North American Scholar

OLDFATHER, William Abbott

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  • Date of Birth: 1880-10-23
  • Born City: Urumiah
  • Born State/Country: Persia
  • Parents: Jeremiah M. & Felicia Narcissa Rice O., Presbyterian missionaries.
  • Date of Death: 1945-05-27
  • Death City: Homer Park
  • Death State/Country: IL
  • Married: Margaret Agnes Giboney, 22 Sept. 1902.
  • Education:

    A.B. Hanover Coll. (IN), 1899; LL.D., 1933; A.B. Harvard, 1901; A.M., 1902; Ph.D. Munich, 1908.

  • Dissertation:

    "Lokrika: sagengeschichtliche Untersuchungen" (Munich, 1908); printed (Tubingen, 1908) and Philologus 67 (1908) 412-72.

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr. class. Northwestern, 1903-6 & 1908; registr. coll. lib. arts, 1904-6; asst. prof. Lat., 1908-9; asso. prof, to prof, class. U. Illinois, 1909-45; head of dept., 1926-45; chair div. langs. & lit., 1935-42; Sather prof., 1933-4; pres. APA, 1937-8.

  • Publications:

    The Defeat of Varus and the Frontier Policy of Augustus, with H. V. Canter (Urbana, 1915); Index Verborum Quae in Senecae Fabulis necnon in Octavia praetexta reperiuntur, ed. with A. S. Pease & H. V. Canter (Urbana, 1918); Ysopet-Avionnet: The Latin and French Texts, ed. with K. McKenzie (Urbana, 1919); Aeneas Tacticus, Asclepiodotus, Onasander, trans. & ed. with members of the Illinois Greek Club, LCL (Cambridge & London, 1923); Epictetus (trans.), LCL, 2 vols. (Cambridge & London, 1926-8); "Lokris," RE 13 (1926) 1135-288; Contributions toward a Bibliography of Epictetus (Urbana, 1927; suppl. vol. 1952); "Lokroi," RE 13 (1927) 1289-363; S. Pufendorf, Elementorum Jurisprudentiae Universalis (trans.) (Oxford, 1931; repr. New York, 1964); Leonhard Euler's Elastic Curves (De Curvis Elasticis), trans. & ed. with C. A. Ellis & D. M. Brown (Bruges, 1933); Samuel Freiherr von Pufendorf, De Jure Naturae et Gentium libri octo, trans, with Charles Henry Oldfather, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1934); Index Apuleianus, ed. with H. V. Canter, B. E. Perry, et al. (Middletown, CT, 1934); Index Verborum Ciceronis Epistularum, ed. with H. V. Canter, K. M. Abbott, et al. (Middletown, CT, 1938); "Terence's Phormio and Adelphi," (trans.) in Latin Literature in Translation, ed. K. Guinagh et al. (New York & London, 1942); Father John Frank Cherf et al., Studies in the Text Tradition of St. Jerome's Vitae Patrum, ed. with others (Urbana, 1943); Index Verborum in Ciceronis Rhetorica, ed. with H. V. Canter & K. M. Abbott (Urbana, 1964).Festschrift: Classical Studies in Honor of William Abbott Oldfather, ed. Kenneth Abbott et al. (Urbana, 1943).

  • Notes:

    There was nothing simple about William Abbott Oldfather, as his career amply demonstrates, but much that was fruitful. The very variety of his scholarly interests, achievements, and experiences is itself remarkable. Perhaps Richmond Lattimore put it best, when he rhetorically asked in his poem, “Memory of a Scholar (W. A. O.)”: “How shall I shape the wind that / once was you?”

    The poem was published in both The New Republic (13 November 1961) and CJ 57 (1962) 271-272. Of course, the thing is impossible, but the effort reveals much about the man and his enormous and diverse impact on the world of classical scholarship. Although it was not unusual in the nineteenth century for young Americans to complete their formal education at the great universities of Germany, Oldfather was one of the first American classicists to make his own research felt in both Europe and America. He thereby gave added stimulus to classical studies in the United States, and his efforts to introduce German principles of higher education influenced not only his own University of Illinois but also the general development of modern American education. He was hearty and friendly, a bit too forthright for some, but a man who made many friends. He tempered his intense research with intense outdoor exercise. In both he excelled, for he was equally at home with an ancient text or a baseball bat. His presence in the classroom was one of brilliance, inquiry, and grandeur, and his courses were among the most popular on campus.

