North American Scholar

HIGHET, Gilbert Arthur

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1906-06-22
  • Born City: Glasgow
  • Born State/Country: Scotland
  • Parents: Gilbert, superintendent of telegraphs for the west of Scotland, & Elizabeth Gertrude Boyle H.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1978-01-20
  • Death City: New York
  • Death State/Country: NY
  • Married: Helen Clark Maclnnes, 22 Sept. 1932.
  • Education:

    M.A. (Logan Memorial Medal & Prize) Glasgow, 1928; D. Litt., 1951; B.A. (Craven Scholar & Chancellor's Prizeman) Oxford, 1932; M.A., 1936; D.Litt., 1956; Syracuse, 1960; Columbia, 1977; L.H.D. Case Inst. Tech., 1952; Adelphi, 1964; U. Mass., 1973.

  • Professional Experience:

    Fell. & tutor St. John's Coll., Oxford, 1932-7; vis. asso. class. Columbia, 1937-8; prof. Gk. & Lat. 1938-50; Anthon prof. Lat. lang. & lit., 1950-72; Guggenheim fell., 1951; chief literary critic, Harper's Magazine, 1952-4; mem. Board of Judges, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1954-77; chair edit. adv. bd. Horizon, 1958-77; fell. Royal Soc. Lit., 1959; Goodwin Award, 1963.

  • Publications:

    Books: O. Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (trans. with Helen Highet) (London, 1934); An Outline of Homer (London, 1935); G. Mayer, Friedrich Engels: A Biography (trans. with Helen Highet) (New York, 1936); W. Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (trans.) vol. I (Oxford, 1939; 2nd ed. New York, 1945); vols. 2-3 (New York, 1943-4); Beginning Latin (Oxford, 1938); The Classical Tradition (New York, 1949); The Art of Teaching (New York, 1950); People, Places, and Books (New York, 1953); Juvenal the Satirist (New York, 1954); Man's Unconquerable Mind (New York, 1954); The Migration of Ideas (New York, 1954), also published with the preceding as The Mind of Man (London & New York, 1954); A Clerk of Oxenford (New York, 1954); Poets in a Landscape (New York, 1957); Talents and Geniuses (New York, 1957); The Powers of Poetry (New York, 1960); The Anatomy of Satire (Princeton, 1962); Explorations (New York, 1971); The Speeches in Vergil's Aeneid (Princeton, 1972); The Immortal Profession (New York, 1976).

    Articles (Selected): “The Life of Juvenal,” TAPA 68 (1937) 480-506; “Petronius the Moralist,” TAPA 72 (1941) 176-94; “Rostagni's La let-teratura di Roma repubblicana ed Augustea,” (review) AJP 63 (1942) 92-104; “The Shipwrecked Slaver,” AJP 63 (1942) 462-6; “The Philosophy of Juvenal,” TAPA 80 (1949) 254-70; “Juvenal's Bookcase,” AJP 12 (1951) 369-94; “Sound-Effects in Juvenal's Poetry,” SPh 48 (1951) 697-706; “Libertino Patre Natus,” AJP 94 (1973) 268-81; “The Huntsman and the Castaway,” GRBS 14 (1973) 35-40; “Consonant Clashes in Latin Poetry,” CP 69 (1974) 178-85; “Lexical Notes on Dio Chrysotom,” GRBS 15 (1974) 247-53; “Speech and Narrative in the Aeneid,” HSCP 78 (1974) 189-229; “Masks and Faces in Satire,” Hermes 102 (1974) 321-37; “Lexical and Critical Notes on Dio Chrysostom,” GRBS 17 (1976) 153-6; “Mutilations in the Text of Dio Chrysostom,” in Ball (see below), 74-99.Kleine Schriften: R. J. Ball, The Classical Papers of Gilbert Highet (New York, 1983).Bibliography: The Classical Papers . . . , 349-78.

  • Notes:

    “For many years he was the most famous classical teacher in the world. The most highly respected in his own profession? No. A dry specialist like A. E. Housman, a diamond-hard and many-faceted genius like Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, although less widely known to the public, stood higher in the regard of their colleagues. But for many years everyone in the English-speaking world who heard any mention of Greek poetry at once thought of [him]. ... He became famous for a number of convergent reasons: because he was a superb teacher; because he translated Greek dramas into modem verse ... because he wrote fluently and gracefully on many themes, not all of them classical; because he talked well and often on the B.B.C.” So wrote Gilbert Highet of Gilbert Murray (The Immortal Profession, 145-146), and much the same, mutatis mutandis, might be said of Highet himself, who clearly saw in Murray’s career a model for his own. A scholar of no inconsiderable stature, a teacher of unsurpassed skill, he was best known for his exposition of the classics to the wider public. Here his gift for communication both oral and written, combined with the astonishing range of his intellectual interests, changed for untold thousands the image of classics from that of a narrow, dusty discipline to of an exciting study with broad relevance to modem literature and life.

