June 25, 2004

Jefferson the Gaelic scholar

I recently learned that Thomas Jefferson, the well-kown 18th-century American linguist and politician, once set out to learn Gaelic.

Impressed by James MacPherson's Ossian, he wrote on Feb. 25, 1773 to a relative of MacPherson's that he had met, one Charles McPherson Albemarle, asking for a copy of the (nonexistent) Gaelic originals:

Merely for the pleasure of reading his works, I am become desirous of learning the language in which he sung, and of possessing his songs in their original form. Mr. McPherson, I think, informs us he is possessed of the originals. Indeed, a gentleman has lately told me he had seen them in print; but I am afraid he has mistaken a specimen from Temora, annexed to some of the editions of the translation, for the whole works. If they are printed, it will abridge my request and your trouble, to the sending me a printed copy; but if there be more such, my petition is, that you would be so good as to use your interest with Mr. McPherson to obtain leave to take a manuscript copy of them, and procure it to be done.

The letter goes on to make it clear that Jefferson proposed to learn the language in order to read the manuscripts:

I would further beg the favor of you to give me a catalogue of the books written in that language, and to send me such of them as may be necessary for learning it. These will, of course, include a grammar and dictionary.

Ossian, which purported to be translated from a body of Gaelic epic poetry analogous to Homer, was in fact mostly faked. However, Jefferson was not alone in being impressed. Among others outside of the British Isles who were deeply affected, Goethe depicted his hero Werther as preferring Ossian to Homer ("Ossian has taken Homer's place in my heart. What a world, into which this magnificent hero leads me!"), in a work based on Goethe's own unhappy love affair of 1772-73; and J.G. von Herder saw Ossian as a key example of "the songs of ancient peoples" (in his seminal essay Briefwechsel über Oßian und die Lieder alter Völker, written 1771, published 1772).

Since Jefferson is in many other ways a typical Enlightenment guy, it's interesting to see him responding so enthusiastically to this early harbinger of Romanticism, in exactly the same time period as Goethe and Herder.

At the same time, it's also possible to read into Jefferson's letter a bit of the early skepticism about Ossian's authenticity, more pointedly displayed in this 1775 letter from Samuel Johnson to MacPherson. Certainly he's taking a very American "show me the facts" attitude.

I'm confident that Jefferson never succeeded in getting the Gaelic originals of the Ossian poems, and I suspect that his plan to learn Gaelic did not go any further forward. He may have been disappointed by his failure to get the Gaelic originals, or distracted by subsequent events. And yet, I'm impressed that he wanted to try, and believed that he could.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 25, 2004 09:33 AM