    Born to Presbyterian missionary parents, he traced his paternal origins to Austria, where the family name was Altvater, while on his maternal side he counted the American frontiersman Daniel Boone among his ancestors. The family proved to be academically gifted. His sister, Helen Sidwell Oldfather (1878-1971), founded the Deaf Oral School in Tokyo, and was the mother of Edwin Oldfather Reischauer (1910-90), who later became a distinguished professor of Japanese history at Harvard University and United States ambassador to Japan. Oldfather’s younger brother, Charles Henry (1887-1954), both taught ancient history at the University of Nebraska and served there as dean of the graduate school. He also translated the first fourteen books of Diodorus Siculus for the Loeb Classical Library.

    Upon its return from Iran, the family settled in Hanover, Indiana. There Oldfather attended Hanover College, Indiana’s first private college, his two most influential teachers being Joshua Bolles Garritt (1832-1918) and John Livingston Lowes (1867-1945). After receiving a B.A. in 1899, he attended Harvard College, where he studied with the great philologists William Watson Goodwin (1831-1912), Charles Burton Gulick (1868-1962), and Herbert Weir Smyth(1857-1937), the latter of whom greatly stimulated his studies in classical antiquity. From Harvard he received a second B.A. in 1901 and his M.A. in 1902, after which he became an instructor at Northwestern University and so steeped himself in German that he became bilingual.

    A momentous change in his life occurred in October, 1906, when he entered the University of Munich to pursue graduate work and thereupon stepped into the world of international scholarship. In the early twentieth century, few universities in the world rivalled Munich in the field of classical studies. In Germany he worked most closely with Otto Crusius (1857-1918) in Greek, who did much to further his scholarship, and with Friedrich Vollmer (1867-1923) in Latin. Robert von Pohlmann (1852-1914) stimulated his interest in ancient history and Adolf Furtwangler (1853-1907) in archaeology. During these years he developed a lasting appreciation of and respect for German scholarship and a love of German culture that two world wars could not diminish. He became and remained a scholar whose outlook was international.

    After receiving his doctorate from the University of Munich (1908) under Crusius, Oldfather returned to Northwestern University to serve as Assistant Professor of Latin, but in 1909 he moved to the University of Illinois in Urbana. There his career blossomed until his premature death. He was not only promoted to Associate and later to Professor of Classics, but he also guided his department as its head from 1926 to 1945. These years saw him, together with a few others, transform a land-grant institution into a major university. He was the champion of his own department and of the humanities in general, and his battles in these causes won him enemies as well as friends. An enduring contribution was his support of the classics library, which he made the third best among American universities. He did so in part by acquiring the private libraries of the great German scholars Wilhelm Dittenberger (1840-1906) and Johannes Vahlen (1830-1911) and by purchasing various manuscripts of ancient and medieval authors. For over twenty-five years he also found time to edit the University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature. Not one to remain in the library, he spent many summers on the Continent and in Greece in order to undertake extensive topographical work, notably in the little-known region of Locris, one result of which was the publication of many new inscriptions.

    Oldfather wished to institute at Illinois the German concept of large, joint academic endeavors. He organized the Illinois Greek Club and launched numerous bibliographical programs, including word indices to Seneca’s tragedies, Apuleius’ works, and Cicero’s Letters and Rhetoric and the still unpublished “Classica Americana,” which noted the publication of Americans in classical scholarship and of foreigners who published their work in the United States. He guided the research of forty-six doctoral students, including J. B. Tischener (1923), Aubrey Diller (1930), Kenneth M. Abbott (1933), Richmond Lattimore (1934), and Revilo P. Oliver (1940).

    His impact on the development of the American university extended far beyond his own institution. As early as 1911 Oldfather discussed the relative values of the elective system and traditional requirements for students (Educational Review [Nov. 1911] 367-375), in which he made a stirring defense of liberal education, especially the study of languages and mathematics. In the dark days after World War I he made vigorous pleas for American support of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (CJ 18 [1922] 45-54) and of Bursian’s Jahresbericht (AJP 47 [1926] 104). He argued in favor of individuality and democracy in the functioning of the graduate curriculum (CW 30 [1937] 259-260) and the place of the dissertation in graduate study (CW 32 [1939] 231-233). He often insisted upon the significance of Greek and Latin for a full appreciation of the English language in particular and Western culture in general. He also described the concept and working of Illinois’s executive committee system of university administration as a model for other institutions (AAUP Bulletin 27 [1941] 1-16).

    Oldfather also played a major role in professional organizations, and his unceasing energy and vision won him many honors. Chief among them was the Sather Lectureship (1934), in which he spoke on “The Decline of Culture in the Roman Empire.” He was president of the American Philological Association in 1937-1938, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Linguistic Society of America, and the National Research Council. The result of this gigantic effort was the “Oldfather School,” which can be defined as the total integration of all facets of ancient life in order to draw a complete picture of antiquity. To that end he employed paleography, textual criticism, bibliography, history, topography and archaeology, philosophy, and numismatics. In 1943 his “school” honored him with a Festschriftof classical studies.

