William Dwight Whitney

William Dwight Whitney

Thomas D. Seymour
Thomas D. Seymour

Author: Seymour, Thomas D. (Thomas Day), 1848-1907
William Dwight
William Dwight Whitney

William Dwight Whitney

(T. D. Seymour)


Northampton, Massachusetts, half a century ago, was one of the best examples of a typical New England town—among stately hills, on the banks of the Connecticut River, with broad streets well shaded by great spreading elms, with large homesteads still occupied by the descendants of early settlers, with people of much culture and refinement who were given to “plain living and high thinking.” It was the town of Edwards, of Dwight, of Hawley, of Stoddard, of Strong, and of many another worthy. It was the seat of the once famous Round Hill Academy. There, on February 9, 1827, William Dwight Whitney was born,—the second surviving son and fourth child of Josiah Dwight Whitney and Sarah Williston Whitney. His mother was a daughter of the Rev. Payson Williston (Yale, 1783), of Easthampton, and sister of the Hon. Samuel Williston, who founded Williston Seminary. His father was born in Westfield, Mass.,—the oldest son of Abel Whitney, who was graduated at Harvard in 1783.
No company of brothers and sisters of any American family has been so remarkable for scholarly attainments and achievements as that family in Northampton: Josiah D. Whitney, Jr. (Yale, 1839), Professor of Geology at Harvard; William D. Whitney, of Yale; James L. Whitney (Yale, 1856), of the Boston Public Library; Henry M. Whitney (Yale, 1864), Professor of English Literature at Beloit College; Miss Maria Whitney, the first incumbent of the chair of Modern Languages in Smith College.
William D. Whitney was fitted for college in his native town, and entered the Sophomore class of Williams College in 1842, at the age of fifteen. Tradition says that the studies of the college course were easy to him, and that he spent most of his time in wandering over the fields, studying geology and the habits of birds and of plants, although he maintained the first rank for scholarship in his class. On his graduation he pronounced the valedictory oration, on ‘Literary Biography.’
After graduation—at eighteen, the age when most now enter college—Mr. Whitney remained for three years in uncertainty with regard to his life-work, meanwhile busy as teller in his father’s bank. He did not take an active part in the social life of the young people of Northampton, but employed himself in his own pursuits. His leisure time was given largely to the collection of birds and plants; a large and beautiful case of birds stuffed by him at this period is in the Peabody Museum at New Haven. His tastes for natural science were marked, and he was more than an amateur in that field. He spent the summer of 1849 in the United States Survey of the Lake Superior region, conducted by his eminent brother, Josiah D. Whitney—having “under his charge the botany, the ornithology, and the accounts.” In the summer of 1873, also, he was invited to take part in the Hayden exploring expedition in Colorado. The Report of the Survey says that he “rendered most valuable assistance … in geographical work.” His account of this expedition of 1873 was published in the New York Tribune, and afterwards was translated into French for a popular publication of that country, as giving a clear view of the work of such scientific parties. He had a brief article in the American Journal of Science for the same year on the U. S. Geological Survey of the Territories. He gave several months of his time just before leaving home for his last visit to Europe, to helping Professor J. D. Whitney put through the press the latter’s work on ‘The Metallic Wealth of the United States.’
His scientific experience stood him in good stead in more than one instance of philological research and discussion. He was not tempted to infer from linguistic data the order of succession of trees in forests, nor astronomical facts. He was a member for several years of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One of his most important publications was the annotated translation of a Hindu treatise on astronomy—the Sūrya-Siddhānta, 1860—and one of the longest essays in his ‘Oriental and Linguistic Studies’ treats of the same subject.
In 1848, largely under the influence and with the encouragement of his father’s pastor, the Rev. George E. Day (for a quarter of a century after 1866 Professor of Hebrew at Yale, and at present Dean of the Yale Divinity School), Mr. Whitney directed his attention to the study of Sanskrit, for which he found books in the library of his elder brother, who had recently returned from Europe. A really good mind can find pleasure and success in any one of several different fields of research. Not often, however, do we find such marked examples of men of real talent manifesting distinct tastes and power in widely different departments of learning as in the case of these two brothers. Mr. J. D. Whitney went to Germany primarily in order to prepare himself for mineralogical and geological work, but became interested in the study of languages and attended (with but two fellow-listeners) a course of lectures on Sanskrit at Berlin. He himself says that he might have taken up philology in earnest, abandoning natural science altogether, if immediately after his return to his home he had not received an appointment to engage in a geological survey of a new and interesting region under United States authority. His philological studies have borne fruit in his ‘Names and Places—Studies in Geographical and Topographical Nomenclature,’ published in 1888, and in the more than four thousand definitions he furnished to the Century Dictionary. Mr. W. D. Whitney certainly had great ability in the study of natural science. Doubtless the accident of his finding various linguistic books ready to hand, at the time when his mental powers were most actively developing, had much to do with his turning in the direction of philology. During the summer which he spent with his brother on Lake Superior he had a Sanskrit grammar with him, which he studied at odd moments when not engaged in collecting plants or computing barometrical observations. Yale College has had another marked example of a scholar with equal ability and tastes for widely diverse studies, in Professor James Hadley, whose first published work was in the department of mathematics, and of whom a high authority said that the best mathematician in the country was spoiled when Mr. Hadley devoted himself to Greek!
