Classical Literature

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"Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia," Walt Whitman urges in his 1871 poem "Song of the Exposition," producing a new twist to the traditional epic invocation. He points to America as a new and worthier subject for poets than "that matter of Troy" and other "immensely overpaid accounts" (p. 158); using the language of American mercantilism, he repudiates classical models for representing the New World. On the opposite end of the spectrum in his stance toward classicism stands Edgar Allan Poe, displaying awe, veneration, and heartfelt gratitude toward "the glory that was Greece / and the grandeur that was Rome" in his well-known sonnet of 1831 "To Helen" (p. 62). These fluctuating, ambivalent attitudes toward the classical tradition as embodied by its literatures are to a large degree representative of nineteenth-century America.


The two great Western traditions, the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman, retained a pervasive influence on American culture in the nineteenth century, although Americans displayed characteristically ambiguous feelings about the power of the Old World over the New. A Judeo-Christian outlook formed the ideological basis of nineteenth-century America, with its strong Protestant heritage and growing evangelical movement, but nonetheless the Greco-Roman tradition survived through the educated American's immersion in classical literatures, both in the original and in translation. The importance in high culture of classical thought—be it ancient writing, art, and architecture or later representations and allusions—was another reason for its remarkable influence. From the beginning of "America" as it was conceived of and settled by Europeans, the classical picture parallels and complements the vision of the new continent as an Edenic garden, beginning with the Puritan notion of America as the New Canaan. The new continent was regarded as a place that offered a return to the Golden Age, a place akin to the Garden of the Hesperides, the Isles of the Blessed, Atlantis, or a new Arcadia; its explorers and settlers were compared to classical heroes. The first important piece of English poetry produced on the American continent was a notable verse translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses by the poet George Sandys in 1626, written while Sandys resided in Virginia. The Muses, migrating to the New World, brought with them a robust classical tradition—in education, politics, oratory, law, history, literature, and the arts.

The Republic of the United States was, after all, consciously modeled by the Founding Fathers on the Roman Republic, complete with a capital city built to echo Rome, an enduring iconography of Latin mottos on official seals, public buildings resembling classical temples, and a goddess called Liberty. In the sphere of neoclassicism itself, the 1820s mark a turning away from Rome to Greece in architecture, art, literature, and scholarship. Within the United States, the Greek revival superseded the "Roman republican" style, symbolically equated with the politics of Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). The French emperor Napoleon's (1769–1821) lavish use of ancient Roman symbols to bolster his imperial conquests made a younger generation of Americans uneasy about the thin line separating republic from empire, while classical Greece inspired admiration as the cradle of the democratic city-state. Homer was now regarded as a truer epic poet than Virgil, and in tribute William Munford of Virginia produced the first American verse translation of the Iliad in 1848. Americans were also eager to praise and aid the modern Greeks in their struggle for independence, which furnished material not only for U.S. newspapers but also the literary production of the philhellenic English Romantic poets, particularly George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824), who did much to popularize an interest in Greece in Britain and America. On the whole it was democratic Periclean Athens that was considered the model for the United States, but Sparta was also evoked, largely due to the popularity of Plutarch's Lycurgus, an account of the legendary Spartan lawgiver's reforms of the Spartan monarchy by establishing a senate and instituting laws to ensure that Spartans cultivated honesty; simple, healthy, and vigorous living; and military prowess. In this context Sparta could be seen to offer an ideal for the early American Republic, visible in Samuel Adams's wish that Boston would become a "Christian Sparta" (p. 673). In antiquity Sparta was the main rival of Athens and the victor in the Peloponnesian War between the two states and their allies (431–404 b.c.). Unlike urban, democratic Athens, Sparta was a feudal monarchy with a large population of oppressed serfs, called helots, working the land and often rising in rebellion. A certain loose parallel could be drawn between the American North and South, and in the nineteenth century southerners invoked Sparta to defend their agrarian way of life and their peculiar institution, pointing to the importance of slavery in classical antiquity. As the Civil War approached they might raise comparisons to Thermopylae. At the pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC, a small band of Spartans under Leonidas defended the entry to Greece against a huge Persian army; they were defeated, but ultimately the united Greeks were able to prevail against the invaders, and the battle of Thermopylae became famous as a glorious instance of patriotism. Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage (1895), written three decades after the Civil War, imagines his young protagonist first thinking of the war in terms of "a Greeklike struggle" and "Homeric," so that his mother "disappointed him by saying nothing whatever about returning with his shield or on it" (pp. 5, 6). A New England farm boy's familiarity with them offers a clear indication of the prevalence of these classical tropes.


