April 4, 2007: Features

Anthony Grafton

Anthony Grafton in his home office, next to the reading wheel that allows him to consult reference books easily. (Ricardo Barros)

Anthony Grafton

As a child, Grafton was exposed to a social circle that included intellectual journalists and cultural figures, and he had an early interest in Greek. (Courtesy Anthony Grafton)

Anthony Grafton

Grafton with his parents after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1975.

Anthony Grafton

Grafton celebrates Class Day 2006 with seniors who studied in his seminars. From left, Julia Friedlander, Kyle Weza, Grafton, Mason Williams, Amy Widdowson, Duncan Sahner, Erik Linstrum, and Iva Kleinova.

(Courtesy Anthony Grafton)

The humanist
Anthony Grafton’s life in the past and the present

By Christopher Shea ’91

Modern Americans face no shortage of time pressures, but we have no idea what it really means to fear the sweep of a clock’s arms — at least not in comparison with 16th-century Europeans. “The guilty secret obsession of early modern society,” Anthony Grafton, Princeton’s Henry Putnam University Professor of History, has written, “was neither sex nor money, but the desperate desire to use time well.”

That line comes from the second volume of the work that made Grafton’s reputation, an intellectual biography of Joseph Justus Scaliger, a Frenchman and one of the most learned men of his age. (Scaliger died in 1609, at 69.) In that book, Grafton held up the grand, three-story-tall astronomical clock in the Strasbourg Cathedral as emblematic of the era’s time obsession. On it, there was a clock face, yes, but also astronomic devices depicting the motion of planets, charts tracking eclipses, and calendars laying out religious feast days. Automated figures represented the days of the week (in the guise of the pagan gods that gave the days their names), while embodiments of Time itself and Death made appearances, too. A tableau evoked the stages of man’s life, the passing of earthly empires, and the Biblical time line from Creation to the Second Coming. Every second, the believer standing before the clock would understand, was an irreversible step toward God’s final judgment.

Time, in a slightly different sense, was also a great passion of Scaliger and his scholarly peers across Europe. They spent their days engaged in linguistic analysis of classical and Biblical — and sometimes Byzantine, Egyptian, and Persian — texts, as well as the related enterprise of dating the events depicted in those texts, the latter an astoundingly complex task requiring immense knowledge of languages, history, and astronomy. (Because of the variability of, and flaws in, ancient calendars, references to eclipses and other heavenly events in texts often were the only way to pin down dates.) The scholars’ holy grail was to create a time line of all human history, beginning with Creation, which, their calculations agreed, occurred circa 4000 B.C.

This world of time obsession and titanic scholarship is the one Grafton is trying to think himself back into this year, during a sabbatical made possible by a $1.5 million Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award that he received in 2003. His Scaliger biography, completed in 1993, covered one learned man’s work in chronology. Now the 57-year-old historian is taking a more panoramic approach, exploring how approaches to chronology varied across Europe.

He has traipsed through Europe’s and America’s great libraries on his quest, but he’s also spending many days, beginning at 5 a.m., in his home office, at his modern ranch-style house near Lake Carnegie, consuming formidable Latin texts. On a recent cold February day, a daunting tome by Johannes Kepler sat open on the desk in his study, propped up above a Macintosh laptop. “Everyone knows he was a great scientist,” Grafton says. “If you’ve taken a history of science course, you might remember he’s the one who works out that the paths of planets are actually ellipses, and that the sun is at one focus of the ellipse. Well, Kepler was tremendously interested in chronology. If you read his letters, dozens of pages of discussion are about chronology — and not just astronomy. A lot of it is about the chronology of the Bible, and the knottiest problems, like dating the Passion of Jesus, or trying to sort out the kings of Israel and Judaea — which can drive you nuts.”

These are not exactly hot academic topics today: Most of the chronological problems that fascinated Kepler and his peers have been either solved or abandoned as misguided. “It is hard to convey that fascination now,” Grafton says, “but I just feel that one’s picture of their world is incomplete if this isn’t there.” What’s more, out of the debates over chronology grew important codes of scholarly discourse that live on today.

