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The Classical Legacy of Gilbert Highet: An In-Depth Retrospect

By Robert J. Ball


Gilbert Highet (1906–1978) was one of Columbia University’s greatest teachers and in his day the most celebrated classical scholar in America. One may regard his life and career as both extraordinary and controversial. Now, over forty years after his death, a fresh retrospect seems appropriate, as a way of presenting new information about him and evaluating his enduring classical legacy for the twenty-first century reader. This fully documented biographical appreciation of Highet’s life and work, capped by fully updated bibliographies of publications by him and about him, offers a long-overdue “official life” of this unique and towering figure.


About the author:

ROBERT J. BALL, professor emeritus of Classics, University of Hawaii, received his PhD from Columbia University, where he studied under Gilbert Highet. Professor Ball received an excellence in teaching award from the American Philological Association and the Regents’ Medal for excellence in teaching from the University of Hawaii. He has published Tibullus the Elegist: A Critical Survey (Göttingen, 1983); The Classical Papers of Gilbert Highet (New York, 1983); The Unpublished Lectures of Gilbert Highet (New York, 1998); Reading Classical Latin: A Reasonable Approach (New York, 2nd ed. 1997); and Reading Classical Latin: The Second Year (New York, 2nd ed. 1998).



"Ball’s reviews of Highet’s labors on Juvenal, satire and Vergil are annotated heavily. Ball is impartial in presenting the critical observations of those classicists who disapproved of or questioned Highet’s biographical approach to Juvenal.… As a classicist and as the biographer, Ball’s judgments are authoritative.… Errors in fact are corrected throughout by Ball. He is up to date on all aspects of material on or by Highet. He does not fail to notice the remarks of critics of Highet’s scholarly works.… This assessment of him is a helpful contribution to the history of classical scholarship in America."—Darrell Sutton, a Biblicist with a research interest in the history of classical scholarship, in The Quarterly Review (2021)


“Robert Ball … has done a useful service … in providing this ‘retrospect,’ with its comprehensive bibliography, its overview of Highet’s scholarly and pedagogical legacies, and … its detailed footnotes … Ball’s thorough and meticulous bibliography gives a valuable sense of the scope of Highet’s publications…. Where Ball excels is in his own plentiful footnotes, which are apparently a tribute to his mentor’s style.… The Classical Legacy of Gilbert Highet is both a moving tribute and a valuable resource. It’s also a vivid reminder of an era and a style of scholarship that seem to have vanished beyond recall. And yet one never knows.”—Rachel Hadas, Professor of English, Rutgers University at Newark, in Classical Outlook 97 (2022): 31–34.


“Robert J. Ball … has written in The Classical Legacy of Gilbert Highet: An In-Depth Retrospect a ‘documented examination of Highet’s life, teaching, and scholarship’ (ix) as an admirable and admiring tribute to his former teacher. The book complements The Classical Papers of Gilbert Highet … and The Unpublished Lectures of Gilbert Highet … both edited by Ball … The book needs to be read with Ball’s other valuable works on Highet. Over all, Professor Ball, in the course of wide-ranging, painstaking research over many years, has presented, here and in other publications, a rich, impressive tapestry of material, for which admirers of Highet’s work must be very grateful.”—Francis J. Sypher, an independent scholar with a research interest in the history of classical scholarship, in Classical World 115 (2022): 319–20.


“B[all]. … has done more than anyone to keep Highet’s flame alight (Classical Papers [1983], Unpublished Lectures [1998]…. Highet’s work should not be forgotten.… [An] assessment of Highet’s work would include situating books like The Classical Tradition (1949) amid contemporary debates about canonicity, ‘the West’ and whiteness; a history of (reactions to) biographical criticism; an account of ‘popular Classics’ in its various guises; the role of German and British émigrés in the American academy; Classic(ist)s and the Vietnam war, and a good deal besides. B[all].’s work will have pride of place in such a project for its rich documentary material, forming a link to Highet himself."—Ben Cartlidge, Christ Church, Oxford, in The Classical Review 71 (2022): 329–331; DOI: 10.1017/S0009840X2100319X 