    Gilbert Arthur Highet was born in Glasgow, that “hideous nineteenth- century industrial city.” His allusions to the early years were few and bleak: relief from the “glutinous gloom of a Scottish Sabbath” came from the world of books—the beginning of Highet’s lifelong passion for reading. His young mind was especially susceptible to the charms of poetry, and he later credited his early exposure to Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome with not only contributing toward his choice of classics as a profession but also preparing him emotionally for the eventual decision to be a citizen of a republic rather than a monarchy. As a pupil at the Hillhead High 

    School he received excellent preparation for his future studies, beginning at age eleven to learn French and Latin. Here he also had an early taste of the tutorial system when a schoolmaster, James Buchanan, noticing his promise, generously taught him Greek during lunch hours.

    He went on to study classics at Glasgow University, where J. S. Phillimore was one of his teachers. He had mixed feelings about Phillimore. He found him “suave” and his translations “graceful,” but he was also put off by his unimaginative, ploddingapproach to the ancient authors and by his indulging in pointless scholarly polemics while at the same time neglecting meaningful questions that would have addressedt he real interests and needs of the students. The negative lesson would be animportant one for Highet’s future career. As contributor to, and later editor of, the Glasgow University Magazine, he gave a sample of the wide range of critical and creative writing that would mark his later work. (This was the period, as he mockingly recalled, when he was “an aesthete, trying to be one of the avant-garde.”) Not least in importance of the events of the Glasgow University years was the meeting and winning of his future wife, the charming and talented Helen Maclnnes, whose literary interests would complement and stimulate his own.

    After the Glasgow M.A. with highest honors in Greek and Latin (1929), he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, as a Snell Exhibitioner. He loved Oxford, despite its creeping urban blight, and regarded his involvement in the tutorial system there in both the learning and teaching roles as one of the best experiences of his life. His tutor at Balliol was Cyril Bailey, but Gilbert Murray and C. M. Bowra were also molding forces. As he had at Glasgow, Highet contributed a broad range of pieces to university literary magazines, including poetry, fiction, and reviews. He even dabbled in theater, a not altogether surprising interest for one who would become a master showman in the classroom.

    In 1932 he earned the Oxford B.A. with a double first, won appointment as Fellow of St. John’s College, and on 22 September married Helen Maclnnes. The remaining five years at Oxford were busy with teaching and more ambitious writingprojects. In collaboration with his wife, who taught him German, he translated Kiefer’s Kulturgeschichte Roms as Sexual Life in Ancient Rome and Gustav Mayer’s life of Engels—choices that show that at this stage of his life, at least, he was scarcely a primconservative. During this period he also produced two textbooks, which he later omitted from his bibliography as “little juvenilia,” but which illustrate his lifelong concern for effective pedagogy. An Outline of Homer was addressed to the pupil withsimple Attic Greek and contains twenty-odd annotated passages from the Iliad and Odyssey selected to represent the whole spectrum of Homeric poetry and arranged under the heads “Character,” “Imagination” (viz., heaven, hell, Calypso’s island), and‘Life.” Beginning Latin was for even younger pupils and stopped short of the subjunctive, but it incorporated substantial amounts of Roman history in its exercises. At the same time Highet was composing lively versions for the Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation and launching a study of the poet Juvenal that would occupy him off and on for twenty years.

    In 1937 he came to Columbia University on a one-year appointment as Visiting Associate in Greek and Latin at the invitation of President Nicholas Murray Butler. The recommendation had come from Bowra, whom Butler had attempted to recruit without success. Within the year Highet was invited to stay permanently and was named Professor of Greek and Latin in a department recently decimated by death and retirements. Not only did his vigorous approach to teaching help his own department to survive at a difficult time for the classics, but his talents were also admirably suited to Columbia’s Humanities program, where he joined such luminaries as Moses Hadas, Mark Van Doren, and Lionel Trilling.