More than one person has suggested that Grafton bears a resemblance to the polymaths he studies. He looks the part, with his full gray beard — a few inches today, considerably more Trotskyesque in the late ’90s — and perhaps even his slightly hobbled walk, the result of a back strained from so much sitting and reading. He speaks in printable paragraphs, has a memory some call photographic, and speaks or reads eight languages. Like the men he writes about, he wastes no time: He walks the two-mile route from his house to Dickinson Hall with his nose in a book.

His home office has an anachronistic feel, too: It’s dominated by a wooden reading wheel, 6 feet tall and a couple of feet across — think of a small Ferris wheel with shelves instead of seats. It’s a replica of a device used by early modern academics, left over from an exhibition he once curated. From his seat he can rotate any one of eight shelves into view by spinning the wheel. With a tug, Grafton rotates past Greek, Latin, and Hebrew lexicons until a book on eclipses drops into view. “Not everyone has Eclipses for Humanists,” he observes dryly.

Grafton has been a strong intellectual presence in the history department since his arrival in 1975. As he started to write essays in the ’80s for nonspecialist publications like The American Scholar, he began to attract notice outside the academy as well. By now he has written nine single-author books, from the daunting Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance to more accessible essay collections, including Bring Out Your Dead and Defenders of the Text, with their deft sketches of early modern figures profound, bizarre, or both. (There’s also the improbably compelling The Footnote: A Curious History.) But, if anything, his academic and extra-academic prominence has ratcheted upward in the last few years. He’s a regular writer these days at both The New York Review of Books and, as of last year, The New Yorker, for which he has explicated Pope Benedict XVI’s writings and reviewed a book that discussed, among other things, the history of “charismatic” professors, such as the 19th-century German classicist Theodor Mommsen, treated by his students as a god.

But just as interesting is how Grafton has emerged as a mover and shaker at Princeton over the past decade — one with twin goals: ensuring the strength of the humanities and enriching campus intellectual life. “He has done more over the last 10 years than anyone else to give the humanities at Princeton the profile they deserve,” says William Gleason, an associate professor of English. As chairman of the Council of the Humanities from fall 2002 through last spring, Grafton showed an impresario’s talent for concocting events that drew crowds. In May 2005, for example, he convened editors and former editors from such publications as Threepenny Review, Cabinet, and Slate for a discussion about the role of the “little magazine” in an era of media consolidation. At another event, intended to demonstrate the different approaches to art taken by different breeds of intellectuals, novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White, historian Sean Wilentz, and scholar of 20th-century literature and film Maria DiBattista discussed — and sometimes clashed over — the Hemingway short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” At these gatherings, Grafton invariably plays the erudite emcee.

Working behind the scenes as the humanities chair, he also got Nassau Hall to sign off on a new award for humanities professors, the Old Dominion Professorships, through which the Humanities Council will pay for a second semester of leave (on top of the single semester tenured professors automatically get every three or four years), with the condition that the recipients stay in Princeton during their teaching-free year. They’re asked to devise activities or presentations that enliven the campus humanities scene. Next year, for example, music professor Paul Lansky, one of six recently announced honorees — Gleason is another — will be finishing a concerto for two pianos and orchestra, while also leading public music-listening sessions. Having people leave the campus for outside research centers during their most intellectually productive years isn’t ideal, Grafton says, and now “the humanities community on the campus doesn’t lose people when they are in this moment of pushing forward, thinking new thoughts. That seems to me very valuable.” Grafton was a member of the committee that drew up plans for strengthening the arts on campus. And, with other prominent humanists, he pushed for the renovation of down-at-the-heels East Pyne — a push that coincided with a $25 million gift from Gerhard Andlinger ’52. Now East Pyne is a showcase for the humanities, with new seminar rooms, an auditorium, a café, and public space for receptions.

Look around, and you find evidence of Grafton’s handiwork — like new academic awards for juniors (that is, early induction into Phi Beta Kappa), and a recruiting program for extraordinary high school students whose interests lie in the humanities (a group that has tended to overlook Princeton). “One difference between Harvard and Princeton is that at Harvard no one person — except, maybe, the president — can change the institution,” Grafton says one afternoon in his office. “Princeton is still small enough that one person, with effort, can make a difference.”

