Anthony Grafton, Princeton, New Jersey, March 2007; photograph by Ricardo Barros

In late 1977, classical scholars turned the pages of their newly arrived Journal of Roman Studies, a flagship publication of the profession, to find an eloquent and devastating assault on a book by E.J. Kenney, the highly respected professor of Latin at the University of Cambridge. The book was a wide-ranging but patronizing survey of the editing of classical texts since the Renaissance. It traced the evolution of textual criticism down to today’s supposedly sound methods, and it discussed the writings and editorial practices of persons whose names were only dimly known to most classicists. But the review crackled with intensity. The passion of the reviewer and the erudition he brought to it fueled his criticism. He managed to shine a bright light on the lives of those distant scholars and to explain why they did what they did. After faulting Kenney for omissions, misinterpretations, and ignorance of historical context, he concluded, “So long as we content ourselves with condemning the past, we must also be content not to understand it.” The writer was someone called A.T. Grafton.

I well remember the bracing impact of those words at that time and thinking to myself that the author, whose name I had never heard before, was destined to become one of the major historians of the next generation. His spectacular debut was followed six years later by the first volume of a study of the sixteenth-century scholar Joseph Scaliger, a voracious reader of ancient texts who combined mastery of the relevant languages with a taste for the intricacies of historical chronology. Grafton proved to have just the right combination of technical expertise and expository skill to bring Scaliger and his world to modern readers. The second volume of his study had to wait for ten years, because Grafton’s exceptionally broad interests in early modern historiography and science led him in many other directions. His study of the origins of the scholarly footnote, which Gibbon was already able to deploy with such brilliance, and his investigation into the curious link between scholarship and forgery showed that Grafton was no less expert in communicating with the literate public than with his academic peers.

On many occasions Grafton has written about his indebtedness to Arnaldo Momigliano, whose seminars he attended at the Warburg Institute in London in 1973–1974. Those seminars, in which their authoritative leader actively encouraged discussion and disagreement among students, also promoted debate with the illustrious dead whose works were being studied. Grafton was a formidable student, as I heard later from Momigliano himself, not only because he arrived as a fully trained classicist but because he was also well on his way to being an accomplished historian of early modern scholarship. His capacity for research had led his mentors at Chicago to send him to Momigliano to begin his work on Scaliger.

At the Warburg, as Grafton describes in a partly autobiographical essay about his teacher in Worlds Made by Words, he learned from Momigliano the importance of understanding the historiography of the past on its own terms, and then to place that understanding in its relation to the present. He says of Momigliano’s essays from the 1940s and 1950s that they “worked dialectically between the present—of classical studies—and their past.” Such an empathy for the past combined with a constant awareness of the present has become a hallmark of Grafton’s work, to an even greater extent than it was for Momigliano himself. His book, with its frequent invocation of computers and the Internet, as well as a final chapter on Google and virtual libraries, would have left Momigliano puzzled but undoubtedly appreciative.

Grafton is an honored citizen in the Republic of Letters, a scholarly community without borders that has its origins in the late Renaissance and anticipated the great academies of Europe. It is fitting that the first essay in his book is an account of that network of scholars and scientists who communicated and debated with each other from generation to generation across national boundaries. This fictive nation, the Respublica Literaria or Respublica Literarum, served as a kind of international forum for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Much of the exchange occurred inevitably through correspondence, to which Grafton gives proper emphasis:

The constant writing and sending of letters was more than a system for collecting and exchanging information. Many citizens of the Republic saw it as a moral duty.

But readers should be warned that the “Letters” in the Republic’s name allude to cultivation and high literacy, as in “arts and letters” or “man of letters,” and not to epistolography.

Although the Republic of Letters has now attracted ample attention and is often mentioned, it was far less visible as recently as 1988 when Marc Fumaroli explored its meaning and origin.1 It is a little surprising that his analysis, with its advocacy of the Republic, is absent from Grafton’s essay. Fumaroli has now set up a research project in France on an important Enlightenment patron of the arts, the Comte de Caylus, and his contributions to the Republic of Letters. His project has been funded through the Balzan Prize, which he received in 2001. By an astonishing coincidence Grafton received the same prize in the very next year and devoted his funds to another project in the Republic of Letters—a massive publication, in print and online, of the collected correspondence of Scaliger. Given his Warburg past, Grafton set up his project in London at the Warburg with the collaboration of the Scaliger archive in Leiden. So now thanks to the Balzan Foundation, we have two great enterprises in support of the Republic of Letters.


