“Latin Is Part of Our History Here”

Allegra Forbes |

An Interview with “Americana Latine” Author Andrew Dinan

[In 2021 the Paideia Institute Press published Americana Latine, a collection of more than one hundred Latin texts written in or about North America, in poetry and prose, from the 11th century to the 20th. It is the first collection of its kind — and hopefully not the last. We spoke with Andrew Dinan, who put togethere the collection, to learn more about the book.]

In Medias Res. Americana Latine is unique. I know of an anthology of American Latin poetry before 1825, but a general anthology, poetry and prose, from all eras — there really isn’t anything quite like it. So can you just describe a bit the origin of this book and how you came to put it together?

Andrew Dinan. I wanted to feature a range of Latin, especially what might be called everyday Latin. My volume does contain several poems, especially from decades that fall outside the scope of the anthology you mention, Leo M. Kaiser’s Early American Latin Verse, but my hope was to show that Latin in the United States was not confined to academic exercises or literary pursuits, and it wasn’t always refined or elevated. So readers will encounter diaries, inscriptions, speeches, reports, studies, and all sorts of letters.

But as for the origin of the book, I would point to two moments. When I moved to Florida in 2004 to take the job at Ave Maria University, I was coming from Virginia. And nearly everywhere you go in Virginia you run into an historical marker, a museum, an older house — some tangible sign of persons and events from the past. But this is not the case in Florida, especially in Southwest Florida. So not long after I moved here, I went to the Provost at the time, a Jesuit priest named Father Joseph Fessio, and I asked him whether he could recommend books to ground me, so to speak, in the history of this region. One of the volumes he gave me contained primary documents concerning a Jesuit mission that was planted in present-day Virginia (which at the time was considered part of La Florida) in the 1500s, several decades before Jamestown. Most of these documents were in Spanish, but one was in Latin. This intrigued me.

The other event that prompted the book was a class that a colleague and I taught some years ago that included a 10-day trip to Rome, to read Latin texts in situ. In preparation for this trip, we spent a great deal of time searching for readings related to our itinerary. It was right after I came back from this trip, a day or two later, that I began undertaking serious work on Americana Latine. My quest was: could something similar to what we did in Italy be done for the United States?

In Medias Res. We call this Loci in Locis. Cicero writes about this phenomenon in the De Finibus: “Cum ea loca videamus, in quibus memoria dignos viros acceperimus multum esse versatos, magis movemur, quam si quando eorum ipsorum aut facta audiamus aut scriptum aliquod legamus.” “We are more moved when we see the very places where we have heard memorable men spent much time, than when we hear about their deeds or read their writings.” And it makes for good pedagogy.

Andrew Dinan. Yes, my bread and butter is teaching Latin 101 and 102, and this typically entails a sustained effort to demonstrate to students that the Latin language is meaningful and important, that it is worth studying. The connection between text and place can make the study of Latin meaningful. It seemed to me that some work could be done to show that Latin is part of our history here in the United States. You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to find this. In fact, one of my hopes was to find at least one Latin text for each of our fifty states. I didn’t quite succeed.

In Medias Res. So what kind of texts are in your book?

Andrew Dinan. The first Latin text in Americana Latine is a brief excerpt from an eleventh-century history, written in northern Europe, that mentions Vinland, which historians place in Newfoundland. The latest text is a portion of a speech about nuclear weapons, which was given by an American bishop at the Second Vatican Council. In between readers will find more than one hundred documents written for the most part in or about the United States (or the region that would become the United States). In each case I provide an English introduction and then the Latin text, usually with annotation.

So readers will find an account of perilous travel on the Erie Canal in the 1840s, a commemoration of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, an account of a destructive storm in Alaska in the early twentieth century, laments for the “death” of football at Harvard in the mid-nineteenth century, discussions of Italian immigration, a commemoration of the inauguration of airmail service between New York and Washington, D.C., a report on the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and odes written about two different springs in Pennsylvania.

Some of these were written in Europe, others in the United States, others elsewhere in North America. Some are secondary sources, others would be considered primary. For example, in connection with the event I mentioned earlier, the Jesuit mission to Virginia in 1570 — I include a letter that was written by the Jesuits in Mexico, addressed to fellow Jesuits in Rome, which describes news of the disastrous mission in Virginia. This was published previously, in a series called Monumenta Mexicana, but when I was over in Rome at the Jesuit archives, I was able to see multiple images of this text.