The classical influence is most clearly visible in the male-dominated spheres of art and architecture, serious literature, philosophy, and school curricula. Educated men received a more or less solid grounding in the classics, as the curriculum of most high schools and colleges centered to a large extent on classical literature in Greek and Latin. Though the teaching of works in Latin and Greek focused heavily on grammar and translation rather than context, so that many college graduates still preferred to read the classics in English translation, they were nevertheless exposed to classical languages and literatures in the original. The authors most often taught were Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Aesop, Cicero, Horace, Thucydides, Xenophon, and the Greek dramatists. Familiarity with classical literatures still entailed learning two dead languages, traditionally part of an elitist male education, a process that excluded women and the lower classes. Hence Booker T. Washington points to "the craze for Greek and Latin learning" among black Americans in the Reconstruction period and their "feeling that a knowledge, however little, of the Greek and Latin languages would make one a very superior human being, something bordering almost on the supernatural" (pp. 57–58). And although throughout the nineteenth century debate raged over the usefulness of a classical education, the Yale College Reports of 1828, in defining the aims and methods of the classical college, strengthened the status quo and helped retain the British-inspired emphasis on the predominance of the classics in college, even as American universities were turning toward the German model of higher education. Indeed the first professor of Greek at Harvard, the twenty-one-year-old Edward Everett (1794–1865), repaired to Germany for an intensive course of study (lasting more than four years) that would enable him to return to Boston in 1820 to take up the work of instilling rigorous classical scholarship in Harvard students and propagating the classical languages and literatures to a general audience in his popular public lectures. A move in the 1820s to give precedence to Greek over Latin in American schools died a quiet death, and Latin remained the more studied and better-known language. Charles Anthon of Columbia University brought out a notable critical edition of Horace in 1830, but the United States was not ready for advanced classical scholarship, and it was Anthon's Classical Dictionary (1841), a lexicon of Greco-Roman places and figures, that was the most appreciated and used of his scholarly efforts.

A fragment of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl" (1866) describes a young village schoolmaster retelling the classical tales.

Or mirth-provoking versions told
Of classic legends rare and old,
Wherein the scenes of Greece and Rome
Had all the commonplace of home,
And little seemed at best the odds
'Twixt Yankee peddlars and old gods;
Where Pindus-born Araxus took
The guise of any grist-mill brook,
And dread Olympus at his will
Became a huckleberry hill.

John Greenleaf Whittier, "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl," in Norton Anthology of American Literature, 4th ed., edited by Nina Baym et al. (New York: Norton, 1994), vol. 1, p. 1419.

With the establishment of such rigorous elite women's colleges as Vassar (1865), Wellesley (1875), and Smith (1875), middle-class women were offered classics programs similar to those of male colleges. In general, however, nineteenth-century women received less schooling, of which the classics made up only a small part. Walter J. Ong has argued that the grueling task of learning Latin and Greek in Renaissance colleges was the equivalent of an initiation rite for upper-class boys, marking their entrance into the tough outside world of men and separating them from the vernacular home and the domestic influence of women, a distinction still maintained in the nineteenth-century English-speaking world. The learning of Latin and Greek was traditionally seen as peculiarly masculine, outside the woman's sphere, and a woman learning the classical languages with their literature and myths was often considered a violation of femininity.

Even Almira Phelps, vice principal of Troy Female Seminary, a well-known, progressive girls' school in New York State, in her popular, frequently reprinted educational volume The Fireside Friend; or, Female Student (1840) shows a reluctance to tackle the subject of classical mythology, but she does so because the myths "are so interwoven with ancient classic literature, and so frequently alluded to, by modern writers, especially some of the best English poets, that an acquaintance with these fictions seems necessary, to those who aim at a knowledge of general literature" (p. 151). Thomas Bulfinch makes precisely the same point in his preface to The Age of Fable (1855), his ever-popular retelling of the Greek and Roman myths, when he assures that his book is for the reader "of either sex, who wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers, lecturers, essay-ists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation" (p. viii). Any upwardly mobile American needed at least a superficial acquaintance with the classics to keep up appearances of cultural literacy.


A classical education gave direction and purpose to several generations of lawyers whose oratory informed the political life of the young Republic. John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) and Daniel Webster (1782–1852) are supreme examples of classically trained political orators working in the first half of the nineteenth century, heirs to the oratory of Demosthenes and Cicero. In a younger generation, prominent figures such as the great Bostonian lawyer Rufus Choate, the Supreme Court judge Joseph Story, the chancellor of New York James Kent, and the secretary of state Edward Livingston all testified to the importance of classical literature in their daily lives and careers. Horace, Cicero, Virgil, Plutarch, Livy, Sallust, Tacitus, Thucydides, and Plato were their guiding lights. After 1825 classicism began to wane as a determining factor in American intellectual thought, and the role of the lawyer in Jacksonian America shifted toward specialization and more narrow concerns, moving away from the lofty ideal of lawyers as public intellectuals and ideological guardians of the Republic. The classical influence remained strong in the South and elsewhere could still work indirectly, as when Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), following such classically informed orators as Jefferson and Webster, became part of an important Ciceronian model in American politics.