As one who not only works on but belongs to the Republic of Letters, Grafton is an experienced archival historian. The two volumes on Scaliger, to say nothing of his Balzan project, make this clear, as do his strictures on scholars who have not met his high standards of research. These appear prominently in his essay on Mark Pattison, the much-admired nineteenth-century biographer of the classicist Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), whose name, if not achievement, is echoed in the desiccated scholar of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Grafton tears into Pattison on Casaubon with the same gusto he applied to Kenney on classical texts:

Repeated encounters with his inability to quote a document accurately, his ineptitude at establishing dates, and his incompetence at summarizing plain German accurately in English have led me to wonder whether he deserves the authority he still enjoys in the English-speaking world.

Only two others before Grafton had examined the Casaubon materials in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and those two—the great German classical scholar Eduard Fraenkel and the literary critic A.D. Nuttall—had been similarly disenchanted when they discovered the weaknesses in Pattison’s notes and writings. It is particularly impressive to find Fraenkel, a superb philologist from the old German university tradition, engaged in thorough archival research on Casaubon as a part of the preparation for his magnificent commentary on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. He could see, as Pattison could not, that Casaubon was close to finishing a commentary of his own on that marvelous play.

Through his archival research and his skill in reading the scripts of early modern Latin, Grafton had taken what he learned in those seminars at the Warburg in quite new directions. When Momigliano told the director of Oxford University Press in the late 1940s that he had resolved to devote himself to the history of historiography, he did not mean that he would scour the archives of Europe. What he meant was that he would try to read everything in print and retain it in his prodigious memory for comparison and analysis.

But for Grafton manuscripts and old volumes are what ancient objects are for archaeologists. When he writes of a turn among recent historians toward material evidence, he is in a sense describing a turn he made himself when he started in earnest on Scaliger. In contemplating what digitalization cannot do, he cites with obvious sympathy a historian who systematically sniffed 250-year-old letters in an archive:

By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled on letters from towns struck by cholera in the eighteenth century, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks.

It is exceedingly rare to find in one and the same scholar this love for archival material and the talent to show the world at large why it is interesting and important.

From Momigliano perhaps Grafton learned how to make an attractive essay out of a scholarly debate, although his own curiosity and wit probably provided the basic intellectual resources. In his essay on the Warburg seminars he writes that Momigliano “saw style as central to the history of scholarship.” By this he meant “style of collection and argument” as represented among the antiquarians, and he rightly observes that this mattered as much to Momigliano as the subject matter of the scholars he was studying.

But what was not important to Momigliano was literary style, and that is probably why he became so vexed by Hayden White’s emphasis on rhetoric in the writing of history. His tin ear when it came to literary style led to a memorable debate at Lausanne in 1976 on the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Momigliano claimed that Gibbon had not made up his mind whether the poems of Ossian were a forgery or not. But Gibbon’s ironic style had misled him. Already in March 1776 David Hume had recognized what Gibbon was saying and, in a letter of congratulations, wrote that he was “certainly right” to doubt the authenticity of the poems.


Grafton has enriched what he learned at the Warburg with his own sensitivity to material evidence. As for large relics Momigliano “always insisted on his amateur status as a student of monuments,” and I can vouch that this extended to smaller material remains as well. Anyone who ever visited a museum with him will know that it was conversation with his companion that propelled him through the galleries. He wasted little time in looking at something in a vitrine or propped up on the floor. But he was always receptive to the ideas of someone who worked with objects. That was because he loved ideas.

Grafton loves ideas too, and he devotes substantial parts of his book to his reflections on the once fashionable history of ideas or, as it also used to be called, intellectual history. His long essay “The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950–2000 and Beyond,” written for the Journal of the History of Ideas, of which he is an editor, aims to put this subject in perspective and back into the historical arena. The path from A.O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being to John Pocock’s multivolume study of Edward Gibbon (four volumes and counting) is a tortuous one, and along the way came the histories of books and readers, as espoused by Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier, and Carlo Ginzburg. Intellectual history and its ideas have, as Grafton astutely remarks, returned by way of the book trade, and “the history of ideas no longer seems so marginal.”


Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource

Johann Georg Hinz: Cupboard with Collectibles, 1666

To complement his reflections on ideas and intellectual history, Grafton has included two exhilarating essays on that mysterious presence in our midst called the “public intellectual.” The first of these resurrects a once controversial but long-forgotten professor of English at Chicago, who left Harvard to become the secretary of William Rainey Harper, the founding president of Midway’s great university. Robert Morss Lovett was an eloquent if much-maligned critic of radical causes, including pacificism, labor movements, women’s rights, and racial equality. For twenty years he wrote for The New Republic, where he helped to launch the career of Edmund Wilson. Although he antagonized many, he won the support of a later president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, whose support of Lovett, as Grafton observes, “does credit to both men.” In introducing Lovett, Grafton contrasts public intellectuals outside and inside the universities, and he takes note of today’s nostalgia for the freethinkers who lived and wrote independently of deans and classrooms. But it is good to be reminded that in that golden era of freelancers such as Wilson, H.L. Mencken, and Mary McCarthy, voices like theirs were also raised in universities.

Premature obituaries on the demise of the public intellectual—or that more exotic subspecies, the wise man or sage—are a staple of contemporary journalism. But John Kenneth Galbraith and George Frost Kennan, whose pronouncements regularly elicited a sonorous recitation of their three names (like the tria nomina of sturdy citizens of ancient Rome), were both loyal members of their academic institutions, Harvard and the Institute for Advanced Study. The public intellectual has not gone away but survives with a professorial salary. In his essay on Lovett, Grafton modestly dissociates himself from the people he is talking about: “I’m just a historian.” But he must be aware that through his perceptive writings, which contexualize the past in ways that illuminate the present, he too has become a public intellectual as well as a historian.

The implicitly personal side of Grafton’s treatment of public intellectuals is made explicit in his second essay on this theme. He draws extensively on the papers of his father, Samuel Grafton, to evoke the outrage that Hannah Arendt provoked in the early 1960s by claiming to see “the banality of evil” in the lethal work of Adolf Eichmann. The elder Grafton was a journalist, and his family debated constantly the notorious New Yorker articles on Eichmann in Jerusalem. Grafton’s father, commissioned to write an article on Arendt for Look, received written answers to questions he sent her, but she then refused to approve their publication or to give an interview. But Grafton’s memory of talk at the family table remains vivid. The Graftons were clearly among the many who were distressed by what Arendt had written. Grafton recalls her description of Leo Baeck, the Berlin rabbi who headed the Nazi-controlled Reichsvereinigung der Juden (State Association of Jews), as “the Jewish Führer.”

Although this was an insensitive and unjust slur that Arendt honorably removed from later editions of her work, Grafton takes us back to the raw emotions of the time when he writes, “In the world’s largest Jewish city—in the nation’s most serious, best-edited magazine—Jew had apparently betrayed Jew.” Many of the attacks on Arendt that followed were malicious and unfair, and the quotations she cited from Baeck about the wisdom of using Jewish policemen to round up Jews have never been challenged. It might have been helpful if Grafton had provided a broader historical perspective within which to view the agitation of his family over Arendt’s work, as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has done so well in her biography.2

In his final chapter Grafton steps forward unambiguously as a public intellectual to deliver his opinions on the digitization of books and articles. The subject is timely, since search engines such as Google and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia make it increasingly easy to read or consult vast quantities of printed material without going to a library or pulling down a volume from a shelf. Grafton’s piece first appeared in The New Yorker and then came out, in an expanded form, as a small volume published by a small press (aptly named the Crumpled Press). Now it serves to bring Worlds Made by Words to an appropriate if disquieting conclusion.

Those of us who grew up intoxicated by the dusty stillness of public and university libraries are bound to feel a combination of nostalgia for the old reading rooms and elation over instant access. The world of books and journals is changing all around us, and not surprisingly Grafton has returned recently to this subject in the latest issue of Daedalus (Winter 2009), where he asks how old-fashioned browsing in libraries can be replicated in Internet searches. For many older scholars who worked in the stacks of great libraries, serendipity often led to the most original research. Now it is easier to call up an article on JSTOR than to find a volume of the relevant journal on the shelves—even one’s own personal shelves. As for searching a database, it is exciting to have all of ancient Greek literature electronically accessible in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, but Grafton is right to cite the philosopher Jonathan Barnes: “The TLG is a lovely little resource…. But she’s strumpet-tongued: she flatters and she deceives.” The user “can cite anything and construe nothing.” Nonetheless, there is no stopping what is undeniably progress. As Grafton says:

In great libraries from Stanford to Oxford, pages turn, scanners hum, databases grow—and the world of books, of copyrighted information and repositories of individual copies, trembles.