    Oldfather was also involved in one of the ugliest episodes in the history of the University of Illinois. On Halloween night in 1917, he came to the defense of several colleagues who had been summoned by a federal agent to the Urbana City Hall. Victims of a wave of war hysteria, they all, Oldfather included, were informally but publicly charged with pro-German sentiments and disloyalty to the United States. One of their principal accusers was one Mary Elizabeth Bowen Busey (1854-1930), a prominent local banker, trustee of the University, and an officious bigot. Oldfather demanded and received a public hearing, in which he proved that the accusations were baseless. In this atmosphere of bile and intimidation, Oldfather defended the culture and the character of the German people, but nevertheless the University subsequently suspended within its walls freedom of speech, the principle of neutrality, and academic freedom for the duration of the war.

    Oldfather remained staunchly pro-German throughout his life, which gained him a great deal of animosity during the World Wars, yet he was adamantly democratic in politics and philosophy. His love of Germany never embraced Nazism, and he early warned of the dangers of fascism. He urged the adoption of conscription as early as 1928 and argued against isolationism. Nevertheless, when, on 27 May 1945, he died while canoeing near Urbana, the accident was ascribed by some to his despondency over the German military surrender some twenty days earlier and even to suicide. The verdict of the coroner of Champaign County, Illinois, reports accidental death by drowning.

    In addition to his books, Oldfather wrote some 207 articles and reviews and over 500 articles in German for Pauly-Wissowa, many of the latter treating the history, topography, religion, mythology, culture, dialects, and prosopography of eastern and western Locris. Here he was a pioneer in areas still not well studied today and in a region still not yet adequately excavated. This is especially true of western Locris, which even the indefatigable Pausanias did not visit, and which Strabo describes scantily and not from autopsy. Oldfather began his work with his dissertation, Lokrika, in which he discussed Homeric knowledge of early Locris. Firmly in command of the literary sources, he walked the Locrian countryside in order to find physical remains that could identify ancient sites. The work in western Locris was especially demanding, both in terms of available literary and archaeological evidence and also in the physical demands that the terrain made on the topographer. In this instance, Oldfather’s love of strenuous physical exercise and his sturdy endurance were as useful to him as his familiarity with ancient sources. He found, especially in western Locris, a scholar’s challenge and an outdoorsman’s delight. Wilamowitz singled out his article on Locris in the Pauly-Wissowa for special praise as an example of the ideal of a total, systematic study of the topic, and Oldfather himself once remarked: “If anyone should ask whether I ever did any really careful research, tell him it was on the topography of Locris” (CJ 41 [1945-1946] 9). He was intellectually honest enough to admit when he had failed to put an ancient name to a site, but nevertheless he reported many theretofore undiscovered remains and numerous inscriptions. Of particular use to the historian is his identification of Locrian sites in the Thermopylae corridor, an area significant in ancient history from the time of Leonidas and Themistocles to the age of Justinian. More importantly, his, treatment of the entire area went so far beyond the work of topographers like William Martin Leake (1777-1860) and geographers like Conrad Bursian (1830-1983) as to point the way to the modern study of ekistics. A lasting result of his endeavors is the preservation by means of acute, diligent, and informed observation of much evidence that has subsequently been lost owing to the modern development of Greece. Although he has very occasionally been criticized for his topographical research in Locris, the work of his critics has never measured up to his standards, and indeed would have been virtually impossible without his trail blazing. In fact, he did more than any of his predecessors or successors to bring this neglected area back into the light of modern scholarship. His article “Lokroi” in the Pauly-Wissowa, treating the Greek colony in southern Italy, is another example of his total and thorough approach to a place, its inhabitants, their culture and history.

    The outbreak of World War I nonetheless encouraged Oldfather to turn his attention to military affairs. He and Howard Vernon Canter (1873-1942) began with an analysis of the impact of Varus’ defeat in 9 CE upon the way in which Augustus and his successors considered the problem of defending the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. From this study, Oldfather concluded that Roman policy aimed basically at creating a “buffer state” there to protect the Empire. Early in 1917 the war prompted him and some colleagues who constituted the Illinois Greek Club to examine Greek military writers, some of whom were readily available only in the German translation of W. Rüstow and H. Köchly, Griechische Kriegsschriftsteller, 3 vols. (Leipzig 1853-1855). As usual, Oldfather began with exhaustive textual studies of the manuscripts before he and his colleagues produced their translation for the Loeb Classical Library (1923). He also explored various aspects of military and naval warfare and ancient seafaring in subsequent publications.