On a more popular level, the classical tradition can be seen in Caleb Bingham's The Columbian Orator (1797), a standard nineteenth-century schoolboys' handbook notable for furnishing the young Frederick Douglass with his first lessons in rhetoric in 1830, before he escaped from slavery and began his career as orator and abolitionist. The book includes five classical orations—by Socrates, Cato, Cicero, and two Roman generals—in its selection of speeches, dialogues, and poems. Bingham includes a poem titled "Lines Spoken at a School-Exhibition, by a Little Boy Seven Years Old" that mentions Cicero and Demosthenes with familiarity, thus demonstrating the endurance of these two great models of oratory.


Through its association with high culture—the art, languages, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, the art and poetry of the European Renaissance and Baroque—the classical tradition represented a conservative, past-oriented, stable element in American culture. On the one hand, the nineteenth-century tendency to stress the "Apollonian" and proto-Christian side of classical antiquity complements the age's idealized picture of the noble, temperate, dignified world of classical antiquity, in particular Greece. On the other hand, the classical literatures, through their use of ancient history and traditional myths, their open treatment of sexuality, and their disruptive grappling with the dark side of the human psyche, could provide writers with a medium through which to question and subvert the dominant values of nineteenth-century America. The major authors of the American Renaissance or Romantic period—such as Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) in his novels The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860) or Herman Melville (1819–1891) in MobyDick (1851) and Pierre (1852)—use classical allusions as a kind of symbolic shorthand, highlighting themes and motifs, adding symbolic resonance to contemporary subject matter, setting up intertextual correspondences. They also use classical allusions as a way to signal subversive or forbidden material, such as a rebellion against the accepted norms of American society, a questioning of Christianity, or a celebration of sexuality. Hawthorne was classically trained at Bowdoin College, whereas Melville was self-taught through intensive reading in Shakespeare and translated classics, but both were steeped in an appreciation of classical literatures. The transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) also show the influence of classical reading in their works.

With the mid-century emergence of a huge though unsophisticated readership, the classical world reached this widening public in a variety of ways— through lexicons and handbooks such as Anthon's and Bulfinch's; through retellings of the myths for children, such as Hawthorne's A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853) or Charles Kingsley's (1819–1875) The Heroes (1857); through significant allusions in contemporary literature; and through the medium of the increasingly popular visual arts. Reproductions and imitations of classical statues and old masters exposed larger numbers of middle-class Americans of both sexes to the legacy of the Greco-Roman world while more and more were also traveling to Europe to view the real thing. Literary and popular journals, such as The Dial, the Southern Literary Messenger, the Nation, the New Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly, and even Godey's Lady's Book, paid respectful attention to classical literature by publishing reviews of translations and publications on classical literature and art as well as travel accounts, poems, and stories inspired by antiquity. Clearly the classical literatures and the Greco-Roman tradition were part of Americans' program for self-education and self-improvement. However, although colleges taught the great Athenian dramatists, these did not appear on the American stage until the late nineteenth century. The tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides were considered too dark and immoral for the American public. Dominated by melodrama for most of the century, the professional theater presented classical antiquity through the medium of Shakespeare and a few romantic tragedies; for example, Robert Montgomery Bird's (1806–1854) story of Spartacus, titled The Gladiator (1831), was based on Plutarch and Appian and written as a popular vehicle for Edwin Forrest (1806–1872), the leading actor in Jacksonian America. Plutarch was indeed one of the most popular and influential classical writers, much read in translation. Emerson himself wrote a laudatory essay on Plutarch in 1870.

Insofar as middle-class women increasingly entered the cultural marketplace as consumers and producers of art and literature, they saw classical literature both as an outmoded and immoral tradition, unsuitable for a Christian nation and a country looking toward a millennial future, and as part of a hitherto elitist masculine preserve, permeating all of Western culture and hence to be mastered if women wished to prove their intellectual parity with men. The mid-century ushered in the Victorian image of woman as chaste upholder of religion, spirituality, and the finer aspects of life in a materialistic and brutally commercial society. This perception of woman's betterment through Christianity—stressed, for instance, in the influential Sarah Josepha Hale's (1788–1879) lexicon of famous women, Woman's Record (1853)—can well explain women writers' indifference or hostility to classical literatures.