“At a time when public-facing scholarship has become ever more existentially necessary for the field of Classics, it seems appropriate to revisit the legacy of Gilbert Highet, who, more than perhaps any other classicist in the twentieth century, prioritized taking Greece and Rome mainstream. No one has done more to keep Highet’s legacy alive than his most devoted former student, Robert Ball, and this book, the culmination of continuous efforts over the last five decades, admirably crystallizes Highet’s major achievements and contributions … Ball’s book is compact and direct. It is also relentlessly hagiographic … Ball has written an important story about Highet and his legacy. We should be grateful to him, even as we all must continue the conversation, aware that all stories reflect the biases of their storytellers.”—Jason S. Nethercut, University of South Florida, in Vergilius 69 (2023): 159–62

The Classical Legacy of Gilbert Highet: An In-Depth Retrospect

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    xvi + 104 pages

    6 x 9 inches

    978-1-948488-50-1 (cloth with jacket)

    978-1-948488-68-6 (PDF)

    August 2021

  • Endorsements

    “Robert Ball offers a splendidly wide-ranging summation—and appreciation—of the life and achievements of a major scholar professing Classics in America in the twentieth century. Gilbert Highet’s readings, especially his pioneering studies of Virgil’s Aeneid, of satire as a genre, of Juvenal’s oeuvre in particular, and of the Latin poets in their native settings, continue to stand as models of creative criticism for the evaluation of all great writing. While detailing his rich intellectual accomplishment, Ball also adroitly captures the essence of the man himself as well as the fascinating intellectual milieux in which his career evolved.”—Michael C. J. Putnam, Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature, Brown University

    “In this readable and informative accolade—unflinchingly partial and sustained throughout—Robert Ball in the course of his biography takes on some of the discussions, debates, and diatribes that directly or tangentially accompany the mid-20th century career and times of his Columbia teacher Gilbert Highet.”—Richard F. Thomas, George Martin Lane Professor of Classics, Harvard University

    “In his heyday, Gilbert Highet was one of the most famous professors in America, renowned for his brilliantly charismatic teaching and his influential scholarship. With this meticulously researched and profoundly sympathetic study, his former pupil Robert Ball brings Highet back to life and vividly conveys an idea of what made him such a powerful presence in American academic and public life. The culture of Highet’s day suddenly feels very remote, yet Ball succeeds wonderfully in showing why he mattered at the time and how his influence is still felt.”—Denis Feeney, Professor of Classics and Giger Professor of Latin, Princeton University

    “Though I did not have the pleasure of studying with Gilbert Highet, I knew him as a legend at Columbia and an author of books on the classics. Several of his books taught me about the importance of the classical influences on English & American literature. His books whetted my appetite to know the classics. As a satirist myself, I delighted in his book on satire. I wish I could have studied with him but unfortunately, in my day, Columbia & Barnard did not make that possible. I still read his books with delight. Robert Ball’s work highlights the importance of inspiring teachers.”—Erica Jong, novelist, poet, and essayist, whose wide-ranging oeuvre includes the Classics-inspired novel Sappho’s Leap

    “In this fascinating tribute to his former teacher, Robert Ball elucidates Gilbert Highet’s legacy with the requisite gravitas and sprezzatura, combining scholarly rigour and fresh insight with a joyful lightness of touch. Paying meticulous attention to Highet’s intellectual milieux and professional achievements, Ball’s book is sagacious and humane, presenting a well-rounded picture of one of America’s greatest twentieth-century classicists. Today, when Classics continually gets demonised by identity politics for being too full of ‘Dead White Men’, Highet’s powerful voice is still relevant, guiding our appreciation of Classics and great literature as timeless and universal.”—Lindsay Johns, writer, broadcaster, and nonresidential fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University


  • Table of Contents

    List of Figures

    Chapter 1: A Review of Highet’s Career (From Glasgow to Oxford, From Oxford to Columbia, World War II Military Service, Celebrity Status at Columbia, Vietnam War Protests to Retirement)
    Chapter 2: Highet’s Legacy as a Teacher (Pedagogical Achievements at Oxford, Political/Pedagogical Issues at Columbia, Performance in the Columbia Classroom, Performance as a Teacher of Vergil, The Art of Teaching and The Immortal Profession)
    Chapter 3: Highet’s Legacy as a Scholar (Review of The Classical Tradition, Review of Juvenal the Satirist, Review of Poets in a Landscape, Review of The Anatomy of Satire, Review of The Speeches in Vergil’s Aeneid)

    Bibliography of Works Cited
    Updated Bibliography of Publications by Highet
    Updated Bibliography of Publications about Highet

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