John Shields

Went to a good lecture last night.

John C. Shields from Illinois State University lectured about matters surrounding, though not included in, his latest book The American Aeneas : Classical Origins of the American Self. Though the lecture was called George Washington: The American Aeneas, it concerned far more than George Washington.

The George Washington part was interesting enough. Shields attempted to revaluate Washington as something other than the quiet military dolt that most biographies and histories make him out to be, arguing that he had an education involving classical Latin literature. He argues that part of Washington’s vision of America was built on the Roman model, best exemplified by Aeneas. However, the most interesting part was positioning this against the backdrop of the British reaction against neoclassicism.

Shields walks a fine line in teasing out the differences between the British and American perspectives; while most of the sources for the American model of “God, Mother, and Country” were contained within the British literature of the time, Shields argues that the Americans didn’t just parrot back what the British writers were doing, and instead looked directly at the Roman models. It’s a tough case to make really, and I can’t say I’m totally convinced. Shields argues that the British model was built on notions of “empire,” “King and Country,” that the Americans didn’t share. But in the early 19th century, I don’t think the majority of British writers bought into that wholesale either. Like most things, it’s complicated. Especially since, as Shields points out, that a lot of Early American rhetoric like “give me liberty or give me death” was lifted verbatim from Joseph Addison’s play Cato. A Roman model, but still, a British play. Lots of food for thought though.

I especially liked seeing the slide of the painting on the Capitol dome. It’s nice to know that in contrast to the media image of America as being built on the Bible, the rotunda painting is of Roman gods, with no Christian imagery present at all. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, but it is certainly different.