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From the Ancients to the Moderns

By Gerald Kamber, A&S '62 (PhD)

The author's professorial standouts: Henry Carrington Lancaster (right) and larger-than-life Leo Spitzer (below). It was not my privilege to have attended Johns Hopkins in the Golden Age of Elliott, Gilman, Gildersleeve, and the other glorious names. But the decade 19501960 boasted its share of illustrious faculty members: Albright, Boas, Hatcher, Lancaster, Lane, Lattimore, Oliver, Malone, Poulet, Salinas, Schirokauer, Spitzer, Wasserman.

For me, two professors stand out from all others of that period: Henry Carrington Lancaster and Leo Spitzer. Lancaster was a craggy giant: white hair, square chin, stern yet kindly eyes behind gold pince-nez. He was already mortally ill in 1953; his weight had declined so drastically that he looked like a cardboard cutout in a floppy somber suit. Because he was so ill, six or eight of us would twice weekly troop over to his modest house on Cloverhill Road, where he held class in his dining room.

A meticulous scholar and a mine of factual information, Lancaster had little time for exegesis. His own personal integrity infused the historical method he favored, permitting a convincing reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding literary creation, especially in the theater, from the 16th through the 18th centuries in France. When Lancaster came to the end of his 50-minute lecture, he would declare with mock solemnity: "La séance est levée," the expression that traditionally ended an audience in the courts of the French kings and that may still be heard today in French courts of law.

After every class, Mrs. Lancaster would serve tea and cookies while she and her husband chatted amiably with us, she in her young woman's voice, he in a faint Tidewater accent. The Lancasters were ardent New Deal Democrats and civil libertarians. More than once he treated us to a full account of the evil deeds of Senator Joseph McCarthy, then at the peak of his nefarious activities.

On a gray Monday early in November, a sheet of paper taped to the office door informed us that Lancaster's class was canceled until further notice. It was whispered about that he was back in the hospital and that this time it was terminal. Within two weeks, however, there he was, holding forth at his dining-room table as if nothing had happened, and we were scribbling away in our notebooks. As the weeks slipped by, however, he faded visibly. Just before Christmas break, another notice was taped to the office door. We heard he was once more in the hospital where, in a matter of days, he died.

So passed the dean of American French scholars, the man who left us A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century (in eight volumes), mentor of generations of scholars distinguished in their own right whom he had shepherded through countless dissertations, and author of who knew how many acts of kindness and generosity.

It is inconceivable today that a full-fledged polemic would be waged on whether Le Cid was initially performed on the last days of 1636 or on the first days of 1637, but such a question occupied the attention of the members of the Modern Language Association for several years in the late 1940s. It was one of Lancaster's triumphs to discover the proof, for him incontrovertible, that it was in fact 1637.

Yet, as one leafs through the volumes of his monumental History of French Dramatic Literature, Lancaster's rock-ribbed integrity looms from every page, in the vastness of the conception, the clarity of the exposition, the thoroughness of the details. A dozen schools of literary analysis have come and gone since it was written, but it still retains all of its validity. On a broader scale, the disagreeable elements of our modern age dwindle temporarily into relative insignificance as the thin lips smile again: "La séance est levée."

Leo Spitzer, too, was larger than life: an imposing man with the profile of a golden eagle, sensuous lips, and long white hair swept back. Moody, he alternated glacial aloofness with mitteleuropäische gemütlichkeit, and nothing we said or did seemed to affect which it would be at any given moment.

Spitzer's celebrated seminar, First Poetic Monuments of Romania (Romania being, as we soon found out, not the familiar Balkan country but rather the entire area where the Romance languages were spoken in the Middle Ages), began technically on Monday, when each of us picked up at the office an onionskin carbon copy of the text of a poem or a prose excerpt. It could be in any of the nine extant Romance languages or dialects, or any combination thereof, or even in Goliardic Latin. Ideally we were to recognize what language it was, to date it approximately, to determine if it was well-known or obscure (and had thereby been frequently or infrequently commented on), to translate it more or less literally including any problematic details, to interpret it, and finally, to situate it within the framework of the history of the literature to which it belonged.

The grad students in Spitzer's seminar generally worked as a team, meeting at Levering cafeteria for a Tuesday-afternoon session. More often than not, one of us had — perhaps purely by chance — encountered the very bit of information indispensable to cracking one or another of the elements of the enigma. With that hint, we would all rush to the card-index file and thence to the stacks, where the histories of medieval literature were lined up, or to the chrestomathies of which the introductions and commentaries might enable us to delve more deeply into the problem.