In Medias Res. Well, that’s one of the things that’s fascinating, that as you go back in time, of course, the national divisions don’t apply. So you wouldn’t necessarily think to go looking for Virginia history in a book called Monumenta Mexicana. And that is something that I think Americans in particular are not aware of, prodolor.

Andrew Dinan. Yes, I hope that readers will see the transnational quality of Latin. Latin was used for communication between persons on opposite sides of the Atlantic, in different regions within the Western Hemisphere, as well as within the United States, often between immigrants from different European nations.

I also hope that selections in this book shed light on episodes or persons in American history. Latin certainly has been, and still is useful for American historians.

In Medias Res. Can you talk a bit for New Yorkers like myself about some of the New York sources you have in the book?

Andrew Dinan. I include an 1840 letter written by a Protestant minister in Herkimer, New York addressed to President Martin Van Buren, who had recently passed through that town on a “politician’s vacation.” There is an after-dinner speech given in 1895 at Delmonico’s in New York City. I also include an inscription placed in the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which mentions the recently laid transatlantic cable. Additionally, readers can find a diary written in New York by a Protestant minister during the Seven Years War and a letter sent from New York by a (loyalist) Catholic chaplain during the Revolutionary War.

One of the most striking documents, somewhat known in Neo-Latin circles, but still not much studied, is a 1643 letter by Isaac Jogues, a French Jesuit missionary in North America. Jogues (who was canonized in 1930) was in captivity in the present-day town of Auriesville, not far west of Albany. His letter, addressed to his superior in France, fills some thirty pages in a printed version. The beginning is fascinating because he questions what language he should use. Eventually he opted for Latin, for two reasons — to facilitate his citation of Sacred Scripture and because he wanted his letter to be “minus communem,” which, according to his modern editor, means that he wanted the letter to be more intimate! This indicates that there have been persons in America who knew Latin so well that it was a preferred language — it wasn’t a chore to write in Latin. At times there has been a marvelous ease with the language. It could be a language of intimacy.

In Medias Res. Right. And it offered some kind of expressive value that the vernacular language did not have, apparently. And there were reasons for choosing it. That’s fascinating. There’s also an account of Giovanni Verrazzano exploring New York Harbor.

Andrew Dinan. That’s right. This, along with several of the early selections in Americana Latine, may be surprising to some who conceive of the United States as exclusively English in origin. There was indeed an English presence in North America very early on, in fact even before Jamestown and Plymouth, but many of the early documents in this volume concern activity by other European nations. The passage about Verrazzano, a native of Florence who was sponsored by the King of France, is taken from the work of a Dutch scholar.

In Medias Res. Right. The book consists of Latin written in America or about America. So some are not written here, but still written about America. So that’s one of the secondary sources, as you put it. There’s also one about the Brooklyn Bridge. So we’re not talking about only stuff from the 1500s, 1600s — very old stuff. Talk a bit about the Brooklyn Bridge.

Andrew Dinan. The poem on the Brooklyn Bridge was connected with an effort in the latter nineteenth century to make Latin accessible and relevant. It was printed in a monthly newsletter, Latine, that was initiated in the early 1880s by Edgar Solomon Shumway, who, according to his obituary, “believed in Latin as a living, not as a dead language.” So it’s a fascinating glimpse not only of an event in American history (the astonishing Brooklyn Bridge) or of a particular author (in this case Constantine Stauder, a Franciscan friar who had left the Catholic Church and had become an Episcopalian minister) but also of an episode in the history of Latin pedagogy.

In Medias Res. And one of the things that I’m really interested in is that it seems when you when you look at the people who really got good at Latin, that it’s not the case that they just learned their declensions and conjugations because they were forced to. It seems that, as you say, there really were a lot of efforts to speak the language, to engage students, to make it more active. And that was necessary for it to stay alive all that time. So it really it’s not enough to just do grammar drills. They weren’t just doing that even in 1880.

Andrew Dinan. Yeah, I think that’s right. A typical issue of Latine contained questions in Latin that were designed to accompany a student’s reading of various classical texts; it also contained Latin translations of English hymns, exercises in prose composition, a Kalendarium, and correspondence, often in Latin. One senses throughout a desire to facilitate the active use of Latin. Shumway hoped that Latin clubs (catenae) would work through the exercises and readings in Latine. And Latine is not the only such example that I include in my volume. It is clear that there were all sorts of efforts in earlier generations to make Latin pedagogy engaging and successful.

