Monday, April 27, 2009

The republic of letters

In the latest NYRB, G. W. Bowersock had a nice piece about Anthony Grafton (subscription only - I must get hold of a copy of Worlds Made By Words...). This bit especially caught my eye:
From Momigliano perhaps Grafton learned how to make an attractive essay out of a scholarly debate, although his own curiosity and wit probably provided the basic intellectual resources. In his essay on the Warburg seminars he writes that Momigliano "saw style as central to the history of scholarship." By this he meant "style of collection and argument" as represented among the antiquarians, and he rightly observes that this mattered as much to Momigliano as the subject matter of the scholars he was studying.

But what was not important to Momigliano was literary style, and that is probably why he became so vexed by Hayden White's emphasis on rhetoric in the writing of history. His tin ear when it came to literary style led to a memorable debate at Lausanne in 1976 on the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Momigliano claimed that Gibbon had not made up his mind whether the poems of Ossian were a forgery or not. But Gibbon's ironic style had misled him. Already in March 1776 David Hume had recognized what Gibbon was saying and, in a letter of congratulations, wrote that he was "certainly right" to doubt the authenticity of the poems.

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