The Incomparable Gilbert Highet

Thomas Couture, The Romans and their Decadence, credit Wikipedia

The Incomparable Gilbert Highet

R.J.Ball, The Classical Legacy of Gilbert Highet, Lockwood Press, 2021. Pp. I-IVI; 1-104. $34.95, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Great scholars need biographers to tell their stories, to disclose information that would not be made available otherwise. In recent times, publicized accounts of the lives of classical scholars have appeared every so often, exposing their lifestyles and fecund minds to exhaustive but narrow analyses in the broader discipline of wissenschaftsgeschichte, a burgeoning field of study. Historians recover suppressed truths. They search musty attics, rummage through second-hand bookstores, explore letters/diaries in archives, and inspect files in squalid library basements. The profit is usually worth it, with the benefits outweighing the drawbacks.

Gossip and scandal are rarely far from an academic’s life. Gilbert Highet, however, a noted classicist, was an exception. Well-dressed, decorous, and refined in his speech, he stood out among the professors of his day. And as a classical scholar, he represented his field properly, in a way that befitted a public intellectual.

Robert J. Ball, Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Hawaii, has written an engaging and laudable work on the life and scholarship of Gilbert Highet (1906-1978). Ball published two collections of work by Highet: The Classical Papers of Gilbert Highet (1983) and The Unpublished Lectures of Gilbert Highet (1998). Several assortments of Highet’s correspondence, i.e., with Cyril Bailey (1871-1957), Helen MacInnes (1907-1985) and Georg Luck (1926-2013) etc., were assembled and issued. The task was an unenviable one. A colossal amount of work was required.

Highet was of scotch stock, born to parents who were well-off. Hillhead high school in Glasgow furnished him with a knowledge of ancient and modern tongues. He received a conventional but first-rate preparation at the University of Glasgow and at Balliol, Oxford. A diploma in ancient history and archaeology was conferred on him in 1929, one year after he received his M.A. in Greek and Latin. Four years at Oxford, and the contact with Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) during these formative years, was both positive and constructive. Highet received medals and prizes for his acumen in his student years. And later, with approbation from Cyril Bailey, he received a position as Fellow and Tutor at St. John’s, Oxford from 1933-1937. His industry and productiveness were noticed.

Evidently C.M. Bowra (1898-1971) declined an invitation from Nicholas M. Butler (1862-1947), President of Columbia University, to teach there. Instead, Bowra recommended Highet. So the 1937-38 academic year found Highet at Columbia University in New York where he quickly became the most popular classicist of his day. It seems that he departed England, in part, because of his dislike of the British class system (p.72). His intellect promptly attracted pupils. His oratorical abilities were renowned. And he gave close attention to the principles and methods of teaching. Repeatedly he lectured to crowded halls. Well-read in critical scholarship, students could find Highet in the library doing research, at times reading an Oxford Classical Text (p.76). That besides, he taught a graduate class in 1948 using Bailey’s ‘superb edition’ of Lucretius (viz. Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura, 3 vols. (London, 1947).

For years Highet was a noted literary critic and spoke on the radio for ‘People, Places and Books’, an Oxford University Press sponsored program aired on over 300 stations. Known to millions of readers and listeners as a popularizer of classical literature, a smaller circle of competent scholars knew him as man who was learned in classical traditions, proficient in Roman satire and a master of Virgilian writings.

One longed-for prize escaped him. He was invited to apply for the Corpus Christi Professorship of Latin at Oxford. He declined to put forward his name, choosing to stay at Columbia. Not unlike his teacher, C.M. Bowra, Highet’s command of English idiom was superior to most specialists. He taught at Columbia for 35 years, retiring in 1972 as Anthon Professor Emeritus of the Latin Language and Literature.

Lockwood Press produced this book in a hardcover format. A stately black and white image of Highet appears on the right side of front sleeve of the dust jacket; the book’s title is adjacent to it emblazoned with white letters set within maroon hue. On the back cover readers are apprised of the fact that this is a ‘biographical appreciation.’ Professor Ball’s informed evaluation of Highet is annotated copiously with 215 footnotes or explanatory comments. The Contents pages (vii-viii) are detailed. There are three chapters: (1) A Review of Highet’s Career, (2) Highet’s Legacy as a Teacher and (3) Highet’s Legacy as a Scholar; Appendices A-I, a brief Conclusion and three Bibliographies.