Some today may question the utility of Latin — they may wonder why several years of study do not automatically yield fluency. This is not a new complaint. You see this in earlier generations as well. But Latin has always required an extended commitment.

In Medias Res. Reginald Foster used to say “it takes 14 years.” So you’ve got to put in the work. And speaking of which how do you find a source like this? I mean, no one knows that there’s a Latine magazine in 1883. How did you do the research for this?

Andrew Dinan. The research for this book was a lot of fun — absorbing. I was able to visit a few archives, but more frequently generous archivists sent me materials. Of course, in this day and age, much can be done sitting at one’s desk, with the computer open. The internet has brought all these things to us.

In Medias Res. It really has. But how would I do it? Did you find that the magazine existed first? Where did you find that? Did someone say, oh, there’s a poem about the Brooklyn Bridge and then you would look for it?

Andrew Dinan. During the early centuries covered in my book, writing in Latin was not always remarkable. At times it was expected. But in recent centuries, the fact that someone was a proficient Latinist might be noted in a biography or an obituary, and at times examples of such a person’s Latin compositions were reprinted or at least mentioned. I also made use of various finding aids. University archives are bountiful sources, as are state historical societies. The Library of Congress is an excellent source. Old newspapers are a wonderful place to search. Some of these are accessible for a subscription, others are free. And often you can carry out advanced searches.

In Medias Res. And you discovered that these newspapers were also publishing original work in Latin.

Andrew Dinan. Yeah, that’s right. And that was a real surprise to me. I mean, you have to go back a ways to find it, but it’s there. For example, I found a few Latin poems from the 1840s that were printed in the Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette. Now, having said this, I should clarify that this was not the norm. Poetry was common in newspapers of earlier eras, but Latin poetry was rare.

But there are certain places where Latin was the norm. This was the case with the Jesuits. From their foundation the Jesuits were diligent about Latin — Latin was a part of their life. You can almost guarantee that if you go to Jesuit sources, it will only be a matter of time until you bump up against some reference to their active use of, or their vigorous promotion of Latin. Early years of the Georgetown College Journal, for example, contain some Latin poetry.

In Medias Res. One of the things that’s most striking to me is how much just real life Latin, especially letters between normal people — farmers, soldiers, etc. How did you find some of that material? It’s really quite remarkable. It’s just another way of looking at the daily life of people in this country.

Andrew Dinan. I gave a paper in 2017 at a conference in Cork in which I discussed the phenomenon of Latin within the family, because I had encountered about a dozen different examples, from the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Some of these are in my volume. For example, in a section titled “Latin Between Sister and Brother,” I include two letters (preserved at the University of Michigan) exchanged between siblings in Iowa in the latter nineteenth century. A younger sister wrote her older brother who was away at college, and he wrote back. These letters are not long — a few sentences. I also include some letters written within the Thoreau family.

In Medias Res. That’s one of the things that is really remarkable about so many of these documents. They’re not just “show-off Latin.” It’s Latin which had a social purpose: to convey meaning from one person to another. And as a result, it’s a chance to make a human connection with these writers. How did you decide to to take that approach to this book? Because you could have found better, “better,” quote unquote, Latin in terms of its show-off quality. But you decided not to do that, and instead to go for this more humble Latin.

Andrew Dinan. I suppose it has to do with that sense of relevance. When we hear of somebody today who’s proficient in Latin, we assume that this person is a professional classicist. But only a few of the authors whose works I include were professional classicists. The selections tend to be by people who studied Latin but then went on to do other things for a living. Many of them nonetheless retained an ability not only to read but also to write Latin.

I also wanted the book to be accessible and meaningful to a wide range of Latinists, those who have only studied Latin for two years or so as well as those who are more experienced.

But another reason is that I think this range of Latin reflects reality, i.e., all sorts of persons within the United States were communicating in Latin, and these communications ranged from the ad hoc to the highly stylized.

In Medias Res. There’s a fair amount of what I would describe as Native American diplomatic Latin — real international business, done with the Holy See via Latin letters. Now, how did you come across these documents? And it’s very unusual to find these Native American voices in Latin.

