North American Scholar
JOHNSTON, Harold Whetstone
A.B. Illinois Coll. (Jacksonville), 1879; A.M., 1882; Ph.D.(hon.), 1891; A.M. (privatim) Indiana U., 1911; L.H.D., Kenyon, 1909; LL.D., Illinois Coll., 1909.
- Professional Experience:
Instr. to prof. Lat. Illinois Coll. 1880-95; prof. Lat. Indiana U., 1895-1912.
M. Tulli Ciceronis Orationes et epistulae selectae (Chicago, 1896); Latin Manuscripts: An Elementary Introduction to the Use of Critical Editions for High School and College Classes (Chicago, 1897); A Collection of Examples Illustrating Metrical Licenses of Vergil (Chicago & New York, 1897); The Private Life of the Romans (Chicago, 1903; rev. Mary Johnston, 1932; 1957 [as Roman Life]); Caesar's Gallic War Books I-V (Boston, 1906).
Harold Whetstone Johnston was known primarily as a gifted teacher who, though he cut off his own life tragically early, wrote a book that lives on to this day, enjoying a singular reputation of value for anyone interested in Roman culture. Though he had no great teachers and attended no prestigious graduate school, Johnston trained himself in scholarly methods and filled in his educational gaps with broad and deep reading not only in the classics but in a variety of other areas. His student Edward Capps said of him, "He prepared his work with scrupulous care and put his whole soul into the exercises of the classroom. . . . His learning, originality, and pedagogical skill were all illustrated in that remarkable textbook . . . Selected Orations and Letters of Cicero." He was also a keen supporter of IU athletics and chairman of the university's Athletic Committee. His lasting contribution was The Private Life of the Romans, written for college students and amateurs interested in the private life of the later Republic and early Roman Empire. The book's bibliography contains only secondary and no primary sources, since it assumed that the intended audience would not have the ancient languages. The work was revised and enlarged by his daughter in 1932, with the additional illustrations making a total of 326 and new material on the archaeological discoveries of Pompeii and elsewhere. It appeared again revised and enlarged in 1957 as Roman Life, with 473 illustrations and a large format. It remains the only book of its kind to be used by students reading the literature of the Golden and Silver Ages. Unfortunately, he built a palatial home in Bloomington and not long after defaulted on the mortgage. One day he rode the train to Indianapolis to take out an additional life insurance policy and on the return trip he walked to the rear observation car, where he drank cyanide he had obtained from a colleague in the chemistry department under the pretense of wanting to poison a neighborhood dog. He then tried to pitch himself off the end of the train so that his death might appear accidental, but was prevented by fellow passengers, in whose arms he died. His policy was voided and his family were for years beset by financial difficulties caused by the tragic final act of this desperate and depressed man. For a time, only royalties from Private Life supported them.
E. Capps, CJ 8 (1912-3) 4-6; WhWh 1910-11:1027; L. Poston, "Classicist on the Middle Border", Indiana Magazine of History 90.3 (1994) 251-277.
- Author: Ward W. Briggs, Jr.