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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.