Readers are told in the Preface that Highet lamented in verse that ‘he would not be remembered in any substantial way’ (p.ix). Ball has remedied that situation single-handedly over the course of four decades. This concise Introduction surveys what will be encountered in the book. Highet’s career is reviewed judiciously. Werner Jaeger’s (1888-1961) multi-volume Paidea: The Ideals of Greek Culture (trans. 1939-1944) was translated by him. Based in New York, he served in the British Army during WWII. He was celebrated at Columbia for refusing to be bullied by students during the Vietnam protests on campus.

In younger years, he published two textbooks: An Outline of Homer (1935) and Beginning Latin (1938). He believed interaction with students to be a professor’s duty. Greek and Roman authors were to be studied dispassionately but also for the formation of individual character. Highet kept a picture of Housman on his wall in his office in Philosophy Hall (fn.80); but he chose wider arenas in which to showcase his intellectual powers and did not give himself wholly to the kind of pure scholarship of Benedict Einarson (1906-1978), Highet’s contemporary, who was teaching Greek at the U. of Chicago.

Ball notes that Highet passed on to his students a dictum he received from an elderly classical scholar, Martin J. Routh (1755-1854) to ‘always verify your references’ (p.25). Highet’s books, The Art of Teaching (1950) and The Immortal Profession (1976), both on teaching, are literary classics. No classical scholar in America but him could have written The Classical Tradition (1949). The same should be said of Poets in a Landscape (1957). Ball’s reviews of Highet’s labors on Juvenal, satire and Vergil are annotated heavily. Ball is impartial in presenting the critical observations of those classicists who disapproved of or questioned Highet’s biographical approach to Juvenal. Highet’s research in these areas of study was exhaustive. Then again, it would have been of greater profit to reappraise each work, critically, in the manner that Robin Nisbet reviewed Highet’s volume Juvenal the Satirist in JRS 1955 (Vol. 45), pp.234-235. As a classicist and as the biographer, Ball’s judgments are authoritative. The appendices remove any shadows of doubt regarding Highet’s insight and penetration; the testimonials included will be read by all who are interested to know of Highet’s techniques of imparting Vergilian knowledge, or of those who studied under him and appreciated the opportunity to do so (Appendix F: pp.71-76).

Errors in fact are corrected throughout by Ball. He is up to date on all aspects of material on or by Highet. He does not fail to notice the remarks of critics of Highet’s scholarly works. Undoubtedly a touch of jealousy shaped and tainted the opinions on Highet given by a few fellow classicists. Fifteen pictures are inserted from various phases of Highet’s life. This assessment of him is a helpful contribution to the history of classical scholarship in America. Dismissed by some as being little more than a publicist for ancient classical literatures, his critics produced lesser amounts of academic work than he did; but an analytical study of Highet’s endeavors on Juvenal and Vergil is still needed.

Highet was an outstanding speaker. Invitations came to him frequently. Addresses given by him to learned forums are invaluable, many of which are accessible online. Ball is correct when he says, ‘one cannot help but admire his amazing achievements as a teacher and scholar’ (p.53). He received several honorary doctorates. Through decades of teaching classical literature, numerous students came under his tutelage. Too modest to form his own school, he impressed upon pupils his love for Greek and Latin authors. Inimitable, his devotion to the classics was deep, and his dedication to scholarship was evident in all his notes, articles, letters, and oral presentations.

Not since Basil Gildersleeve (1831-1924) has an American classicist possessed a fame and honor so widespread in academia as Gilbert Highet. The only other American scholar of ancient Greek and Roman texts whose distinctions are comparable is the redoubtable Charles Anthon (1797-1867), another New Yorker, for whom Columbia’s Anthon Professorship was named.

Darrell Sutton lives on the Kansas/Nebraska border. He reviews ancient near eastern literature and ancient Greek and Latin texts for QR

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1 Response to The Incomparable Gilbert Highet

  1. David ASHTON says:

    White privilege again?
    Where are all the great civilizations of Africa destroyed by colonialism and slavery?
    See Jane Kelly on the “Salisbury Review” website, 9 November, online.

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