Logo The Fabulist

Anthony Grafton

Black and white portrait of Anthony Grafton
  • Interview by James Romm
  • Issue 11
  • Free RadicalJuly 2015

The term Renaissance man is today widely abused, but Anthony Grafton, who sports a thick beard and keeps his lexicons on a revolving bookwheel in his office, seems as few scholars do to inhabit the era he studies. A master reader of Greek, Latin, and many modern languages, and a writer who routinely generates a thousand words of analytic prose in an hour, Grafton resembles the polymaths and intellectual omnivores he has profiled in his books: Joseph Scaliger, Girolamo Cardano, Leon Battista Alberti. Grafton’s scholarship has unfurled the thoughts and explained the methods of these men. In 1992, he helped curate the New Worlds, Ancient Texts show at the New York Public Library, and continues to share his passions with wider audiences. His essays and reviews appear regularly in the New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and the Times Literary Supplement, even as his academic monographs proliferate. Two years ago Grafton, together with two colleagues, brought out the acclaimed reference work The Classical Tradition, an invaluable guide to the afterlife of all things Greco-Roman, and a monument to the breadth of an extraordinary mind.

Since earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1975, Grafton has spent four decades exploring the intellectual life of the Renaissance from his faculty post in Princeton University’s history department, where he is today Henry Putnam University Professor.

James Romm

We clearly look back at the period you study as a golden age of Western culture. How will our culture appear to scholars some centuries hence?

Anthony Grafton

I find it hard to imagine anyone studying our culture in the way that we study past cultures, because I can’t see the peaks. I think we’ll always study Shakespeare; I’m not so sure about Arthur Miller. One of the things that always strikes me as a difference between now and earlier times is the confidence with which artists and critics recognized who was great and who wasn’t, the confidence with which a Michelangelo or a Raphael or a Leonardo, or even a Virginia Woolf or a James Joyce, asserted their position in a culture—and I’m just not seeing Jonathan Franzen or Marilynne Robinson as the same kind of figure, making the same kind of claim across the culture.


I can imagine our culture being studied by quantitative means: the Franco Morettis of the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries looking at us through computer-assisted forms of analysis in order to see what was fashionable and what wasn’t and why certain things went up and certain things went down.


It’s interesting that it’s widely agreed among foundations and university administrators that the really powerful analytic tools at the moment are social scientific, particularly economic. Yet, from my perspective, the quantitative social sciences seem like astrology: a very understandable effort to reduce the turmoil and complexity of human society to a strict model that will enable us to predict. Astrology was often wrong, and the predictive social sciences do not have a particularly good record in my lifetime. So I find myself wondering if we will be the epoch of an illusion, the epoch when it was widely believed that economics and sociology could save us.

In your recent introduction to Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, you end with a comment about how the early sixteenth century was “a time when scholars could change the world.” Is that still possible today?

It depends on the subject, and it depends on the civic commitment of the scholars. We can set individual people alight, but whether we can do anything bigger than that worries me all the time.

What are the challenges of bridging the gap between the academy and the general public?

If you bring a bright undergraduate along to a conference and you go to the best sessions and with the smartest people, the undergraduate is still likely to say, “Gee, I would never dare ask a question, I’m just a little bewildered here.” It’s not a lack of passion for the subject, but they haven’t gone through that year or two of learning the language of academic reading and academic writing. Once you have learned it, if you’re trying to write for a non-academic audience, you’ve got to unlearn that language again, and you really have to think in terms of what my wife likes to call “the educated ignorant.” But even writing for the LRB or the NYRB or The Nation—I’m not sure how much we reach the general public. There’s a kind of clergy of academics and secondary-school teachers and nonprofit people who read those publications.

Why did you choose to study the Renaissance when there were so many more modern fields beckoning, more contemporary fields?

I was introduced to the Renaissance by a great teacher at the University of Chicago, Hannah Gray. Her mother was a German refugee historian and classicist, and she and Hannah’s father worked on Erasmus together, and as soon as I took a course with her and started reading Erasmus in Latin, I realized that this was a period in which I somehow felt oddly at home. Why this should happen to a Jewish kid from New York, I can’t really imagine.

I was going to ask you about the relationship between Judaism and your field of study.

