Gildersleeve, Basil Lanneau

Gildersleeve, Basil Lanneau 1849 (1831-1924) was one of the most eminent men graduated from Princeton in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dean West called him ``the most brilliant, richly furnished and powerful master in Greek studies'' this country had produced. Professor Paul Shorey of the University of Chicago, himself a great Greek scholar, said that, during fifty years of American classical scholarship, ``the figure of Gildersleeve had dominated throughout.''

The son of a Presbyterian minister in Charleston, South Carolina, Gildersleeve read the Bible ``from cover to cover'' when he was five and before he was thirteen had learned enough Latin to get through Caesar, Sallust, Cicero, Virgil, and Horace, and enough Greek ``to make out'' the New Testament.

Such was his precocity that when he entered Princeton as a junior at the age of sixteen in 1847 he was able to devote most of his time to his own reading. ``I gave a couple of hours to my classes each day,'' he recalled in a memoir about his student days which he wrote toward the end of this life, ``and then ho! for the wide field of literature -- English, French, German, Italian, Spanish.'' Through Carlyle, he was introduced to Goethe, ``the most important of all the teachers I ever had.'' Besides his ``multifarious, jubilant reading,'' he also indulged himself in ``composition in prose and rhyme.'' He admired the physicist Joseph Henry, ``our one great man,'' and respected John Torrey, who taught chemistry and natural history, and Stephen Alexander, who taught mathematics. ``Stevie'' so inspired him, he recalled, that although he had always hated mathematics, he passed the best examination in his class. But he found little to be learned from the ``hit-or-miss'' instruction offered in his own field of interest -- the classics and letters generally. In the course in Greek he could not recall one syntactical question and there were only two lectures on Greek literature.

``But my heart smites me [Gildersleeve wrote]. Remember that I am writing of Rev. John Maclean, Vice President of the College . . . and Professor of Greek, judged by a professor of Greek, not of good old Johnny, best beloved of all Princeton men, a man every inch of him, in his prime a swift-footed Achilles, who, according to tradition, gave the erring Hectors a start as far as the cannon and always caught them; Johnny who watched over me tenderly when I lay previously hurt at the house where that angel, Miss Mary [Maclean's sister], prepared delicacies for me, and Bob Stockton dressed my wound, acquired in a frog hunt near Dr. Scudder's. Some day another professor of Greek will make mock of my old-fashioned fancies in the matter of syntax. Would that I had as fair a record otherwise as good old Johnny!''

After graduating from Princeton in 1849, Gildersleeve spent three years in Europe, chiefly in study at German universities. To his teachers there and to Germany in general he acknowledged his indebtedness ``for everything professionally in the way of apparatus and method, and for much, very much in the way of inspiration.''

Shortly after his return from Europe, Princeton proposed that he join its faculty; but the position offered, he recalled years later, turned out to be so inferior to what he, ``a conceited youngster,'' deemed his due as a Ph.D. with high honors from the University of G”ttingen, that the negotiations were broken off with some acerbity on both sides.

For three years he pursued philological studies at home and nearly completed a novel. In 1856, just before his twenty-fifth birthday, he began a twenty-year career as professor of Greek at the University of Virginia. He also taught Latin for a time, but Greek remained his true love. A regular churchgoer, he kept himself awake during sermons by mentally translating them into Greek, sentence by sentence as uttered, a practice he recommended as ``a peculiarly rewarding means of grace.''

During the Civil War Gildersleeve became further disenchanted with Princeton ``when the authorities thought it necessary to emphasize their loyalty to the Union in a way that exasperated all ardent Southerners like myself.'' Both of his Princeton roommates, who were Virginians, fell in the first major engagement of the war at Manassas. Gildersleeve himself was severely wounded while serving with the Confederate cavalry. In later years, his northern students shared with their southern compatriots admiration for his soldierly valor, of which they were continually reminded, as one of them wrote, ``by the choliambic [limping] rhythm in his majestic gait.''

When Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876, Gildersleeve was the first of a small band of scholars invited to develop a school of graduate work and research. According to one of his first students, Francis G. Allison, later professor at Brown University, Gildersleeve liked to recount that ``he was put by President Gilman into an empty room and told to `radiate!'''

``The bare room [Allison wrote] was soon occupied by graduates of diverse colleges. . . . Whatever their previous training, the fortunate members of his Greek seminary, year after year, were confronted with a new vision, shining across wide vistas in literature and language. As in his more personal teaching, where a ``mistake'' was a ``crime,'' so in the wider sweep of his seminary courses an ineluctable exactitude prevailed. No vagueness was acceptable. No unverified reference was legal. Paradoxically, however, he indulged himself in a rapid fire of allusions which sometimes shot over the heads of his bewildered, yet devoted, hearers. In spite of this, he stimulated more than he discouraged and, as net effect in after years, his former students, though far removed in space and time, were conscious of his actual presence, ready to challenge any inadequacy or inaccuracy in their written or spoken word.

In 1877, Princeton ``held out an olive branch,'' as Gildersleeve put it, by inviting him to make the annual address before the Whig and Cliosophic Societies. But he ``did not improve matters,'' he said, by the chief theme of his discourse, ``an inquiry why Princeton, which had done so much for divinity, for medicine, for law, for legislation, for arms, had fallen so far short in letters.'' Gildersleeve meantime was making his own mark as a man of letters as well as a scholar. In 1880 he founded the American Journal of Philology, and for forty years his personality pervaded its pages. ``His uncurbed satire, '' one of his associates said, ``occasionally engendered resentment, but his fearless criticism had a tonic effect upon contemporary scholarship.'' He became famous also for his Latin Grammar, his Syntax of Classical Greek, his editions of Greek poets, notably Pindar, and several books of critical essays and scholarly studies.

In 1899, at the fiftieth anniversary of the graduation of his class, Princeton conferred on him an honorary L.H.D. -- ``the seal,'' he said, ``of reconciliation.'' He took pride, also, in the fact that his son, Raleigh C. Gildersleeve, was the architect of McCosh Hall and Lower Pyne Building.

Gildersleeve had a tall, well-proportioned figure, an Olympian head with ``dominating eyes, humorous or devastating as the occasion demanded,'' and in later life a full white beard. His students called him Zeus. He taught at Johns Hopkins until he was eighty-four and edited the Journal of Philology until he was eighty-nine. In his last years he spent most of his time in his book-lined study in his house in Baltimore, reading Greek and writing sonnets. One he wrote when he was ninety concluded:

``I know this sonnet-writing is inanity.
It is not art. 'Tis nothing but a knack
With which I while away the darksome hours.
I'll keep it up, though critics doubt my sanity
Till the pale postman comes whose knocks attack
Alike the poor men's cots and princes' towers.''

When the ``pale postman'' knocked some two years later, Dean West delivered Princeton's tribute, concluding with a quotation from the Greek rhetorician and philosopher Longinus: ``When the sun sets, its brightness departs and its greatness remains.'' And Professor Shorey noted that, at the memorial service for Gildersleeve at Johns Hopkins, all the speakers ``dwelt not so much on the wit, the brilliancy, the scholarship, which they took for granted, as on the moral qualities of the man, the teacher, the companion, the helper, the friend.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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