Grafton is a connoisseur of the book trade from the Renaissance to the present, and so it is remarkable to see him in his final chapter opening a debate with his former Princeton colleague Robert Darnton, who is arguably his equal in knowledge of modern book production and has written critically in these pages about the dangers of Google acquiring a monopoly of digitized books.3 Darnton is now the university librarian at Harvard, where he presides over an extensive new program that goes well beyond putting existing publications on the Web. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted in February last year that all scholarly articles by its professors should be placed online with open access before they are printed elsewhere. The Law School and Kennedy School at Har-vard have now adopted essentially the same policy, and the texts from all three faculties can be seen on the Web site of Harvard’s newly established Office for Scholarly Communication ( Darnton wrote on the Web that Harvard’s repository

will implement the unanimous vote by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on February 12, 2008, to transfer nonexclusive copyrights of their scholarly articles to the President and Fellows of Harvard. The articles will be stored, preserved, and made freely accessible in digital form. Faculty members will retain the rights to their articles and will be able to make individual arrangements for their publication with peer-reviewed journals. And by taking advantage of an opt-out provision, they may choose not to share the rights to a particular article. The policy is meant to be collective but not coercive.

Grafton politely but forcefully objects. He fears that this policy would threaten small academic journals by making articles available before publication. But he had not realized that Harvard professors could opt out of delivering their work to the online repository. Authors can ask for a waiver that will be automatically granted. Nonetheless, it must be said that Grafton raised this issue at a time when the waiver request had to be accompanied by an explanation of why it was needed, and that looked worrying. The need for explanation has now been eliminated, and in a recent statement Darnton suggests that it might have been better to speak of a notification of a waiver rather than a request. Even so there remains something Orwellian about requiring automatic waivers instead of simply leaving authors free to place their articles in the repository or not.

Grafton presents his case with reference to scholars in the humanities. The impetus for total online access before publication is clearly driven by the sciences, where the cost of print journals is outrageously high. Elsevier, which is described as “the world’s largest for-profit scientific publisher,” charges, according to Grafton, $21,744 per year for one of its periodicals, Brain Research. No one could object to wiping out subscriptions that require such sums, which consume large parts of library budgets, and may limit the funds available to acquire new books. The initiative for an online repository of new articles reflects a long-standing tradition of pre-prints in the sciences, whereas the humanities do not fit so easily into that tradition. Historians and literary critics, for example, do much of their work individually and alone, not in teams or laboratories. The scientific paradigm can be seen most clearly in France, where humanists work in “laboratories” and some even bear the title of “engineer.”

While Harvard’s new policy has the laudable goal of making research openly available, professors in the humanities, whether or not they choose to exercise an automatic waiver, may prefer to wait for editorial criticism and subsequent revisions, and to see their work appear first in the journal to which they have submitted it. Few would object to its being available in the repository later on.

Grafton deserves our gratitude for raising this issue. In his role as a public intellectual, he looks ahead to the results that Harvard’s solution will bring to the problems currently faced by libraries and students. In some fields, presumably the sciences, they may well be good. But for the humanities he predicts, in a Cassandra-like voice, that immediate and free access to articles on the Web

will force us to abandon valuable forms and standards. In this new world, journals will become something like blogs with footnotes: unedited texts, glittering with insights, but also blemished with errors that no informed eye has picked up, and succeeded by angry, scatological discussion threads.

Of course, such an apocalyptic vision of indiscriminate knowledge online overlooks not only Harvard’s provision for withholding material from the Web but all the rubbish that is already out there and that has been routinely published for centuries. Lack of discrimination may be deplorable, but it has been present in publishing from the beginning.

But no matter. The scope of Grafton’s volume is vast, and the topics it addresses are uniformly important. He takes his readers on a long journey, from the Republic of Letters to the Babel of the Internet. If it is hard to say whether or not the road leads upward to the light, there is no doubt that we could not ask for anyone wiser to lead us. Like Dante’s Virgil, Grafton knows everyone we meet along the way.

This Issue

May 14, 2009