Thursday, May 14, 2015


F. J. Sypher, Charles Anthon: American Classicist. Scholars' facsimiles & reprints, 566. Ann Arbor: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 2015. Pp. xii, 222. ISBN 9780820115665. $55.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Stray, Swansea University; University of London (

Version at BMCR home site

In 1959 the author of this book entered Columbia University, the latest of several generations of males in his family to study there.1 In the Graduate School, where he majored in English and Comparative Literature, one of his formative experiences was to work in the Classics Library under the gaze of Charles Anthon, whose full-length portrait hung there. Sypher resolved that one day he would write about Anthon; but when he proposed the topic to Gilbert Highet, his Classics professor, Highet pointed him instead at Lewis and Short's Latin dictionary, a book still in daily use, as Anthon's many books no longer were. The result was an excellent article that is a standard reference on the topic.2 For several decades, however, Sypher collected material on Anthon, and this book is the result. It is welcome not only as the only full account of Anthon's life and work, but because it is thoroughly researched and well written. It is to be hoped that its publication in a facsimile and reprint series will not prevent it being discovered and read, especially as it is very well designed, with an elegant layout complemented by Van Dijck type.

Chapter 1, 'Detroit and New York', recounts Anthon's family history. His father was a doctor of German birth who married a Frenchwoman in Detroit before moving to New York in 1787. Anthon was born there in 1797, baptised as 'Carl'; he matriculated at Columbia College (as it then was) in 1811, graduating at the top of his class in 1815. Chapter 2 deals with Anthon's brief career in law, in his brother's law office, before he was appointed to a junior professorship in Classics at Columbia in 1820. In Chapter 3 we have a nicely detailed account of Anthon's long reign (1828-64) as headmaster of the College's grammar school, a post he combined from 1830 with the Jay professorship of Greek and Latin (from 1837 of Greek alone) at the College itself. The stern figure depicted in the frontispiece portrait shows why Anthon early acquired the nickname 'Bull', though this later mellowed into 'Pop'. Anthon's professorship is explored in Chapter 4, which gives details of his teaching, stressing the extensive use of short excerpts from ancient texts, a common practice at a time when grammar, syntax and metre were seen as more important than literary value.

In Chapter 5 we are given a substantial account of Anthon's publications. He brought out an edition of Potter's Archaeologia Graeca in 1818 and of Lemprière's Classical Dictionary in 1825; further editions of Lemprière followed, some in collaboration with another prolific book-maker, the British scholar E. H. Barker. 'Anthon's Classical Dictionary' led the field in the US for several decades, though in a period when international copyright did not exist, he also produced pirated versions of the British scholar William Smith's well-known classical dictionaries. Extensive copying from other scholars, usually from German authors, was common in the nineteenth century, but Anthon ran into strong criticism from Britain in the 1840s over his use of material from the Penny Cyclopedia. He was also the subject of attacks from Boston, part of a long-standing cultural rivalry between Bostonians and New Yorkers. Sypher discusses the controversy in useful detail (pp.81-94). In some ways Anthon's most remarkable book was his vast edition of Horace (1830), more than 1,000 pages long, based on Doering's German edition, though it had few reviews, and Anthon quickly produced cut-down versions that sold much better. Its encyclopedic ambitions, reminiscent of Anthon's revision of Lemprière, were displayed in the lengthy title, which promised 'notis… ad aestheticen, historiam, geographiam, mythologiam, archaeologiam, remque botanicam, spectantibus'. Some of his later editions of classical authors were also substantial productions: the Aeneid of 1843 was over 900 pages long, as was an edition of Iliad I-VI, which included two versions of the text, one with the digamma and one without.

Chapter 6 discusses Anthon's correspondents, including E. H. Barker and the German editor of Virgil, Philipp Wagner. Also dealt with is Anthon's involvement in 1828 in the authentication (or otherwise) of the 'golden tablets' allegedly inscribed by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The confusion surrounding this episode, extensively written up by Mormons and their critics, is exacerbated by the fact that the two accounts given by Anthon himself are contradictory. The chapter closes with an account of Anthon's library, which after his death went to Cornell University, which outbid Anthon's own university; it thus joined the library of Franz Bopp rather than that of Lorenzo da Ponte.

Chapter 7 deals with Anthon's private life. Sypher points out that Anthon had hardly any social life, and that this was not surprising, given his prolific book-making and his two occupations as headmaster of the grammar school and Columbia professor. Apart from a trip to a family home in Detroit in 1826, Anthon never travelled, apart from what his pupil, successor and memorialist Henry Drisler called his 'annual migration'; he spent the winter in his library on the ground floor of his home, moving to a higher floor for the summer. His home was shared with his two sisters and a disabled brother, all like him unmarried, whom he supported till his death.

