George Ticknor

George Ticknor bigraphy, stories - American academic

George Ticknor : biography

August 1, 1791 – January 26, 1871

George Ticknor (August 1, 1791 – January 26, 1871) was an American academician and Hispanist, specializing in the subject areas of languages and literature. He is known for his scholarly work on the history and criticism of Spanish literature.


Ticknor was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He received his early education from his father, Elisha Ticknor, former principal of the Franklin public school and a founder of the Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Company, of the system of free primary schools in Boston, and of the first New England savings bank, Provident Institution for Savings. In 1805 George entered the junior class at Dartmouth College, where he graduated in 1807. During the next three years he studied Latin and Greek with Rev. Dr John Sylvester John Gardiner, rector of Trinity Church, Boston, and a pupil of Dr Samuel Parr.

Ticknor House (left), Park Street, Boston, 1850s

In 1829, George Ticknor moved into half of the home built by Thomas Amory at the corner of Beacon and Park Streets in 1804, which thus became the Amory-Ticknor House. In 1810 Ticknor began the study of law, and he was admitted to the bar in 1813. He opened an office in Boston, but practised for only one year, satisfying himself that his vocation, or at least his taste, lay in the direction of letters rather than of law. His father’s circumstances were such as to enable him to consult his taste in the selection of his profession, and he went to Europe in 1815, for nearly two years studying at the University of Göttingen, attending the lectures of the university and devoting himself to philological studies, especially to the ancient classics. After that, he remained two years longer in Europe, chiefly on the continent, passing most of his time in the capitals of France, Spain and Portugal doing critical studies of the national literatures.

In 1817, while still in Europe, he became Smith professor of French and Spanish languages and literatures (a chair founded in 1816), and professor of belles-lettres at Harvard University. In 1819 he returned to the United States, bringing with him a valuable library. This in time grew to be one of the largest private collections in the country, and, for the rarity and importance of the books, was unsurpassed, in some of its departments. This is especially true of the collection of Spanish literature, which rivaled the best private ones in Europe. And it was particularly strong in Portuguese literature as well.

During his professorship Ticknor advocated the creation of departments, the grouping of students in divisions according to proficiency, and the establishment of the elective system, and reorganized his own department. He suggested valuable improvements in the system of discipline, for which he had derived the hints from the German universities. He had greatly extended the range of intellectual culture among the students at the university, where literary instruction had hitherto been confined to the classics, and gave long and elaborate courses of lectures on French and Spanish literature. He also entered into a critical analysis of such writers as Dante, Goethe, Milton, and Shakespeare. The audience of the lectures, instead of being confined to students, was increased by persons without the walls of the college, who were attracted not merely by the interest of the subject, but by the skill of the critic, his luminous and often eloquent diction, and his impressive delivery. In 1835 he resigned his chair after holding it for 15 years, and returned to Europe. His successor, in 1836, in the professorship at Harvard was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Ticknor’s library at home, Park Street, Boston, 19th century

After his return he devoted himself to the chief work of his life, the history and criticism of Spanish literature, in many respects a new subject at that time even in Europe, there being no adequate treatment of the literature as a whole in Spanish. Both Friedrich Bouterwek and Jean Charles Leonard de Sismondi had worked with limited or secondhand resources. Ticknor developed in his college lectures the scheme of his more permanent work, which he published as the History of Spanish Literature (New York and London, 3 volumes, 1849). The book is not merely a story of Spanish letters, but, more broadly, of Spanish civilization and manners. The History is exhaustive and exact in scholarship, and direct and unpretentious in style. It gives many illustrative passages from representative works, and copious bibliographical references.

It was soon translated into Spanish (1851–1857) by Pascual de Gayangos y Arce and de Vedia; into French by Magnabal; and German by Nikolaus Heinrich Julius and Ferdinand Wolf. The second American edition appeared in 1854; the third corrected and enlarged, in 1863; the fourth, containing the author’s last revision, in 1872, under the supervision of George Stillman Hillard; and the sixth in 1888.

He was especially active in the establishment of the Boston Public Library (1852), and served in 1852-1866 on its board of trustees, of which he was president in 1865. On its behalf he spent fifteen months abroad in 1856-1857, at his own expense, and to it he gave at various times money and books; a special feature of his plan was a free circulating department. He also left his own collection of books to the library.