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The emergence of professionalized classical scholarship in America in the second half of the nineteenth century goes hand in hand with the experience of classical scholarship happening elsewhere: many of the figures who anchored institutional reorientations (such as Gildersleeve, Goodwin, or Allen, all of very different persuasions) had spent time abroad, often in Germany, to train in new methods of specialized philological research. This paper will argue that the emergence of American classical scholarship in the context of Reconstruction is simultaneously interwoven with complex and self-conscious responses to the transatlantic experience of being foreign and discomfited, both at home and abroad. In this way, disorientation, rather than a transitory phase, is integral to the establishment of new institutional forms and the continuing uncertainties of disciplinary ‘belonging’. Professional classical scholarship is not a point of stability within shifting contexts, but instead is itself a disruptive element in a fluid and changing landscape of what constitutes the ‘scholar’.

American Classics is inseparable from such expressions of defamiliarization and alienation. It emerged self-consciously from a dynamic set of tensions: between relations of dependence and independence vis-à-vis European scholarship; between belatedness and self-affirmation, additionally bound up with the “Lost Cause” narratives of the Southern States after the Civil War; between historicist and explicitly presentist impulses; between moral and scientific precepts; between narratives of progress and of decline; and between canonicity and marginality. The experience of foreignness could be geographical and cultural, as much as methodological and disciplinary. Not to forget, the study of a historically remote ancient culture was per se an exercise in indirectness and alienation. Finally, the conflict between general classical erudition and specialised scientific knowledge made Classics a site for experiencing social and intellectual dissonance. In this light, the turmoil of Reconstruction and the possibilities and anxieties expressed by way of the scholar of the ancient world dovetailed.

The history of classical knowledge has been well told as that of American cultural classicisms (Richards 1994 and 2009, Winterer 2002), with some pointed impulses on transnational aspects (Diel 1978; Hallett and Stray 2009). New historical scholarship on transatlantic competition in the rise of scientific institutions, however, has so far taken little or no note of Classics (Levine 2021). Thinking with conceptual invitations on philology and errancy (Lerer 2002) and on phenomenology and disorientation (Ahmed 2006), I will in this paper put critical pressure on scholarly voices that ostensibly advocate confidence regarding European, specialized methods. To this end, I treat as a symptomatic example some of Basil Gildersleeve’s pronouncements on American classical scholarship, especially in his regular column ‘Brief Mentions’ in TAPA.