    In 1941 Highet went on leave for war service and joined British Security Coordination headquarters in New York, the hub for all branches of British intelligence. Commissioned in the British Army in 1943, he left as a lieutenant colonel in 1946 after having served with the British military government in Germany, where he was involved in helping to recover booty taken by the Nazis from occupied countries. The events of the war and the revelations of the war-crimes trials—some of which he attended—affected him profoundly, and very few of his subsequent books are without at least some allusion to Nazi barbarity or the evils of totalitarianism. (See, for example, the bibliographical note on concentration camps in Juvenal the Satirist, 289.) Even during the difficult wartime conditions Highet continued his translation of Werner Jaeger’s Paideia, the first volume of which had been completed before the war. The second and third volumes were translated directly from the German manuscript. In his preface to the former, Jaeger acknowledges Highet’s contribution in checking and discussing with him every disputable passage and in the whole process giving up several years of his own working life.

    With release from the military came the crucial decision to return to academe rather than to accept one of several more lucrative offers. So began a decade and a half of remarkable activity and productivity, in the course of which he published eleven books, lectured to packed classes at Columbia, wrote reviews for the popular press, gave weekly syndicated radio talks, and—in short—came as close as perhaps any American classicist will to being a household name. He could even be caricatured as the central figure in a murder mystery, Professor Campbell Craig, suave popularizer of the classics: see R. H. R. Smithies, An Academic Question (New York 1965).

    The Classical Tradition (1949), Highet’s first original scholarly book, was described by him as “an outline of the chief ways in which Greek and Latin influence has moulded the literatures of western Europe and America.” Twenty-four chapters rich in detail survey the classical legacy from the Dark Ages through the first half of the twentieth century. It was a bold enterprise of the sort that few men would attempt even at the end of a career and that nowadays would more likely be parceled out to a committee; yet Highet undertook it single-handedly in his early forties and, by and large, did it well. Virtually all the author’s hallmarks are already present: crispness of style, clarity of organization, control of a vast range of material, confidence in his own critical judgment, and belief in the moral value of literature. Some would see his style as “writing down,” his outline as oversimplified, his judgments as too uncompromising; but in most of his scholarly books Highet was also addressing the student and educated layman. Coverage is inevitably uneven: The Classical Tradition is strong on English and French literature, surprisingly thin on the Latin Middle Ages. E. R. Curtius, in a largely negative review, complained of a bias against German culture (Gnomon 23 [1951] 121-125). Generally, however, the work was well received (see the balanced reviews by J. A. K. Thomson, CR 1 [1951] 42-45, and J. Hutton, AJPh 73 [1952] 79-87), and it remains a valuable handbook, a passport between classical and modern literatures.

    The Art of Teaching (1950) enjoyed phenomenal commercial success, going through fourteen English printings and being translated into sixteen languages, from Arabic to Urdu. In it a master teacher shared not only practical suggestions drawn from his experience but also his sense of the awesome responsibility that went with the calling. For Highet felt his primary obligation was to teach, and he applied himself to the task with the utmost conscientiousness. His classroom performances were legendary. Attired in elegant pin stripes or jaunty tweeds, he would make his entrance, a smile on his face and a gleam in his eye, and proceed to keep the attention of every student riveted for the duration of the precisely timed lecture. He would punctuate his characteristic rapid, clipped delivery with an occasional roar or laugh and sometimes resort to gesticulation, mimicry, song, or even the use of props. Yet behind the theatricality lay scrupulous preparation and careful organization designed to make the student understand and remember each important point.

    The 1950s were momentous years for Highet. He became Anthon Professor of Latin in 1950 and a United States citizen by naturalization in 1951. Glasgow and     Oxford awarded him the D.Litt. in 1951 and 1956 respectively, and he was elected aFellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1959. Chief literary critic for Harper’s Magazine from 1952 to 1954, he resigned to become a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, a position he would hold until his death. In 1958 he was appointed chairman of the editorial advisory board of the new periodical, Horizon, to which he became a frequent contributor. His weekly radio talks, “People, Places, and Books,” begun in 1952 on WQXR in New York, proved enormously successful, and by the time they were discontinued in 1959 they were carried by more than 300 stations in North America as well as by the B.B.C. At once erudite and entertaining, they        covered topics as diverse as haiku and Housman, Bruegel and Bach. (Highet himself was an accomplished amateur piartist and was given to drawing analogies between literary and musical styles.) Some of the talks were made accessible on audio cassettes, and many of them were subsequently revised and published in five books of essays.Meanwhile, Helen Maclnnes had established herself as a best-selling author of novels featuring international intrigue, and husband and wife were soon dubbed “the Lunts" of literature.”

