for a very numerous reading public. For it is a work of disillusionment. Just as in his own professional field Professor Gildersleeve has witnessed and partly undergone “The Oscillations and Nutations of Philological Studies,” so he looks upon the general human scene with the eyes of Ecclesiastes. Like that other veteran Hellenist, Professor Mahaffy, he seems to grow weary of the high and central classics (his Pindar is his only edition of any one of them), and to turn with a certain relief to secondary writers, like Persius and Lucian and Platen, who hold life at arm’s length for satirical comment. But his disillusionment brings with it no impairment of his wit, and this, despite the irrelevancies into which it often leads him, is both brilliant and profound. Everywhere his essential esprit and intellectual energy, when they do not bewilder the reader and leave him far behind, delight and stimulate him. A literary satirist, Gildersleeve should have written a History of Literary Satire; and one who would form an anthology of the less technical sayings from “Brief Mention” would find that he had gathered many of the materials for such a work. Upon Gildersleeve all the ends of the world are come; he has lamented the old Germany that died with the Franco-Prussian war, and the old South that died with the Civil War; and, having witnessed the passing of two civilizations and the unending vicissitudes of mankind, he is still gathering his multiform experience into writing, and [Greek].