Mr. Whitney’s practical banker father was not fully satisfied with his plan of giving himself to Oriental studies, and asked his pastor whether a man could support himself in life by studying and teaching Sanskrit. Dr. Day made the very wise answer that if a man had any exact and thorough knowledge, he was likely to be able to use it. As a Massachusetts man, the father turned naturally to Harvard as the proper place for his son’s pursuit of advanced studies, but his pastor called his attention to the newly established department of Philosophy and the Arts at New Haven as the only definite arrangement yet made in this country for university work, and especially to the unique equipment of the special department of Oriental languages.
Before going to New Haven to study, Mr. Whitney prepared and published in the Bibliotheca Sacra an article (translated and abridged from von Bohlen) on the ‘Grammatical Structure of the Sanskrit’; and in the same periodical, in the following year, he published a ‘Comparison of the Greek and Latin Verbs.’
In the autumn of 1849, too late for his name to appear in the catalogue of that year, Mr. Whitney came to Yale and studied through the remainder of the college year under Professor Salisbury. His associate in study was Professor James Hadley (six years older than himself, but only three years older in college age), who had been appointed assistant professor of Greek in 1848. The relations of the two continued most intimate and mutually stimulating until the death of Professor Hadley in 1872. Mr. Whitney edited a volume of Professor Hadley’s Essays, in 1873, and wrote a brief but highly appreciative sketch of his friend for the large work entitled ‘Yale College,’ published in 1879.
Professor Salisbury was graduated at Yale in 1832. During more than three years’ residence abroad, 1836-39, he studied with De Sacy and Garcin de Tassy in Paris and with Bopp in Berlin. In 1841 he was invited to a professorship of the Arabic and Sanskrit languages in Yale College, without the expectation of pecuniary compensation. This was only nine years after the foundation of the Sanskrit professorship (of H. H. Wilson) at Oxford, and twelve years after Lassen was made Professor Extraordinarius at Bonn. He returned to Europe in 1842 for a year, and read privatissime Arabic with Freytag and Sanskrit with Lassen, at Bonn. In 1846 he was made the Corresponding Secretary of the American Oriental Society, and (to use Mr. Whitney’s words) “for some ten years Professor Salisbury was virtually the Society, doing its work and paying its bills. He gave it standing and credit in the world of scholars, as an organization that could originate and make public valuable material; after such a start, it was sure of respectful attention to whatever it might do.” The Society had published nothing before he took charge of this office. Professor Salisbury also secured valuable Arabic and Sanskrit manuscripts and books from De Sacy’s library and elsewhere in Europe; and Professor FitzEdward Hall, then at Benares, procured for him many expensive and important Sanskrit publications from India. His services and generosity in procuring fonts of Oriental type, and his wisdom in bringing the Oriental Society into close connection with the studies of foreign missionaries, should not be forgotten. He was the only trained Orientalist in this country, until Mr. Whitney’s return in 1853, and had an admirably equipped library. In the Yale catalogue of 1841-42, Professor Salisbury’s name appears for the first time in the list of the faculty as Professor of the Arabic and Sanskrit Languages and Literature. In the catalogue of 1843-44, announcement is made that “the Professor of Arabic and Sanskrit will give instruction on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in Arabic grammar with the interpretation of the Korân and the Mo’allakas, and on Fridays and Saturdays in Sanskrit grammar with the interpretation of the laws of Manu.” In the following year we are told that “the Professor of Arabic and Sanskrit proposes to commence this year, in the ensuing summer, a free course of lectures on the Sacred Code of the Hindus, the Manava Dharma Sastra.” In 1845 for the first time appears a modestly-placed paragraph, saying “Instruction is also given by the Professors to Resident Graduates, provided a sufficient number present themselves to form a class.” This was followed by the offer of a “course of lectures on the literary history and doctrines of the Kurân,” or instruction in the elements of Sanskrit. In 1847 appeared the formal announcement of the opening of the Department of Philosophy and the Arts, with definite arrangements for advanced work. The philological courses were by President Woolsey (Thucydides or Pindar), Professor Kingsley (“in such Latin author as may be agreed upon”), Professor Gibbs (“lectures on some points of general Philology”), and Professor Salisbury (Arabic Grammar, and “some of the relations of the Arabic to other of the Shemitish dialects”).

