American Classicisms

This working group investigates the role played by the classical traditions of Greece and Rome in the institutions, intellectual life, and popular culture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. Taking as its starting point Caroline Winterer’s foundational monograph The Culture of Classicism (2002), the working group asks how early Americans to their own ends accessed, constructed, mobilized, and appropriated knowledge about these premodern societies—often to the exclusion of others. Salient case studies emerge from—but are not limited to—the democratizing impulses of the Founding Fathers, the philosophical underpinnings of the Transcendentalists, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley, the travel literature of Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Neoclassical stylings of Hiram Powers and Harriet Hosmer. Furthermore, within the formation of American universities and liberal arts curricula in this period, we examine the professionalization of Classics as an academic discipline and interrogate the rhetorics, postures, and practices of American classicists both as they ventured trans-Atlantic contributions to an international Altertumskunde and as they responded to the political and social conditions of their lived moment.

Drawing on resources and histories local to Yale University and its New England setting, the working group is committed to bringing evidence from an array of media—texts, paintings, sculpture, photographs—under the scrutiny of scholars with diverse expertise. Our aim is to build an interdisciplinary community that can tackle methodologically demanding projects under headings like Reception Studies, Intellectual History, or the Sociology of Knowledge.

The working group meets once monthly to discuss a schedule of shared readings. Additionally, each semester it will organize a local excursion to introduce participants to material, visual, or archival evidence. (Two candidates for the 2019–2020 academic year are the Wadsworth Athenaeum and the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT.) Participants will have an opportunity to share ongoing work at a year-end roundtable. Prior knowledge of ancient languages and Greco-Roman materials, while helpful, is not necessary. We especially welcome contributors from the fields of African American Studies, American Studies, Art History, Classics, Comparative Literature, English, History, Religious Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.