George Ticknor, educator and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Elisha Ticknor, a former teacher who later became a wealthy merchant, and Elizabeth Billings, a former teacher. Ticknor was so well tutored by his parents that the president of Dartmouth College, his father's alma mater, examined him at age ten in Latin and Greek and certified him for admission. He continued to study French, Greek, Latin, and Spanish at home. After passing two examinations for advanced status, he entered Dartmouth as a junior in 1805 and graduated in 1807. He was tutored in Greek and Latin by Dr. John Gardiner, rector of Trinity Church in Boston, until 1810. For three years he read law in the office of William Sullivan, son of the late governor of Massachusetts James Sullivan and was admitted to the bar in 1813. He unhappily practiced law for only one year.
With letters of introduction from John Adams and others, Ticknor traveled to several eastern cities in the winter of 1814-1815, dined with President James Madison in Washington, and at "Monticello" visited Thomas Jefferson who admired him and gave him letters of introduction to important Europeans. In the course of time, Ticknor bought books for Jefferson in Europe, suggested ways to improve the University of Virginia, and in 1824 visited the aging ex-president. In April 1815 Ticknor, accompanied by his friend Edward Everett sailed for Liverpool. He socialized in London, visited the Netherlands, and in August entered the University of Göttingen in Germany. At Göttingen, he was welcomed by professors and students and undertook a rigorous academic program. He studied several languages, biblical exegesis, modern European history, aesthetics, and science. To aid his foreign language conversation, he hired gifted tutors with splendid voices.
The president of Harvard sent Ticknor a letter in November 1816 offering him combined professorships in belles lettres and in French and Spanish. In his preparation to teach Old French, popular Latin, Portuguese, Provençal, and Spanish, he traveled to Paris in April 1817, studied French and Italian, attended the theater, and found his conservativism reinforced by French liberals and frivolity. He went via Switzerland to Italy in the fall. Traveling arduously the following spring in war-ravaged Spain, he observed social strata and customs and spent almost four months in Madrid. While there, he purchased books for Harvard and Jefferson and himself, and he perfected his Spanish under the tutelage of ex-royal librarian Joseph Antonio Conde. Ticknor returned via Portugal and France to the United Kingdom, and thence home in June 1819.
Ticknor was superbly prepared to teach at Harvard. He knew several languages and literatures, had observed European modes of instruction, and was acquainted with many leading European intellectuals. He lectured on French and Spanish literature and supervised instruction by others of the French and Spanish languages. In 1821 he married Anna Eliot, the daughter of Samuel Eliot, a wealthy merchant and banker. The couple had four children, two of whom died in infancy. In 1823 Ticknor and a few colleagues began a partly successful attempt to reform Harvard's rigid organization and curriculum. He built up the staff in his modern language department, notably in 1825 by the appointment of Charles Follen as the first instructor in German at Harvard. The best students in Ticknor's department included later notables such as Francis James Child, James Russell Lowell, John Lothrop Motley, Charles Eliot Norton, and Henry David Thoreau. Having published several short essays and reviews earlier, Ticknor published ten essays between 1824 and 1831, six in the /North American Review/ and all demonstrating profound erudition. He took a variety of civic duties seriously. In 1826 he became a member of the board of visitors of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was also involved in a supervisory capacity with banks, hospitals, insurance companies, and schools in Boston.
Ticknor resigned from Harvard in 1835 and was replaced by his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his professorship. Although he had initiated a system of more pragmatic instruction in his department, he was depressed by the lack of progress, and even opposition, elsewhere in the institution. In 1835 he returned to Europe, this time accompanied by his wife and two daughters, and was welcomed as an accomplished academician. The next three years were marked by travel, social triumphs, and intellectual stimulation. Highlights included renewing acquaintances with August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Alexander von Humboldt, attending theaters in Dresden and elsewhere, inspecting Spanish holdings in Vienna's Imperial Library, and buying rare Spanish books wherever he could find them.