Grafton has a new forum this year, somewhat less lofty than The New Yorker, for airing his views about what works and doesn’t at Princeton: a biweekly column in The Daily Princetonian. An omnivorous reader online as well as off — online, he grazes the main political sites as well as the most arcane corners of the blogosphere — he had been toying with the idea of starting a blog himself when the Prince approached him. In his inaugural column, he said the trustees and administrators had made him proud to be a Princetonian when they abolished early decision. He quickly got quirkier and more provocative. In October, he uncorked a cocktail-party-style riff on the aesthetic crimes of Princeton architecture, from feeble neo-Gothic structures to the fluorescent oppressiveness of the Frist Campus Center. (In contrast to warm campus centers elsewhere, “Frist ... offers concrete floors, garden furniture, and lighting designed to make anyone who comes in look like a diseased lover in a German Expressionist painting.”) His usual rhetorical gambit is to link criticism with warm praise. In an October offering on the abiding question of Princeton vs. Yale, Grafton said that Yale classes have “more pop and spark than Princeton precepts” (or so his ex-students teaching there told him — Grafton attended the University of Chicago), and said he far preferred Yale’s social system. But he ended with a paean to Princeton’s less cutthroat, more supportive atmosphere, and, most of all, to the “great bungee jump into the archival unknown” that is the senior thesis. Coaching students working on theses, he said, was one of the great joys of his teaching life, and, in comparison, Yale’s senior projects are “exercises.” “I love to visit Yale,” he concluded, “but I know why Princeton is home.”

More recently, he expressed concern about the growing gap in resources between private and public colleges, as state legislatures pinch their budgets. And he has worried aloud, citing both moral and pragmatic reasons, that rich universities are not giving enough back to society. “I am not at all sure,” he wrote in December, “that the world will simply go on handing us money to build more horrors and subsidize more future bankers.”

Picking up a torch formerly carried by John Fleming *63, the recently retired English professor who also wrote a column for the student newspaper, Grafton often raises the alarm that the Princeton experience does not always live up to the ideal of brilliant professors working hand-in-hand with committed undergraduates. Precepts — Woodrow Wilson’s vision for a new kind of college class — have long since devolved into exactly the sort of discussion groups every other university has, he has pointed out. “After two decades of seminars, Princeton still does not provide an intensely intellectual environment for most undergraduates,” he told the Prince last fall, in an article marking the 20th anniversary of the freshman seminars, which Grafton helped to found. Students share the blame: “[M]any here tune out the academic side of things pretty effectively.”

In his office in Dickinson, hemmed in by dozens of boxes of books — a remodeling has cut into his shelf space — Grafton expands a bit on that last claim. At least at Princeton, the charge that a significant proportion of students are detached from the intellectual life often runs up against the counterclaim that professors overvalue intellectualism and fail to appreciate other aspects of college. “I don’t think I want to turn my students into Professor IQ,” Grafton protests, chuckling, adding that he found Princeton “refreshing” after his years as an undergraduate and graduate student at the monastically brainy Chicago. Rather, he describes himself as a participant in a healthy struggle to shape the University.

“The American university is classically this field of forces,” he says. “Professors are wooing students to spend their time and passion and energy on learning. Coaches are wooing them to spend their time and passion on the athletic field. The arts programs and things like [Theatre] Intime are wooing them to perform and to write and join a chorus line at Triangle.