My older sister—who probably knows better, as older sisters do—says that if I had grown up in Lithuania 200 years ago I would have been a Talmud scholar, and that what grabs me is really interpretation—layers of interpretation, layers of debate about a core text that’s assumed to have some powerful value for the present but which is submerged in commentaries on commentaries on commentaries. So if I had been a Lithuanian child in the yeshiva I’d have been listening for the voices of the great rabbinical commentators from Rashi onward, and instead I’ve ended up listening to the voices of humanist and later commentators.

Are there any figures you’ve studied that you particularly identify with?

I’ve always identified a bit with Erasmus because I’ve always been kind of alone in the middle. That was my unfortunate position in the Sixties: I could never get myself to believe in the radical programs of many of my contemporaries, but neither could I get myself to believe in the conservative programs of others. People like me found it hard to make much noise. I always thought, “Well yes, it’s obvious that women, people of color, and people of non-heterosexual identity are deeply and bitterly discriminated against in our society.” But at the same time I could never see that trashing the university was the way to remedy that, as opposed to a way of harming one of the few institutions that actually had some openness to these questions.


So Erasmus—sitting there, with people demanding, “Why don’t you become a Lutheran?” and answering, “I’ll stick with my own Church till I see one I’m sure is better”—has always been a figure with whom I’ve felt a lot of identification. One of his adages in particular has seemed to me to cover so much of our recent history: Dulce bellum inexpertis, “War is so sweet to anyone who’s never been in one.”

The major figures you’ve worked on are Joseph Scaliger, Girolamo Cardano, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano. Is there a common thread?

I’ve always been interested in how they read, how they interpret texts, how they make sense of a body of material in front of them. Cardano, for instance, was an astrologer. Sometimes he’s reading texts, sometimes he’s reading nature, but the method is always the same hermeneutical one, so he has the same assumptions about how to find meaning. One thing that has always been central for me is just how people in the past went about making sense of what they saw as a meaningful system of signs, how they identified which mattered and then went about trying to understand them.

A very Talmudic enterprise.

Time itself has been seen as a meaningful system of things, if you can only grasp it and organize it. There was, for instance, an assumption that time had an identifiable beginning and a measurable course, and that if you could just get the right approach, just choose the right hermeneutic, you could see the hand of Providence at work. Hence people from Eusebius onward writing chronologies in tabular form as maps of time: a kind of cartographic effort to show empires rising, then dynasties falling, and to give you a chance of discerning the pattern of meaning that’s underneath all the apparent chaos of history. I think one reason that has interested me is our general lack of faith in the possibility of doing anything like that in my own lifetime.


I saw Marxism, which was perhaps the last great hermeneutical enterprise for making sense of time, fall apart. I saw it become impossible for anyone with a real sense of history and a real sense of honest scholarship to believe that this system of interpretation actually matched reality. When I was young I also had friends who were in progressive labor and proudly proclaimed themselves Maoists and had a Maoist hermeneutic for reading time. I knew people who were Weathermen, who read time to see that America was in a revolutionary condition and who believed that would see the radical working class or the radical student movement rise up. And none of that turned out to be right. In some way what we have instead now is the world of racehorse punditry—who’s going to win the election?—and even the pundits no longer really think they’re discerning anything very deep.

You’ve written a lot about the state of the modern university in the United States and in the West generally. What are your feelings at the moment?

My feelings are very mixed. I think there’s a lot of reason for concern—chiefly a financial reason. As I’ve said, I’m no Marxist, but we live in a university and college system that’s 70 percent supported by the state, and there’s hardly a state left which is increasing or even keeping stable the amount that it puts into higher education. It’s very hard to imagine a political change that would reverse those tendencies. The schools also don’t have the resources to do the kind of very close-quarter teaching they used to. Those things make me gloomy. On the other hand, I’ve been repeatedly delighted by certain efforts. The plans of successive governors of Texas to ruin the flagship University of Texas at Austin have been foiled by the alumni who just aren’t having it.


At the most extreme, I sometimes think that, in training graduates in the traditional way, we’re teaching people to be handloom weavers after the introduction of the power loom. We’re training people for a world that just won’t be there for them.

Do you worry that our culture generally is losing touch with its past?

Very much so—sometimes in funny ways that only a pedant would worry about. The cinematic hobbit is a cute teenage boy—but hobbits were little grumpy middle-aged Englishmen, and that texts as widely read and as beloved as Tolkien are misread in so systematic a way really tells me that even England in the 1930s and 40s has become very alien to us. I worry a lot about hobbits.

Photo by Tanya Marcuse