Marvellous stories are told in student-tradition of the rapid progress made by Mr. Whitney and Mr. Hadley—that they learned all the paradigms of Bopp’s grammar in two lessons, etc. The basis of the stories is partly the fact that both already read simple Sanskrit with ease, but it is certain that few teachers ever had such a class. They were Professor Salisbury’s first and last pupils in Sanskrit, but he might well feel proud of the record. He himself says of them that “their quickness of perception and unerring exactness of acquisition soon made it evident that the teacher and the taught must change places.”
In 1850 Mr. Whitney went to Germany and spent three winter semesters in studying with Weber, Bopp, and Lepsius in Berlin, and two summer semesters at work with Roth in Tübingen. At the suggestion of Roth he undertook with this master the publication of the Atharva-Veda, and copied and collated the Berlin MSS of this work. In 1852 he sent to the American Oriental Society a paper, read at their October meeting of that year, on ‘The main results of the later Vedic researches in Germany.’ A letter from Weber, dated at Berlin, Dec. 28, 1852, is interesting in this connection on several accounts. He writes: “I hope ere long Sanskrit studies will flourish in America more than in England, where with the only exception of the venerable and not-to-be-praised-enough Professor Wilson nobody seems to care for them so much as to devote his life to them. The East India Company certainly does all that is in its power to help the publication of the Vedic texts, but it does not find English hands to achieve it…. It is certainly very discouraging to see that Professor Wilson during all the time since he got his professorship in Oxford, has not succeeded in bringing up even one Sanskrit scholar who might claim to be regarded as one who has done at least some little service to our Sanskrit philology…. I have to congratulate you most heartily on your countryman Mr. Whitney, who is now intensely engaged in the preparations for an edition of the Atharva Samhitā in union with Professor Roth of Tübingen. The next number of the Indische Studien, too, which is now in press, contains from him tables showing the natural relation of the four now known Samhitās of the Veda,—an attempt in which he was greatly indebted to Professor Roth’s communications, but which still remains also a very favorable specimen of his own assiduity and correctness.”
The following letters need little explanation. We note with interest how soon the first followed the receipt of Weber’s letter which has just been quoted. The spirit which prompted the offer of the first letter is certainly unusual in its generosity—not only surrendering a professorial chair, but also providing for its endowment. The modesty and delicacy of the reply seem as extraordinary at the present day, and were perhaps as rare forty years ago.
Under date of February 19, 1853, Professor Salisbury wrote to Mr. Whitney: “… I have observed your course of study and the rapidity of your acquisitions since you have been abroad with much interest and have seen in this, together with what I have known otherwise of your tastes and talents, a way opening for relief to myself which I have long desired. The prospect has been the more pleasing to me inasmuch as I have also seen that I might be able through you to bring new honor to my ‘alma mater.’… It is also much at heart with me to secure … assistance to myself in editing and endeavouring in every way to improve the Journal of the Oriental Society.” Professor Salisbury proposed that Mr. Whitney should be made “Professor of the Sanskrit and its relations to the kindred languages, and of Sanskrit literature, in the Department of Philosophy and the Arts in Yale College,” his term of service to begin Aug. 8, 1853;—it being understood that Mr. Whitney would include in his instructions the teaching of modern languages to undergraduates, and should receive the fees which were then paid for such teaching. It was understood, further, that Mr. Whitney would co-operate with Professor Salisbury in editing the Journal of the Oriental Society. Professor Salisbury undertook to create a fund which with the fees for modern-language instruction might furnish nearly the ordinary salary of a Yale professor at that time.
