Osgood, Charles Grosvenor

Osgood, Charles Grosvenor (1871-1964), Holmes Professor of Belles Lettres, was distinguished for the breadth of his learning and the influence of his teaching. Well before his long life ended, he had become, in President Dodds's words, ``the dean of Princeton humanists.''

His alma mater was Yale, where he earned an A.B. in 1894 and a Ph.D. in 1899, and where he was teaching in 1905 when Woodrow Wilson called him to Princeton as one of the original preceptors. He found the life of a preceptor in Princeton congenial.

``The town is small, the college large [he told his Yale classmates in their Twenty Year Record]. It is properly secluded, but not remote; and it gives a chance for the rearing of ideals upon equal support of the active and contemplative life. Friendliness between colleagues and, by the help of preceptorial teaching in small groups, between student and teacher . . . does much to effect in students just what a university ought -- to teach them the art of living a good life.

He excelled as a preceptor. To him teaching was ``the intimate engaging of personality with personality through the medium of some liberal subject,'' and he gave weekly demonstrations of this concept in preceptorial conferences in his house at 92 Stockton Street -- in the winter, around the fireplace in his study.

Osgood early acquired a taste for music, painting, and the classics, which he cultivated all his life. While still at Yale he taught classics for two years (Charles Seymour, later president of that university, was one of his students), but then concluded that he would find greater freedom in the teaching of English. ``Yet,'' he remarked in later years, ``my first love never died, and I have lived a life of happy and unashamed bigamy.'' His course in ``English Literature and the Classics'' was long a favorite among undergraduates, and the breadth of his interests is revealed by the subjects of some of his early works: The Classical Mythology of Milton's English Poems; the Middle English poem, The Pearl; Selections from the Works of Samuel Johnson; Vergil and the English Mind; Boccaccio on Poetry.

His favorite English poet was Edmund Spenser. With the help of his wife, he prepared a concordance to Spenser's poems and was later general editor of a ten-volume variorum edition of his works, a monumental task extending through a quarter of a century. Knowing that undergraduates were often careless spellers, he always began his lectures on Spenser by printing on the blackboard: EDMUND SPENS(???The "S" here should be larger than the other caps in "SPENSER")ER. He could discourse for hours on Spenser's love of English rivers, the poetic skill of his sonnet sequence the Amoretti, and the social, political, and esthetic backgrounds of The Faerie Queene.

In 1935 he was persuaded to write a history of English literature for classroom use. It was called The Voice of England. ``I have small excuse, I know,'' he wrote in the preface, ``for rehearsing the old tale herein set down, except that it is an old story, and a good one, and many are the ways of telling it.'' Osgood's way, reviewers agreed, was one of the best, and one colleague doubted that any textbook was ever written with such grace and lucidity.

Osgood's broad learning was matched by a wide acquaintance with all kinds of people. Outside the University he made many friends as an elder in the First Presbyterian Church and as a trustee of the Princeton Public Library, and he joined the Masonic Order to enlarge his acquaintanceship.

On the train to New York one day a younger colleague heard Osgood, then in his sixties, quote Samuel Johnson to the effect that as a man grows older, he is willing to accept life on easier terms. Later he learned that Osgood was on his way to Artie McGovern's gymnasium, where he went twice a week to sweat it out with, among other people, Babe Ruth.

Osgood voluntarily retired in 1937 to concentrate on his writing. In 1941 he brought out his greatly admired Poetry as a Means of Grace, and in 1956 he put the capstone on the variorum edition of Spenser. The same year saw his Boccaccio on Poetry, first printed in 1930, reissued in a paperback edition. His preface for this was typically Osgoodian:

``At eighty-five a man has no more right to tamper with the work of his fifties than with the work of another man. Indeed this book was the work of another man, younger by a generation than I, and, among all my issue of lesser years, my favorite. I am content that it should survive without correction or change.''

Many honors came to Osgood during his later years. His old student, President Seymour, conferred on him a Yale Litt.D. on the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation; Princeton awarded him the same degree a few years later. A former student anonymously endowed the Osgood Book Fund, and the trustees established four advanced graduate fellowships in his name. But, as Willard Thorp, his successor as Holmes Professor, observed, his greatest ``honor'' was the devotion of hundreds of his former students who visited him and wrote to him until virtually the day of his death.


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

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