Among the earliest commentaries on any given text, all the obvious problems of recognition and interpretation had been posed and more or less solved. Inevitably, however, there came a place in the sequence where the more recent commentaries were missing, where there were only gaps between the books on the shelves. We would go trooping down to Martha Hubbard, who would declare, "I'm sorry, people. Those books are all checked out to Professor Spitzer."

Spitzer's seminar took place on Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. surveying the ubi sunt (or "where are the snows of yesteryear") theme, or topos as he called it. By that hour we were lined up on both sides of the long table in the seminar room, the portraits of Avicenna and Averroes glaring down on us. Spitzer would come streaming in, half a dozen tomes under each arm.

Taking his place at the head of the table, he would pile the books up before him. "Vell, vat haf you determined?" Each of us in turn would raise a timid hand and offer one element of the essential information, while Spitzer sat nodding approval, pursing his lips in evident satisfaction.

Then came the crucial part, the part that was missing from the library shelves and which we were now attempting to supply. One after the other, we would advance a hypothesis or present an interpretation, our eyes riveted on the master's face. Muttering to himself and smacking his lips in anticipation, he would open his tomes to the place marked by a strip of yellow paper and read the commentaries to us aloud. Occasionally it turned out that we had stumbled on the very solution proposed by a Schuchardt, a Meyer-Lbke, a von Wartburg, or by Spitzer himself. Occasionally one of us came up with an original insight considered by the great man worthy of publication — the ultimate good!

Usually he had an article of his own, published or in manuscript, on every subject. If the article was in print, he would distribute reprints, and then read them aloud because it was important for us to hear the Word. The scope of his knowledge appeared to us limitless — he was reputed to know 32 (or was it 36?) languages, although he admitted to knowing only two well: Latin and German. He wrote articles on subjects ranging from the most obscure points of medieval Provençal (which he insisted should be called Proënsal) poetry to the etymology of Al Capp's Shmoo. He was also one of the originators and chief practitioners of stylistics as a means of literary analysis, a line of thought that has led ultimately to semiotics and beyond.

After a year or two, we graduate students tended to become a bit cocky, daring to disagree with the great man. One day while pacing the seminar room during one of his lectures, he borrowed a reprint of one of his articles from Tom Thornton. "I see Mr. Thornton has written 'Unsinn' in his notes. I can assure him that what I'm saying makes perfect sense." The rest of us were too embarrassed to look up, but Spitzer did not seem unduly distressed by this act of lèse-majesté.

At the end of 1955, Spitzer announced his retirement. We chipped in and bought him a present for his last class and gave him a little party. That Monday, for the first time in three years, there was no new mimeographed sheet waiting for us at the office. When we arrived at the seminar room the following Thursday, however, the secretary distributed dim carbon copies of "Gaudeamus Igitur." We were puzzled. What literary interest could this medieval university drinking song have for us in the context of the ubi sunt topos?

Spitzer launched into the most brilliant and comprehensive lecture imaginable on medieval university life, on the origins and evolution of Goliardic poetry, on the sources of "Gaudeamus" itself, and on its ageless theme of the pleasures of youth opposed to the pains of death. It became clear that ubi sunt was asking us, "Where has youth gone?"

Suddenly, tears streaming down his grizzled cheeks, he began to sing in a quavering baritone: "Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus." He proceeded through every one of the many stanzas, omitting not one repeat. It lasted too long, but we chimed in gamely on all the refrains. When the last echo died away, Spitzer scooped up his books under each arm and, face stony, hair floating behind, fled.

Those tattered onionskin carbon copies were tacked up on my kitchen bulletin board for years, until they disintegrated. I reflected often on what Spitzer was telling us by word and example. I also thought a great deal about Lancaster and what he stood for, how he had gone on teaching practically until his last breath.

But I realize only on rereading this little reminiscence that their message, strange to say, was identical: humanism, the infinitude of the human mind, the indomitability of the human spirit. The two men only differed in that Lancaster was the last of the Ancients, Spitzer the first of the Moderns. How fortunate we were to have studied with them both in the 1950s, to have enjoyed the best of both Hopkins worlds.

Gerald Kamber earned his PhD in Romance languages from Johns Hopkins in 1962.

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