In his later years, Ticknor completed his premier scholarly achievement, the History of Spanish Literature. He used the manuscripts of his lectures on Spanish literature at Harvard and the Spanish sections of his 14,000-volume personal library as the basis for his pioneering study. In its final form, this enormous survey has seventy-one chapters, exhaustive annotations, eight appendices, and totals 1,797 pages. It is divided into three "periods": from the earliest written material to the beginning of the sixteenth century, with emphasis on old ballads and drama, chronicles, and schools of poetry; from the sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century, stressing Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderon, and romantic fiction; and from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, featuring Philip V, the Inquisition, and the theater.
Ticknor's thesis in the History of Spanish Literature is complex. He reasons that the history of French literature had been thoroughly discussed and that the French court writers had divorced themselves and therefore their writings from the mainstream of the French people. Ticknor indicates, however, that Spanish literature was a challenge and, unlike French literature, reflected the morality, sense of loyalty, chivalric honor, and religious extremism of typical Spaniards, while simultaneously promoting in the readers a delight in coarse and violent language and behavior. Ticknor expresses not only his intellectual response to the best Spanish writings but also his dismay at the deleterious effects on the Spanish populace of monarchical and religious despotism and bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption. Throughout, he endeavors to show that his treatment of Spanish literature should enable general readers as well as scholars to understand the character of the Spanish people. His indirect purpose was to show, or imply, his preference for American civil liberty and morality. His three-volume history was published in New York and London in 1849 (2d ed., 1854; 3d expanded ed., 1863; 4th, expanded ed., 1872). Most reviews were ecstatic, with one critic in London noting that hardly six experts in Europe were qualified to evaluate it. It was soon translated into Spanish (4 vols., 1851-1856), German (1852; 2 vols., 1867), and French (3 vols., 1864-1872).
In 1852 Ticknor was appointed to a committee to establish the Boston Public Library. Aided by Everett, who was by that time a successful politician and then president of Harvard (1846-1849), Ticknor wrote most of a planning report and saw to its wide distribution. Joshua Bates, a Boston-bred banker in London, read a copy and promptly became the library's chief financier with a pledge of $50,000. In 1853 Ticknor tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Boston Athenaeum to merge with the planned Boston library, which opened in 1854--with 12,000 volumes in two small rooms. In June 1856 Ticknor went once more to Europe, armed with lists of needed purchases suggested by experts, and conferred for fourteen months with librarians and book dealers in England, Germany, Austria, France, and Italy. In 1860 Ticknor donated 2,400 of his own books to the Boston library and many more soon thereafter.
In his last few years, Ticknor expressed grave fears for the future of his country. He hated slavery but felt that abolition of it would destroy the Union. He wrote a pamphlet praising Daniel Webster in 1831, idolized him in succeeding years, was active with other conservative Bostonians in efforts to appease the South, and in 1860 supported the Constitutional Union party. When conflict proved inevitable and the Civil War began, Ticknor viewed President Abraham Lincoln's policies with alarm, fearing that the Constitution would be destroyed. He inveighed against emancipating southern slaves and supported George Brinton McClellan's bid for the presidency in 1864. More creatively, in 1864 Ticknor published the Life of William Hickling Prescott, a biography of the eminent scholar-historian William Hickling Prescott, who was one of Ticknor's closest friends. Writing the biography provided a comforting distraction from reading war dispatches. His election in 1865 as president of the board of trustees of the Boston Public Library, of which he had been a member, enabled him to do something positive once more. He was instrumental in planning a new and more substantial building for the library and its move into it. He died in Boston two months before the new building opened. In his will he bequeathed his personal collection of books to the library.
Ticknor was a Boston patrician, beautifully educated to be a productive scholar-teacher and a helpful colleague of fellow conservatives. His most enduring scholarly monument is his History of Spanish Literature. His greatest public service was the role he played in establishing the Boston Public Library. Together they reveal his lifelong desire to serve the American public in ways he thought best. The study of Spanish literature would nourish inquiring minds. The library would help prevent an uneducated democracy from impeding the progress and prestige of the United States.