“And that is as it should be — but if I’m going to be struggling, I can’t say, ‘Yes, let’s have a nice balance,’” he continues. “Because the coaches, believe me, are not doing that.” He adds: “I feel that we [professors] make our contribution by being fairly inelastic about what we care about, which is the intellectual part of the University.” In Grafton’s telling, one such tug-of-war of interests resulted unusually directly in the Humanities Symposium, the program that shows off Princeton’s strengths in the humanities to high school seniors. Serving on a faculty task force on undergraduate admissions in 1998, Grafton found himself disagreeing with Fred Hargadon, the former admission dean, on such perennial questions as how many slots should be reserved for athletes, and on the importance of “well-roundedness” as an admission criterion. Some of the professors thought the admission system’s priorities helped explain why Princeton wasn’t attracting more poets, musicians, and future historians. “[Hargadon] said, ‘You guys complain about the coaches,’” Grafton recalls. “‘But they are out there wooing these kids, feeding them rubber chicken, telling them that they will be treated well here and will have a good time. Why don’t you guys do the same thing?’”

Grafton and some of the other professors, he says, “looked at each other with a wild surmise.” Hargadon, Grafton, and the chairman of the German department, Michael Jennings, went to the deans with their idea, and shortly afterward, the new humanities outreach program was born. Since 2000, each fall, 65 to 80 of the best high school students with a passion for the humanities have been hosted on campus for a weekend of heady lectures, seminars, and discussions with Princeton students — and as many as half end up enrolling at Princeton. Last fall’s program centered on the theme of Paris in the 19th century.

Grafton’s biography offers a few clues to the sources of his convictions. Samuel Grafton, his father, “fought his way through Philadelphia public schools with classes of 60 to a scholarship at Penn,” Grafton has written. He went on to become a star columnist at the New York Post, in the long-gone days when it was a liberal beacon. The Graftons moved from Connecticut to a modest apartment on the Upper East Side when Anthony was 12 and, by that time, his parents had a social circle that included both intellectual journalists and cultural figures. When Anthony developed an interest in Greek, the family had the wherewithal to hire a tutor and later to send him to the Trinity School and then Phillips Andover.

After Andover, Grafton went on to the University of Chicago, where Hanna Gray, a historian and later the Chicago president, nudged him from classics into what Grafton has called the mare magnum of early modern texts in Latin. (He didn’t apply to Princeton because his family viewed it as tainted by anti-Semitism.) After graduating in 1971, he studied in London under the Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano, then continued his graduate study at Chicago.

While Grafton shares his father’s liberal political bent, he also has respect for elite traditions and institutions. He is nostalgic for the foreign language abilities that Princeton’s more privileged student body possessed in the mid-’70s: “When the student body was still very preppy — still 50 percent or so from prep schools — I could ask students in a 300-level course to write a paper using a secondary source not in English. I couldn’t do that today.” A senior seminar Grafton teaches on historiography (for the last two years, he has co-taught it with historian James McDougall) has become a springboard to graduate school for some of the most academically talented seniors, but students who have worked with him don’t see any preference on his part for those on the academic fast track. Amy Widdowson ’06, for example, says her main interest at Princeton was the theater, not scholarship (“I’m not an intellectual”) — and so she was skeptical when another professor suggested she approach Grafton, somewhat late in the game, to advise a senior thesis on mid-20th-century European intellectual émigrés with links to Princeton. “He is known to seniors in history as the holy grail of advisers,” she says — so why would he take her?

He not only said yes, they ended up bonding over theater discussions — he designed theatrical lighting as an undergraduate and his wife, Louise, teaches the design of props at Rutgers. Grafton also attended a couple of Widdowson’s performances. Academically, Widdowson says, “he would push so hard. I ended up graduating with honors, which is something I never thought would happen.”

Hans Leaman ’00, who is now pursuing a J.D. and a Ph.D. in history at Yale, recalls that when he fell behind on his ambitious thesis, on the concept of exile in the Reformation, Grafton made him an offer: Get a draft to his house every day by 4 a.m., and Grafton would read it and annotate it by 7:30 that morning. “I see so many academics who get cynical — who scoff at those who haven’t had the opportunity to be as highly educated as they are,” says Leaman. “He always seems to be doing his work out of pure joy and happiness.”

In his own work on early modern Europe, Grafton comes back again and again to the notion of the Republic of Letters, by which he means the emergence, during a time of ferocious religious conflict in Europe, of a transnational culture of learning. Scholars set sectarian differences aside to debate questions of linguistics or chronology. And when they entered politics, they tended to do so in areas related to their own expertise — as when one noted 16th-century scholar, Isaac Casaubon, intervened to stop the forced conversion, in England, of a Jewish teacher from whom he once had learned Hebrew.

