Position

AHA President, 1927

Institution

Author

From the American Historical Review 46:4 (July 1941)

Henry Osborn Taylor (December 5, 1856–April 13, 1941), who died on April 13 at his home in New York City after a week’s illness, was without doubt one of the most distinguished historians and men of letters in America. He was born in New York City on December 5, 1856, and spent the early years of his life there and in the Connecticut countryside, for which he retained an abiding fondness. As a young man he looked forward to a career in practical affairs and even worked for some months in the booming mining town of Austin, Nevada. At the age of seventeen he returned East, seriously applied himself to study, and in 1874 entered Harvard College. He was a student of Charles Eliot Norton and was greatly impressed by his learning, but the teacher who most impressed him was Henry Adams. After his graduation from Harvard, Taylor entered Columbia Law School. He interrupted his studies there to spend a year at Leipzig, where he perfected his German and mastered the difficult discipline of Roman law. This experience in Germany he considered one of the most profitable of his whole life, for it gave him training and insight into new fields that he found most helpful in his later career. He returned to America to complete his legal studies, then took up the practice of law, and in 1884 published his first book and only legal study, The Law of Private Corporations. This volume, which developed directly from his German legal training, went through many editions and became in time a standard text for law students. “The good students liked it,” Taylor once wrote, “the poor ones found it difficult.” This was no lament, merely the first statement of a fact he honestly recognized and often repeated in later years: “All my books have been called difficult.” His career as a lawyer came abruptly to an end, and he determined to devote his life to a serious study of the changing ideals of mankind. Insisting always that he was in no sense endowed with creative powers, he set out to explore man’s activities “along that avenue of collective effort known as science, philosophy, religion and art.” The ideal was worthy, and a long life, proper training, zeal, physical strength, and economic independence permitted him to realize what he had projected as a young man. The result, as every one knows, was a succession of significant books which brought honor and distinction to their author. The Ancient Ideals ( 1900) came first, followed by The Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages (1901), The Medieval Mind (1914), and Thought and Expression in the Sixteenth Century (1920), to name only the more important of many volumes from his pen. The idea behind these books was new, at least new to English and American readers, and Taylor opened to thousands knowledge that would have remained the possession of a few specialists had he not written as he did. If the series of books is examined as a whole, it is not difficult to discern that they represent what they truly were for the author: the education of Henry Osborn Taylor. But what a contrast between his “education” and that of his admired teacher, Henry Adams. In Taylor’s books the way may be difficult, the flights of fancy and brilliant intuition rare, the parts sometimes better than the whole; yet throughout there is a sense of calm, of repose, with the author exploring step by step, honestly and reverently, the minds of earlier ages. Taylor recognized that he had put himself into his books, and, hard though they may at times be to read, each page reflects his honest searchings and endeavors to make things clear to himself, at least. There is no assumed rusticity, no false modesty, but everywhere a recognition of his own limits, limits he understood and faced squarely if regretfully. In Human Values and Verities (1928) he wrote delightfully about his own life and general problems he had long wished to consider. He was fond of literature, well acquainted with that of many languages, and especially sensitive to the wisdom, profundities, and delights of poetry. He was also widely read in philosophy and had great sympathy with its aims and methods, and it was not mere chance that showed him in the mood of the philosopher when he spoke in his presidential address to the American Historical Association in December, 1927, on “A Layman’s View of History.” Though his career was in no sense an academic one, institutions of learning paid due respect to his great accomplishments. Harvard, Columbia, and Wesleyan each gave him an honorary degree; he was lecturer at Columbia (1898, 1899), Lowell lecturer (1917), and in 1920 he gave the West lectures at Stanford. In 1915 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and last November he succeeded to the chair of the late Sidney Howard in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It is of interest to note the announcement in the press that he left his residuary estate to Harvard College, the income from this gift to be applied toward the salaries of the faculty at the discretion of the college authorities.

 

Bibliography

A treatise on the law of private corporations having capital stock. By Henry O. Taylor. Philadelphia, Kay & brother, 1884.

The classical heritage of the middle ages, by Henry Osborn Taylor. New York, The Columbia university press, 1901; 4th ed. New York, F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1957.

The mediaeval mind; a history of the development of thought and emotion in the middle ages. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1911.

Ancient ideals; a study of intellectual and spiritual growth from early times to the establishment of Christianity, by Henry Osborn Taylor. 2d ed. 2 vols. New York: The Macmillan company, 1913; Reprint, New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1964.

Deliverance, the freeing of the spirit in the ancient world, by Henry Osborn Taylor. New York: The Macmillan company, 1915.

Thought and expression in the sixteenth century, by Henry Osborn Taylor. 2 vols. New York, Macmillan, 1920.

Greek biology and medicine, by Henry Osborn Taylor. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1922.

Freedom of the mind in history, by Henry Osborn Taylor. New York, 1923; Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970.

Human values and verities, by Henry Osborn Taylor. London: Macmillan & Co., Limited, 1928.

A layman’s view of history, by Henry Osborn Taylor. New York, The Macmillan Company, 1935; Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1978.

A historian’s creed, by Henry Osborn Taylor. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1939; Reprint, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1969.