    The decade also saw the appearance of two of Highet’s books on classical subjects. He had long found Juvenal particularly congenial: as he remarked in another context but with personal insight, “Scots have never been averse from indulging in strong and even somber moralizing.” Twenty years of study had already resulted in a series of articles and now bore full fruit in Juvenal the Satirist (1954), the first major modern study of Juvenal as a poet. It consists of three parts: a reconstruction of the life of Juvenal from scraps of external and internal evidence (based on his 1937 article); a series of lively explications of the individual satires, which are given an extra dimension by copious modern parallels; and a survey of the survival and influence of Juvenal’s work from the late empire to modern times. The reception was mixed. While the Fortleben section was almost universally applauded, the biographical approach was just as widely decried: the reconstructed life is highly hypothetical, and using it to interpret the poems is hazardous, if not circular; indeed, most would consider it irrelevant. This approach permeates and to a certain extent flaws the entire central section. (See the reviews of E. J. Kenney, CR 5 [1955] 278-281 and R. G. M. Nisbet, JRS 45 [1955] 234-235.) An indication, however, of the book’s staying power may be seen in the fact that W. S. Anderson, who had expressed a harsh judgment at CP 50 (1955) 146-148, later revised his estimate in favor of a more balanced view: while not retreating from his criticism of the biographical approach, he acknowledges the book’s overall strengths (PACA 6 [1963] 45-49). Prominent among these are the notes and bibliography, which fill more than 100 pages and reflect Highet’s firm control of previous scholarship and interpretational problems; they have provided and will continue to provide a starting point for studies of the individual satires.

    Poets in a Landscape (1957) is in many ways the most personal of Highet’s classical books. Based on a visit to Italy and furnished with his own photographs and original verse translations, it represents in effect a pilgrimage in search of places associated with seven Roman poets (Catullus, Vergil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal); there are chapters on each of the seven, plus a concluding one on Rome itself. Highet’s propensity for taking the poems at face value, as though their authors were writing autobiography in verse, is here especially evident. (See the strictures of B. Otis at AJPh 79 [1958] 438-439.) But the book was scarcely intended as a significant contribution to scholarship. Charming by its often conscious fancifulness, it strikes a responsive chord in anyone who has ever visited a classical site on a similar quest, and it was fittingly honored by the Italian government with its Premio ENIT (Ente Nazionale Italiano per il Turismo).

    In 1960 Highet delivered four Trask Lectures at Princeton, the end product of which was The Anatomy of Satire Xl 962). In it he examines the nature of satire, considering it under the three heads—not mutually exclusive—of monologue, parody, and narrative. Although ancient examples are naturally included, he also discusses representatives as diverse as Mort Sahl, the “Dreadnought” hoax, Hogarth’s “Gin Lane,” and ironic chapters in Gibbon. The book is thus not a work of classical scholarship nor even a systematic analysis of satire as a literary form. In its extraordinary range it is reminiscent of The Classical Tradition;but, while its scope is greater, it does not differ greatly in kind from some of the general essays derived from his radio talks. The fair assessment by W. Krenkel in Gnomon 35 (1963) 355-359 is more appropriate, given the author’s intentions, than the wickedly amusing attack by E. C. Witke in CP 58 (1963) 260-264. In 1963, Highet received the American Philological Association’s Award of Merit for The Anatomy of Satire. It was certainly less deserving of that honor than The Classical Tradition or Juvenal the Satirist, but the likelihood is that the committee, while nominally recognizing his most recent book, was in reality paying homage to his lifetime achievement.

    The surge in graduate classics enrollments in the 1960s caused Highet to devote an increased portion of his time to directing doctoral dissertations. Over the course of his career he sponsored more than two dozen dissertations on Greek and Latin subjects, and nearly three-quarters of these were completed during the last ten years before his retirement. He took this aspect of his teaching responsibility as seriously as he did all others and gave generously of his time in providing meticulous criticism and guidance. It was characteristic of his flair and style that he would mark a successful defense by inviting the candidate to oysters and champagne. A number of his doctoral students became productive teacher-scholars, and one, Howard Jacobson, himself won the Award of Merit of the American Philological Association.