At the other end of the nineteenth-century spectrum stand those women who gained a masculine education, often through the encouragement of their fathers, and hence imbibed an understanding and appreciation of the classics. Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), Elizabeth Peabody (1804–1894), and Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) represent women writers of the transcendentalist circle who were notably concerned with questions of religion, philosophy, education, and art, striving to keep up with contemporary European scholarly achievements and to present them to a wider American public. They were active in making the classical tradition accessible to larger numbers of Americans, particularly women, through lectures, conversational classes, articles, and historical fiction (such as Child's novel of 1836, Philothea, set in Periclean Athens). Elizabeth Stoddard (1823–1902) uses allusions to classical literature in her New England domestic novel The Morgesons (1862) to ironically stress her heroine's lack of a classical education, cultural ignorance, and growing realization of sexuality. For the popular southern writer Augusta Jane Evans (1835–1909), classical allusions in Macaria (1864) and in her best-seller St. Elmo (1866) underscore the moral superiority and prodigious learning of her female protagonists; Evans was clearly catering to a culture-hungry reading public. Classical allusions could sell, as Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) recognized when she penned her amusing short story "Olympiana." This satiric sketch of the Greek gods and goddesses as a squabbling Victorian family, published in 1839 in Godey's Lady's Book, serves as a humorous advertisement for the popular journal when Zeus himself declares it worthy of Olympian patronage.


The classical world represented valuable cultural capital, made most visible in the important domain of classical sculpture, considered in the nineteenth century to represent the apogee of art and the model for the innumerable statues and statuettes that decorated the public and domestic spaces of Victorian America. Hiram Powers, Horatio Greenough, Thomas Crawford, William Wetmore Story, Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, and other American neoclassical sculptors spent many years in Italy, making copious use of classical literatures for subjects of their idealized statues and busts, such as Crawford's Orpheus and Cerberus (1838–1843), Hosmer's Medusa (1854), or Story's Cleopatra (1869). Part of the impact of these artworks derived from the viewers' acquaintance with the underlying classical context. The sculptors could count on the public's understanding of their classical allusions, even if these were filtered through later art or literature, as when Alfred, Lord Tennyson's (1850–1892) poem provided the inspiration for Hosmer's Oenone (1855).

These neoclassical sculptures found a home within neoclassical buildings springing up all over the United States. The Greek Revival became the first national style and dominated American architecture from about 1820 to 1860, just when the classical style of dress initiated by the French Revolution gave way to the Victorian or gothic mode of heavily structured clothes and expanding crinolines, and the rage for classical furniture waned. The classical style did remain important for monumental public buildings, while American gothic gradually took over in the sphere of domestic architecture. The distinction between classical and gothic was important, for it paralleled the contrast between paganism and Christianity, Hellenism and Hebraism. In America the struggle between classical and gothic in architecture and fashion was also a contention between two ways of viewing the United States, either as heir to Greek democracy and the Roman Republic or as the New Canaan and a leading light among Christian nations. Despite such counter-currents, the classical literatures, filtered through liter-ary and artistic allusions, kept hold of the American imagination. "The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" cast a diminished light but lived on in the culture of Victorian America.

See alsoArchitecture; Art; Colleges; Curricula; Education; Female Authorship; Manhood; Oratory; "Plymouth Rock Oration"; Proslavery Writing; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Adams, Samuel. "Samuel Adams to John Scollay, 30 Dec. 1780." In vol. 1 of The Writings of Samuel Adams, 4 vols., edited by Harry Alonzo Cushing. New York: Putnam's, 1904–1908.

Bingham, Caleb. The Columbian Orator. 1797. Edited by David W. Blight. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fable. 1855. In Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Gramercy, 1979.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. 1895. In Great Short Works of Stephen Crane. New York: Perennial, 2004.

Phelps, Almira. The Fireside Friend; or, Female Student: Being Advice to Young Ladies on the Important Subject of Education. Boston: Marsh, Capen, Lyon, and Webb, 1840.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "To Helen." 1831. In Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. 1901. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of the Exposition" (1871). In Leaves of Grass, 6th ed. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1881.

Yale College. Reports on the Course of Instruction in Yale College. New Haven, Conn.: Howe, 1828.

Secondary Works

Cooper, Wendy A. Classical Taste in America, 1800–1840. Baltimore and New York: Baltimore Museum of Art and Abbeville Press, 1993.

Ferguson, Robert A. Law and Letters in American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Jones, Howard Mumford. O Strange New World: American Culture; The Formative Years. New York: Viking, 1964.

Larrabee, Stephen A. Hellas Observed: The American Experience of Greece, 1775–1865. New York: New York University Press, 1957.

McManus, Barbara. Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics. New York: Twayne, 1997.

Nye, Russel Blaine. The Cultural Life of the New Nation, 1776–1830. New York: Harper, 1960.

Nye, Russel Blaine. Society and Culture in America, 1830–1860. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Ong, Walter J. "Latin Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite." In Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture, pp. 113–141. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Rawson, Elizabeth. "Appendix: Note on the United States." In The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, pp. 368–370. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Reinhold, Meyer. Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Myth and Literature in the American Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Vance, William L. America's Rome. Vol. 1, Classical Rome. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Winterer, Caroline. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

El˙zbieta Foeller-Pituch

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Classical Literature

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