Not that long ago, universities played a very different role in the public imagination, and top academics seemed to glitter as they walked. At a Berlin banquet in 1892, Mark Twain, himself a worldwide celebrity, stared in amazement as a crowd of a thousand young students “rose and shouted and stamped and clapped, and banged the beer-mugs” when the historian Theodor Mommsen entered the room:
This was one of those immense surprises that can happen only a few times in one’s life. I was not dreaming of him; he was to me only a giant myth, a world-shadowing specter, not a reality. The surprise of it all can be only comparable to a man’s suddenly coming upon Mont Blanc, with its awful form towering into the sky, when he didn’t suspect he was in its neighborhood. I would have walked a great many miles to get a sight of him, and here he was, without trouble, or tramp, or cost of any kind. Here he was, clothed in a titanic deceptive modesty which made him look like other men. Here he was, carrying the Roman world and all the Caesars in his hospitable skull, and doing it as easily as that other luminous vault, the skull of the universe, carries the Milky Way and the constellations.
Mommsen’s fantastic energy and work ethic—he published more than fifteen hundred scholarly works—had made him a hero, not only among scholars but to the general public, a figure without real parallels today. The first three volumes of his “History of Rome,” published in the eighteen-fifties, were best-sellers for decades and won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902. Berlin tram conductors pointed him out as he stood in the street, leaning against a lamppost and reading: “That is the celebrated Professor Mommsen: he loses no time.” Mommsen was as passionately engaged with the noisy, industrializing present as with the ancient past. As a liberal member of the Prussian legislature, he fought racism, nationalism, and imperialism, and clashed with Bismarck. Yet Mommsen knew how to coöperate with the government on the things that really mattered. He favored reorganizing research in the humanities along the autocratic, entrepreneurial lines of the big businesses of his time—companies like Siemens and Zeiss, whose scientific work was establishing Germany as the leading industrial power in Europe. This approach essentially gave rise to the research team, a group of scholars headed by a distinguished figure which receives funding to achieve a particular goal. Mommsen’s view was that “large-scale scholarship—not pursued, but directed, by a single man—is a necessary element in our cultural evolution.” He won public support for such enterprises as a vast collection, still being amassed, of the tens of thousands of inscriptions that show, more vividly than any work of literature, what Roman life was like. He also advised the Prussian government on academic appointments, and helped make the University of Berlin and the Prussian Academy of Sciences the widely envied scientific center of the West—the Harvard, you might say, of the nineteenth century.
The model that Mommsen represented was revered and imitated around the world.
... some more:
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, professorial asceticism moved from the home to the workplace, where it took new forms, most notably that of productivity on an epic, and sometimes eccentric, scale. The new model professor wore himself out: greatness of mind and depth of learning, like beauty, could be attained only through suffering. Christian Gottlob Heyne, who integrated the visual arts into the formal study of antiquity, also ran Göttingen’s university library—one of the largest and best organized in Europe—and published reviews of some eight thousand of the books that he obtained and catalogued for the university’s collection. Heyne’s pupil Friedrich August Wolf became legendary by similar means. As a scholar, his importance rested on his 1795 “Prolegomena to Homer”—an enormously successful book, though only the first volume ever appeared and it was written in Latin—which argued that the Iliad and the Odyssey were collections of originally oral poems, assembled by the poet-scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. But what really made him a celebrity was his combination of daring and self-denial. Wolf insisted on registering as a student not of theology but of philology, even though the few available jobs for graduates were for ministers rather than scholars. Heyne showed him his desk, piled with letters from schoolteachers “who tell me that they would be glad to be hanged, from actual destitution,” but Wolf persevered. He replaced the student’s usual pigtail with a wig, so that he would not have to go to the barber; stayed away from the taverns where students caroused and the salons where they met young women; and even stopped attending lectures, since he thought that his time could be more productively spent reading the assigned books. He infuriated his teacher by reading ahead of the class and taking out all the library books that Heyne needed to prepare his lectures. And his reward came soon: a professorship at Halle, at the age of twenty-four. This brilliant, bitter nonconformist paradoxically became a model for later generations of students. No wonder observers praised Mommsen’s ceaseless industry so extravagantly half a century later: he was not only doing history at a superb level but also living an ascetic ideal that still mattered.
the whole thing ...
Burt Ricci scripsit:
I recently read that passage from Twain in the preface to a Mommsen book I found in a used book store. I thought it was great. I also seem to remember that Twain said some of the students, Cadets no doubt, also raised their swords in salute. I loved the mental image and the contrasts involved. Good article. Thank you.
Gary Vellenzer notes:
Students with swords were not cadets but frat boys. There were duelling and non-duelling fraternities at German Universities. They all had swords as part of their uniforms, but the duelling ones actually used them in fake duels. That's where all those scars you see on upper-class germans in old movies came from.