    Vergil was one of Highet’s favorite authors, and his graduate course on the Aeneid was a fixture of the Columbia curriculum. This long interest culminated in his last book on a classical subject, The Speeches in Vergil’s Aeneid (1972), completed shortly before his retirement. Whereas all of his other books had been designed to be accessible to the general reader, this work was clearly for the specialist and made no concessions to those without Greek and Latin. The author observes that nearly half the epic is devoted to direct speech but that the speeches as such have been largely neglected or imperfectly treated; he modestly hopes to fill the “small gap.” What is offered is a multifold analysis of the speeches, with attention to such aspects as the degree of formal rhetoric represented (Highet finds relatively little and thinks that Vergil distrusted oratory), the various types of informal speeches, and the distribution of speeches among the several characters. In seven careful appendixes occupying more than fifty pages, the speeches are catalogued and cross-catalogued by sequence, type, grouping, speaker, etc. Taken together, text and appendixes constitute a mine of statistics, but the book, far from being dry, is rich with perceptive obiter dicta, particularly in the chapter “The Speeches and Their Models,” where excellent use is made of G. N. Knauer’s fundamental work Die Aeneis und Homer (Gottingen, 1964). The book was generally well received, cf. E. J. Kenney at JRS 64 (1974) 276-277. It will certainly continue to be consulted for its valuable appendixes if nothing else.

    His retirement on 30 June 1972 was hastened in part by his disillusionment with Columbia and New York City. He was appalled by the student riots of 1968 and spoke of the revolutionaries with undisguised contempt. The sound of amplified oratory and rhythmic crowd shouts were chillingly reminiscent of a Nazi rally to a man who, while on his honeymoon in Bavaria, had heard Hitler speak at one. Butler Library was not burned, but Columbia was never the same for him. Nor was the increasingly dangerous New York, which at one time had ranked in his affections with Oxford and Paris. Although he and his wife retained their Park Avenue apartment, in 1970 they transferred their official residence to their summer home in East Hampton, Long Island. Freed from seminars and dissertations, he returned after a twenty-year hiatus to publishing scholarly articles in classical journals. A dozen appeared in four years, including a series of pieces on Dio Chrysostom and a parting defense of his biographical approach (Hermes 102 [1974] 321-337). In 1976 he brought out his last book, The Immortal Profession, which, fittingly, dealt with teaching. Published a quarter-century after The Art of Teaching and dedicated to his students of forty years, it is at once a touching retrospective and a resounding reaffirmation of his tenets, now with particular application to the life of the teacher-scholar and the training of college teachers.

    On 20 January 1978, Gilbert Highet died of cancer at the age of seventy-one. His personality and career have been variously judged. The brisk, hearty manner struck some as distant and lacking in real warmth, if not arrogant, and many even of his immediate colleagues were too awed by the overwhelming force of his person to become close. Yet beneath the sophisticated, man-of-the-world exterior some would see a certain diffidence. He remained in many ways a product of his Scottish Calvinist upbringing, a rigid moralist with faith in such old-fashioned virtues as hard work. He believed in the effectiveness of literature as a force on men’s lives and in the particular value of Greek and Latin authors as embodying permanent moral and intellectual standards. He dedicated his extraordinary mental energy to studying this literature and—in the fullest sense—to teaching it. Although certain members of his profession applied the label “popularizer” to him as though it were a badge of shame, he wore it equably, confident in the rightness of his creed that the classical scholar’s “first duty is to know the truth, and his second is to make it known” (Classical Tradition, 500).

  • Sources:

    The Classical Papers . . . , 1-11; S. P. Bovie, “Highet and the Classical Tradition,” Arion 6 (1967) 98-115; W. M. Calder III, “Gilbert Highet, Anthon Professor of Latin, Emeritus,” CW 66 (1972-73) 385-7; idem, “Gilbert Highet,” Gnomon 50 (1978) 430-2; B. Campbell, “Gilbert Highet, Scholar and Poet, Dies of Cancer at the Age of 71,” NYTimes (21 January 1978) 24; M. Crosby, “Gilbert Highet: A Remembrance,” College Board Review 108 (Summer 1978) 28-30; M. A. Farber, “Columbia's Highet Is Retiring Today,” NYTimes (30 June 1972) 12; C. McCarthy, “Gilbert Highet: A Teaching Career of Lifelong Delights,” Washington Post (31 Jan. 1978) A, 19; “Professor Gilbert Highet: Teacher and Popularizer of the Classics,” Times (London) (26 Jan. 1978) 16; T. A. Suits, “Gilbert Highet,” in Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia, ed. W. W. Briggs & W. M. Calder III (New York, 1990) 183-91; R. W. Winks, Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War 1939-1961 (New York, 1987), 169. For additional items, see Ball, 13-4. Papers: Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

  • Author: Thomas A. Suits