Andrew Dinan. I believe I briefly glimpsed one of these letters when I was over in Rome in the archives of the Propaganda Fide, on the Janiculum. At any rate, it has been reprinted. It dates from 1789, and it concerns a request by the Oneida tribe for a bishop. It was signed by nine Native Americans. I also include an 1871 letter from the Pope addressed to the Coeur d’Alene tribe. And I include an account by a Jesuit missionary of the wrenching loss of land experienced by the Nez Percé tribe in Idaho (and neighboring states) in 1895.

In Medias Res. There’s been much talk about expanding the Latin canon, including non European voices in particular, and representing Latin as not just being this one group of people from Europe over a span of about one hundred years. It seems that this book is incredibly useful for anyone who wants to do that and wants to be reading Latin, which is either written by or or touches on the experiences of people beyond Europe, and particularly here in the U.S. Can you talk a bit about what the book offers in that regard?

Andrew Dinan. There is a fair amount of Latin in this volume about the experiences of Native Americans and African Americans. It was much more difficult, however, to locate Latin works that were composed by Native Americans or African Americans. I have encountered a few. In my volume there is a poem by James Kwegyir Aggrey, who was a student at Livingstone College and later a church pastor in the United States and vice principal of Achimoto College in Ghana. I give suggestions for where other such compositions might be located. For example, it used to be standard fare at commencement exercises to have a Latin (and at times a Greek) speech. This was also the case at some of the colleges and universities that emerged in the latter nineteenth century that were devoted to educating African Americans (HBCUs). Lincoln University, for example, featured an annual Latin oration. It would be marvelous if some of these orations could be located. I suspect that some of the archives of these institutions contain Latin poetry as well.

In Medias Res. One of my favorites in the whole collection is, is this confidential report that was sent by this Belgian priest who was living in America, Father Joseph Anciaux, De Miserabili Conditione Catholicorum Nigrorum in America. And it’s about the horrors of Jim Crow era America and the African-American experience at that time. It just glows with this moral passion — really remarkable. And it’s not the kind of thing people would know exists. And again, it’s a really valuable document for for exploring African-American history. And it’s in Latin.

Andrew Dinan. Yes. That is a remarkable report. I cannot remember where I first saw a reference to this, but it may have been in a study by Stephen J. Ochs, Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests 1871–1960. It is also discussed by Cyprian Davis, an African American who became a Benedictine monk. It’s an astonishing document — very passionate and very readable, describing the racism of his time.

In Medias Res. He mentions that “People say that African-Americans are treated well here and that they’re doing great,” and he responds, “Hoc plane nego.” “This I absolutely deny.” Again, it’s very direct and very, very impressive.

Andrew Dinan. Yes, it is powerful. And it was consequential. Rome took action as a result of this report.

In Medias Res. In summing up, obviously there’s a learning experience that happens when you put together a book. Would you like to comment on what you learned from from putting us together, and suggestions for anyone who was interested in this topic, what further research might be done?

Andrew Dinan. I can tell you that I now tend to associate places around our country, as well as persons and events, with some Latin composition!

There is nothing definitive about this book. It is certainly not exhaustive! Sometimes I print one Latin poem by a given author, but I note the existence of other Latin poems by the same author. At times I note my inability thus far to locate a given Latin text whose existence was mentioned in some source I was using. Perhaps others can find these. There is so much more out there.

In Medias Res. It’s an undiscovered continent, really a whole different sort of literature and a whole different sort of historical document than the ones most people are used to working with, here in the United States and in America generally, because, as you say, there’s also material about Canada and Mexico in the book as well. Thank you for putting it together.

[Americana Latine is available from the Paideia Institute Press here. For more information about the book, read Andrew Dinan’s essay about it here.]

Andrew C. Dinan is an Associate Professor of Classics & Early Christian Literature at Ave Maria University. His publications, in the fields of patristics, liturgical Latin, and Neo-Latin studies, have appeared in Humanistica Lovaniensia, The Classical Journal, Vigiliae Christianae, Journal of Early Christian Studies, American Catholic Studies, Antiphon, and others. His particular interest is the role of Latin within American history and culture, and he is currently working on an annotated transcription and translation of the Latin correspondence between the nineteenth-century American prelates Francis Patrick Kenrick (1797–1863) and his brother Peter Richard Kenrick (1806–1896).


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Allegra Forbes

In Medias Res is the online magazine for lovers of Latin and Greek, published by the Paideia Institute.


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