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Edgar J. Goodspeed, America’s First Papyrologist

Abstract

This is a study whose main sources are archival, principally Edgar J. Goodspeed’s “Student Travel Letters” from 1899–1900. These letters home recount Goodspeed’s daily and sometimes hourly activities during nearly two years abroad, in continental Europe, England, Egypt, and the Holy Land, in pursuit of scholarly seasoning. The book’s focus is on his engagement with the newly emergent field of papyrology—the decipherment and study of the ancient Greek manuscripts then being discovered in Egypt. The letters allow for a tracking of this engagement in far greater depth than that allotted in his 1953 autobiography, As I Remember, or in his 90-page unpublished memoir, “Abroad in the Nineties,” filling in some apparently intentional gaps, casting doubt on some of his later self-assessments but putting much additional substance to the claim that he was indeed “America’s First Papyrologist.” The result, part biography, part travelogue, part diary, part academic history, is a description of Goodspeed’s progress, beginning with his enthusiastic commitment to the fledgling field in the late 1890s, ending with his abandonment of it in the early 1900s, possibly a result of his complicated dealings with Oxford papyrologist Bernard P. Grenfell in the fateful summer of 1900. Along the way the book introduces the reader to the world of papyrology in its early days, but it is mainly an account of one budding scholar’s experiences in pursuit of recognition in that subject, a story that has its own complications, narrative arc, and human interest.

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