    Philosophically inclined and always the democrat, Oldfather was attracted by the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus, the emancipated slave. Once again, Oldfather began his study of the subject with textual criticism of the manuscripts and extensive bibliography, the latter of which appeared separately as the magisterial Contributions toward a Bibliography of Epictetus (1927). One mark of his work on Epictetus was his proclivity to discover in various places previously unrecognized manuscripts of authors, both ancient and medieval, whose writings elucidated the manuscript tradition. The fruit of his varied labor was the translation in two volumes of Arrian’s reports of Epictetus’ thought published in the Loeb Classical Library in 1926-1927. Oldfather’s other philosophical interests ranged from Pythagoras, to whose thought he drew analogies to the totalitarian propaganda of the day, to Plato, Seneca, and even to Nietzsche’s use of Greek literature and rhetoric in the formation of that philosopher’s thought.

    Oldfather devoted considerable attention to Greek and Latin literature, the results of which he sometimes applied to modern letters. He was always concerned with the relation of the classics to the cultural inheritance of Western civilization. His interests in these areas were far-reaching, extending among the ancients from Homer through Old Comedy, Plato, and Apuleius to Tacitus. While his emphasis was usually on the text, he never failed to appreciate the literary message and style of the author. The results of his approach varied. Sometimes they led to the purely grammatical, as in his examination of the objective genitive in Greek and Latin (e.g., in Donum Natalicum Schrijen [Utrecht, 1929] 624-634) or Caesar’s grammatical theories (CJ 23 [1928] 584-602) and at other times to a historical reexamination of the trial of Socrates (CW 31 [1938] 203-211) or a discussion of Tacitus’ knowledge of early German history (CJ 19 [1924] 458-461). At other times, he drew various threads together in more general studies, as with his discussion of the historical and cultural significance of Roman comedy (CW 7 [1914] 217-222) and the impact of the classics on such modem authors as John Milton and Gerhart Hauptmann. In general terms, he made a fertile contribution to American classical studies by his frequent comments upon and reviews of German scholarship.

    Given his interest in religion and texts, Oldfather was not surprisingly drawn to patristics, especially the study of the church father Jerome, whose own similar research had led to a reliable text of the Bible. Oldfather directed the dissertations of six doctoral students who explored the manuscript traditions and the contents of several of Jerome’s lesser-known Lives of early Christian saints. He also applied himself to Jerome’s text of the Lives of the Fathers, to the topic of classical quotations in the Pastoral Epistles, and the Homilies of Paul the Deacon. From late antiquity he moved easily into medieval studies. He commented upon the Urbana manuscript of Syntipas, the Byzantine historian of philosophy, the Fleury text of the late Roman fabulist and poet Avienus, and, among other things, the text of the Excidium Troie, a medieval account of the fall of Troy. From the Middle Ages it was a short step to the early modem period and his translations of some of the important writings of the humane and liberal Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94), who, like John Locke (1632-1704), examined the nature of the social contract, and the purely scientific theories of Leonhard Euler’s Concerning Elastic Curves (1744).

    In sum, Oldfather helped substantially to make Illinois a major university, one better known in Europe than the vast majority of other American institutions. He introduced to the American educational system the finest fruits of German scholarship, which included an ideal that encouraged scholars to examine every aspect of antiquity systematically in order to understand the past. He demanded rigorous method when dealing with the sources, and careful, thoughtful reading in every relevant language of the secondary material. Bibliography preserved the results. During his lifetime, the mark of respect for and appreciation of his learning and vision can most easily be demonstrated by the high reputation that he enjoyed both in the United States and on the Continent. Even today, much of his work has yet to be surpassed, and no one with a serious interest in such diverse topics as Locris or Epictetus can do more than build upon the pioneer’s work.

  • Sources:

    Michael Armstrong, "William Abbott Oldfather 1880-1945," CO 70 (1992) 92-3; idem, "A German Scholar and Socialist in America: The Career of William Abbott Oldfather," CJ 88 (1992-3); John Buckler, "William Abbott Oldfather" in Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia ed. Ward W. Briggs & William M. Calder III (New York & London, 1990), 346-52; W. M. Calder, III, "Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to William Abbott Oldfather: Three Unpublished Letters," C/72 (1976-77) 115-27; idem, "Nuda Veritas: William,Abbott Oldfather on Classics at Columbia," ICS 18 (1993); Lloyd W. Daly, DAB Suppl. 3:571-2; C. A. Forbes, C7 41 (1945-6) 8-11; S.N. Griffiths, "Doctoral Dissertations Completed at the University of Illinois under William Abbott Oldfather," CJ 74 (1978-9) 149-53; NatCAB 35:494-5; Richmond Lat-timore, "Memories of a Scholar (W.A.O. 1880-1945)," CJ 57 (1961-2) 271-2; G. E. Mylonas, AJA 50 (1946) 172; A. S. Pease, TAPA 76 (1945) xxiv-xxvi; WhAm 2:404.

  • Author: Michael Armstrong & John Buckler