The book ends with two appendices, the first reprinting a memoir of Anthon by an ex-pupil, the second tracing the history of the portrait of Anthon that inspired Sypher to write about him. An annotated bibliography includes Anthon's own works, British versions, reviews of his books and works about him.

This book is clearly a labour of love, assembled by an experienced historian with a strong sense of place and tradition. It has a lot to say not just about Anthon, but also about the Columbia and the New York of the nineteenth century. Its strong local focus helps to explain the lack of wider comparative analysis. Sypher compares Anthon with his own teacher Gilbert Highet, another prolific populariser, though one who unlike Anthon produced high-level scholarly works. Looking further afield, one can find other scholars to compare to Anthon: most notably, William Smith and Thomas Key. Both were associated, as Anthon was, with a metropolitan university that included a school. Like Anthon, Key held a chair, in his case at the University of London, while also being headmaster of the University's junior department (later University College School). Smith, a pupil at the school, was like Anthon an indefatigable author and editor of a series published under his name, by John Murray of London, as Anthon's was by Harper and Brothers of New York.

The other area where more context would have been welcome is the location of Anthon's work within nineteenth-century American scholarship. Sypher mentions that Anthon brought the results of German scholarship to the US through his books, but there were others who did the same at a higher level; in particular, George Bancroft, Edward Everett and Cornelius Felton. In the second quarter of the century, they and a few other men promoted a study of Hellenism inspired by German Wissenschaft, which most of them had absorbed in Germany itself, as Anthon himself never did. This movement has been very well described by Caroline Winterer.3These reservations aside, Sypher places Anthon firmly and effectively in a number of contexts. In her own book, Winterer was able to refer only to a four-page article on Anthon; in future, Sypher's book will be the standard resource.


1.   F.J. Sypher, 'A Columbia family', Columbia Library Columns, Winter 1995, 11-25.
2.   F.J. Sypher, 'A history of Harper's Latin Dictionary', Harvard Library Bulletin 20 (1972), 349-66.
3.   C. Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual life 1780-1910, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002.

1 comment:

  1. Christopher Stray’s sympathetic and impressively well-informed review is very welcome. I would like please only to present some information that has come to light since the book was published.

    In chapter 1, p. 3, it is stated of Anthon’s father, George Christian Anthon: “By 1789 he had moved to 6 Broad Street, and around 1793 he again moved to 11 Broad Street.” In fact, there was no move in 1793—only a change of house numbers, as explained by I. N. Phelps Stokes in The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 6 vols. (New York: Robert H. Dodd, 1915–1928), vol. 5 (1926), p. 1302.

    In chapter 3, p. 48, Anthon, as rector of the Columbia Grammar School, refers to boys from another school as “Sammy-go-Softlies” because they were more orderly than his own somewhat rowdy pupils. The name recalls a fictional character, Sam Softly, in Samuel Johnson’s The Idler, no. 93 (January 26, 1760).

    In chapter 3, p. 50, there is mention of Anthon’s “deeply weeded” top hat—an expression that I was not sure how to interpret. But at that time—around 1860—the phrase would have been recognized as referring to his unusually wide black hatband, known as a “mourning weed,” signifying that he was in deep mourning. Cf. p. 155 where there is a discussion of the mourning hatband as shown in the frontispiece photograph of Anthon.

    In chapter 7, p. 125, in commenting on a prank wedding notice about Anthon in the New-York Daily Tribune of April 1, 1846, it is stated: “The fictional names undoubtedly contain allusions whose point is now lost. I do not know of any record of the professor’s reaction to this April Fool’s stunt.” Actually, the name of the minister, the Rev. Jonathan M. Warnright, alludes to Jonathan M. Wainwright (1792–1854), who was in charge of St. John’s Chapel of Trinity Parish, at St. John’s Square, several blocks north of the Park Place campus of Columbia College. Furthermore, two days later Anthon published a good-humored reply, suggesting to “friends and acquaintances the propriety of their withholding their kind congratulations a space, since Mr. Anthon has not yet that very desirable happiness.” New-York Daily Tribune, April 3, 1846, p. 2, col. 5.

    Bibliography, p. 209: Christopher Stray kindly pointed out to me in a private communication that there are letters from Anthon to E. H. Barker in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It should also be mentioned that Moses Hadas comments sympathetically on Anthon in Old Wine, New Bottles: A Humanist Teacher at Work (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 103—a reference that I saw too late to be able to include it. If the book should go into a second printing I would hope to be able to insert these and perhaps other minor revisions.