The Man's Learning Moves Me
"I Have Always Loved the Holy Tongue": Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship
by Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg
Harvard University Press, 368 pp., $35
Early in the introduction to their fascinating new study of the 16th-century French Huguenot classicist, Isaac Casaubon, Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg offer a characteristically witty account of their subject's astonishing fertility. "Casaubon produced seventeen children," they write, "as well as a vast stream of learned works, some of which he wrote while using one foot to rock the current infant's cradle." The picture they paint is both humanizing and reminiscent of a description I once heard of a young Anthony Grafton pacing the streets of Princeton, head down, reading a hefty tome, with a small child tucked under his beard in a sling strapped to his chest.
Grafton and Weinberg have both made essential contributions to the intellectual history of Isaac Casaubon's period. They are also the leading experts on two early modern scholars in whom Casaubon himself took an abiding interest: Grafton having written the authoritative treatment of Joseph Scaliger, and Weinberg having almost single-handedly recovered the crucial importance of Azariah de' Rossi. In fact, Grafton and Weinberg are not unlike Casaubon, using textual traces and literary record—books, letters, and especially marginalia—to reconstruct interior thinking, relationships, and habits of mind through exquisite and precise attention to detail coupled with a sympathetic imagination—identification, really—with their subject. What Grafton and Weinberg appear to have found in Isaac Casaubon is a kindred spirit, a humanist whose scholarly pursuits might have occasionally bordered on the obsessive, but who never immersed himself so deeply in that world that he stopped rocking the cradle.
This is not the first book-length treatment of Isaac Casaubon's life and work. Mark Pattison's biography of Casaubon, which first appeared in 1875, offered a portrait of a compulsive, ascetic, and intellectually (not to mention physically) desiccated scholar who very nearly read and wrote himself to death, poring over thousands of pages of classical materials that chained him to the past. Pattison's Casaubon sounded like his famous fictional namesake, the Reverend Edward Casaubon, whose obsessive search for the "key to all mythologies" in George Eliot's Middlemarch (published a year before Pattison's biography) produced one of the most unsatisfying and loveless marriages in Victorian literature. Grafton and Weinberg are generous with their praise for Pattison's biography, even as they are critical of its view of their subject.