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Harry Caplan

CAPLAN, HARRY (1896–1980), U.S. classical and medieval scholar. Born in Hoag's Corner, New York, Caplan spent his entire career, except for various visiting professorships, at Cornell University, where he received his doctorate in 1921 and served on the faculty from 1919 to 1967, being appointed professor in 1930 and serving as chairman for 17 years (1929–46). He taught in the Department of Public Speaking (1919–23) and in the Department of Classics (1924–80). His doctoral thesis was A History of the Jews in the Roman Province of Africa: A Collection of the Sources; but Caplan turned his attention thereafter to the study of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance rhetoric, the history of preaching, and the intellectual history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He wrote or edited A Late Medieval Tractate on Preaching (1925); Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola on the Imagination (1930); the two-volume Mediaeval Artes Praedicandi (1934, 1936); Rhetorica ad Herennium, the treatise on rhetorical theory ascribed to Cicero (Loeb Classical Library, 1934); he was co-author of a two-volume work Pulpit Eloquence (1955–56); and he wrote Of Eloquence: Studies in Ancient and Mediaeval Rhetoric (1970).

From 1930 on he was joint editor of Cornell Studies in Classical Philology. In 1955 he became the first Jew to hold the position of president of the American Philological Association.

After Caplan's death, a letter was found in his desk that he had kept for 61 years. Sent to him in his graduate student days by a group of his former teachers at Cornell, the letter was an attempt to discourage him from aspiring to teach at the university, mainly because he was Jewish:

My dear Caplan: I want to second Professor Bristol's advice and urge you to get into secondary teaching. The opportunities for college positions, never too many, are at present few and likely to be fewer. I can encourage no one to look forward to securing a college post. There is, moreover, a very real prejudice against the Jew. Personally, I do not share this, and I am sure the same is true of all our staff here. But we have seen so many well-equipped Jews fail to secure appointments that this fact has been forced upon us. I recall Alfred Gudeman and E.A. Loew – both brilliant scholars of international reputation – and yet unable to obtain a college position. I feel it wrong to encourage anyone to devote himself to the higher walks of learning to whom the path is barred by an undeniable racial prejudice. In this I am joined by all my classical colleagues, who have authorized me to append their signatures with my own to this letter.

[Signed] Charles E. Bennett, C.L. Durham, George S. Bristol, E.P. Andrews [Dated] Ithaca, March 27, 1919.


L. Wallach (ed.), The Classical Tradition: Literary and Historical Studies in Honor of Harry Caplan (1966); A. King and H. North (eds.), Of Eloquence: Festschrift in Honor of Harry Caplan (1970); Who's Who in America (1970/71), 349.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.