That, not punditry on every subject under the sun, is the model for how intellectuals should enter the public arena, Grafton says: They should emerge from the library when their knowledge is relevant, then return to it. He himself made a mild foray into politics in January, in The New Republic, in an essay inspired by his son, Samuel. Samuel joined the Marines after graduating from the University of Chicago in 2002 and flies Blackhawk helicopters — for now, he is based in Okinawa. (The Graftons also have a daughter, a graduate student in history at King’s College, London.) In the essay, Grafton argued that he and his fellow humanities professors had grown far too detached from and ignorant about the military in recent decades.

But if professors need to get acquainted with the military, he continued, the military needs humanists, too — to augment the advice it gets from ideologues and policy intellectuals. “One lesson of the last few years, surely, is that we should ignore pundits and listen to people who know what they’re talking about,” he wrote. “We humanists know a few important things. We know that language is more powerful than any other weapon and that you can’t change the ideas of someone you can’t talk to. We know that local history and lived culture shape men and women in ways that no amount of violence can change.” He has had e-mail exchanges with some military officers who contacted him after the essay appeared, and they have batted around some ideas for how such a mutual encounter might occur.

As a vice president of the American Historical Association this year he has a platform from which to influence the practices of institutions beyond Princeton — calling, for example, on history departments to make their job-placement track records public, so that entering Ph.D. students have a better sense of what they’re getting into.

This year, however, will mostly be a year spent in libraries and his home office, on the work that gives him credibility in the first place. Aside from the daunting chronology book, there’s a richly illustrated spin-off, co-written with Daniel Rosenburg, a historian at the University of Oregon, about visual representations of time through human history. With another co-author, he’s finishing a book about the scholar Isaac Casaubon’s dealings with and opinions concerning Jews, and — in yet another collaborative project (it’s the Republic of Letters in action!) — a cultural history of obelisks in Europe. Then there’s a textbook on Western civilization to attend to, and a book on learned magic that needs one more chapter.

In general, Grafton says, the humanities disciplines at Princeton are healthy, with enrollments steady. The number of English majors was down from 181 in 1996 to 116 last year, but philosophy is up (from 37 to 70), as is classics (19 to 40) — a shift that might be attributed to Princeton’s campaign to get students to consider small majors. History has about 200 majors. But students and parents often question the humanities’ economic payoff and administrators find them easy to overlook, because they don’t require big-ticket labs or other equipment. And so humanists know they’ll always need articulate defenders.

Over bagels and coffee one morning at his house, Grafton is asked to defend something he often says when promoting the worth of humanistic study: that the tradition knows more than we do. “I believe there are great traditions,” he says. “You can see they are great empirically because they hold people’s attention, fascination, passion, for centuries — and more than centuries. There are religious traditions that have held people together, practicing the same way, arguing the same questions for centuries, and I think that there are also literary works that are great in something of the same way.

“And my belief is that those things are inexhaustible, partly because of their great richness, and partly because they inspire you to bring things to them. You see parts of yourself in them that the author couldn’t have known was there.” Works like the Bible, or the Aeneid, or Hamlet “are big texts, and we are little people.” Grafton can point to wealthy alumni who were “good Princeton humanists” and rattle off campus Latinists who went on to land consulting jobs on the strength of their analytical abilities, but the questions about an instant payoff for humanities studies represent “a fundamental misunderstanding of the role an institution like Princeton plays in one’s career.”

“In sober fact,” he observes, “very few of our students end up sleeping in cardboard boxes.” Sure, the 16th-century chronology wars and Isaac Casaubon might be best left to the professional historian. But, after talking to Grafton, one can’t help but wonder: If Ivy League students can’t spare time to study the humanistic questions that men and women have puzzled over for centuries, then who can? end of article

Christopher Shea ’91 writes a biweekly column for The Boston Globe’s Ideas section and contributes to the Globe’s blog Brainiac.



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