Two Cornell professors, Clark Sutherland Northup and Harry Caplan, although not medievalists in the strict sense of the word, were strong supporters of medieval studies.
Clark S. Northup was born in Edmeston, NY in 1872, received his B.A. (1893) and Ph.D. (1898) from Cornell, and spent his entire professional career in the Cornell English Department as Assistant Instructor (1895), Instructor (1897), Assistant Professor (1903), Professor (1919), and Professor Emeritus (1940). Northup’s scholarship focused on Victorian authors, especially Elisabeth Gaskell and Robert Browning. But he had a strong interest in medieval literature. Indeed, his first publication was a scientific edition of a fifteenth-century Latin manuscript fragment, the Dialogus Inter Corpus et Animam (Baltimore: Publications of the Modern Language Association, v. 16; pp. 503-525, 1901). The manuscript had been acquired in Trier for A.D. White by G.L. Burr, who described the text as “a vision of Hell, as seen by the soul of the Rich Man” (Kroch Library 4600 Bd Ms. 287+). In the 1920s and 1930s Northup regularly taught “Arthurian Legends.” He was one of the first members of the Medieval Academy of America, founded in Cambridge, Mass, in 1925, and he published many book reviews on medieval literature. It was Northup who established the Hart Memorial Library in Morrill Hall, much used by students.
Another strong supporter of medieval studies was Harry Caplan (1896-1980), an expert on rhetoric and homiletics. Caplan was born in Hoag’s Corner, New York. In 1913, at the age of seventeen, he matriculated at Cornell, where he wrote a Master’s thesis on “A History of the Jews in the Roman Province of Africa: A Collection of the Sources.” He received his doctorate in 1921. Two years earlier, on March 27, 1919, Caplan received the following letter from four members of the Classics Department who tried to dissuade him from pursuing a career in the academy:
“My dear Caplan: I want to second Professor Bristol’s advice and urge you to get into secondary teaching. The opportunities for college positions, never too many, are at present few and likely to be fewer. I can encourage no one to look forward to securing a college post. There is, moreover, a very real prejudice against the Jew. Personally, I do not share this, and I am sure the same is true of all our staff here. But we have seen so many well-equipped Jews fail to secure appointments that this fact has been forced upon us. . . . I feel it is wrong to encourage anyone to devote himself to the higher walks of learning to whom the path is barred by an undeniable racial prejudice. In this I am joined by all my Classical colleagues, who have authorized me to append their signatures with my own to this letter. (Signed)
Charles E. Bennet, C.L. Durham, George S. Bristol, E.P. Andrews.
The letter was found on Caplan’s desk in Rockefeller Hall following his death in 1980. It is now kept in the University Archives. It was cited for the first time by Martin Bernal (Government and Near Eastern Studies) in his Black Athena (Rutgers University Press, 1987).
Undeterred, Caplan managed to secure a position in the Department of Public Speaking between 1919 and 1923. In 1924 he was hired by the Classics Department and, for many years, he was the only tenured Jewish professor in the Ivy League. He is best known for his excellent edition and translation, with notes, of the Rhetorica ad Herennium for the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard 1954), a treatise on rhetoric that was widely used in medieval schools.
Caplan spent his entire academic career at Cornell, from his M.A. in 1917 until his retirement in 1967. Except for six months in Spain and Austria in the 1930s (studying medieval manuscripts) and a couple of visiting professorships at American universities, Caplan rarely left Ithaca. He was jovial, a beloved teacher and an avid sports fan. According to a column in the Cornell Alumni News (1962):
“[Caplan’s] office hours begin late in the morning, but continue until late at night, and it is not unusual for his students to take their evening coffee break in the [so-called] Caplan corner of the Goldwin Smith south wing”.
Harry Caplan with Three Students during His Office Hours
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Faculty Folders