Mr. Whitney replied from Paris, on April 4, 1853. Professor Salisbury’s letter had reached him at Berlin at a time when he was engaged in closing his work there, and “had hardly an hour for quiet thought upon any subject.” He expressed his gratitude for the kind feeling toward him “which has had a share in the dictating of the proposal,” and continued: “Nor can I well say how much I am struck by the true and self-forgetting zeal for the progress of Oriental studies, of which this, like all your previous movements, affords an evidence. But … I am compelled to ask myself whether … I can hope to render any such service to Science as would be an adequate return for the kindness you exhibit toward me; whether, finally, it would not be in me an act of unpardonable presumption to take upon my shoulders an office which you are desirous of throwing off…. I need not say how high and honorable a post I regard that of a teacher at Yale to be, how many and extreme attractions, both in a personal and in a scientific point of view, the prospect of such a situation would have for me…. So far as my own interests are concerned, I could find nothing in the terms which you propose or the duties which you suggest to which to raise a moment’s objection…. All that I could bring up against the arrangement would be that the advantage is too entirely upon my side.” He desired further time for reflection and consultation with his friends, and thought the postponement of a decision less objectionable because he did not expect to be able to finish his work in Europe and return before the last of August, and then, after a three years’ absence from home, desired to spend some time with his friends. His eyes, too, had been giving him “during the winter ground for some apprehension,” and “would doubtless be best consulted for by a period of rest and inaction.”
In Paris he was “at work on a MS of the Atharva which belongs to the Imperial Library.” “Probably it will cost me about six weeks’ labor…. Then will follow two or three months of similar labor in London and Oxford…. During the whole winter I was compelled to neglect all other studies; that, however, chiefly owing to the condition of my eyes, which robbed me of about half my time. Persian and Arabic had to be laid aside altogether, and what of time and strength I had to spare from the Sanskrit, I devoted to the Egyptian and Coptic. I cannot well express to you the interest which this latter branch of study has awakened in me, and the strong desire I have felt to penetrate further into it than the mere surface exploration which could be made in the odd moments of a single winter. I would not, however, sell for a very large sum the little insight into this wonderful subject which I have already obtained, and it will be my highest pleasure to attempt to draw it somewhat more into the circle of our Oriental inquiries than has been generally the case hitherto…. There is nothing new of particular interest, so far as I know, to communicate to you from the Sanskrit world on this side of the water. The main interest attaches to the Lexicon which is going to be really a great work, and to push forward the whole study of that language a long way with one thrust. A slow thrust, unfortunately, it will have to be; Prof. Roth estimates ten years as needed for its perfection. [It was completed in 1875.] I am going to contribute my small mite also toward it, by furnishing to Prof. Roth the vocabulary complete of the Atharva. The latter, as you perhaps know, has now the sole redaction of the Vedic material, Aufrecht having left Germany. The next number of Weber’s Zeitschrift will be out now very soon, and will contain a contribution from me, a Vedic concordance.”
Mr. Whitney reached home earlier than he had expected—about Aug. 8, 1853—and on Aug. 15 he wrote: “Although not less distrustful than before of my ability to discharge to your satisfaction and my own the duties of the post to which you would assign me, I should be disposed to accept gratefully your proposals, and do my best at least to accomplish that which such an acceptance demands of me.” But Mr. Whitney desired a modification of the plan. “I have no such knowledge of French as would in any manner justify me in making pretensions to ability to teach it.” His estimate of his knowledge of modern languages was lower than that of his friends. Not until 1856 did he accept the title of “Instructor in German.” A year later, after he h

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