Most highly honored Herr Professor,
Out there on your blizzardy plains, bowed by a world of mass populations, rapid data exchange and voracious energy conversion, you you remind me of the great Frederick Remington's Blue Norther. The city and lush countryside where I dwell is scarcely more populous than Cicero's, two millennia ago. Oh, I suppose we Germans are more humane than the ancient Romans with their ubiquitous crucifixions and incessant warfare for territory, booty, slaves. As a consequence [dafür] we lack their vast and constantly renewed labor force, do not boast their grand architecture, the exquisite gemstones, the immortal statuary. But ours is still the same agrarian world as theirs, not changed from the economic base of millennia before Cicero. Our livelihood depends on much the same multifarious trades and crafts as his Ancient world. You cannot imagine the variety!
Or perhaps you can. You Americans often respected Old World culture; some even looked with longing on an agrarian past still fresh in family memory. All literature has its origin and true existence in those thousands of years of agricultural economy, which prevails right up to your day. You, Herr Professor, born and raised on the prairie, still knew the smell of oats stored in the barn, of hay in the cow lot, of peanuts fresh dug. You were familiar with the outdoor privy, a stench not different from our open Frankfurt sewers. You knew the smell of the horse's sweat, of the livery stable--and the unique aroma of many another profession, the acrid air in the smithy, at the harsh tannery, the mould of the bookseller, the leathery smell of the saddler as of the bookbinder, not too different from the atmosphere surrounding a scholar like you.
--But to return to our subject: why would you, not unacquainted with the age-old agrarian world that produces all literature, make such a distinction between my epoch and Cicero's? Why do you not honor me as an Ancient, as well as him? Is it because I am condemned to speak a churlish modern language? I read both Latin and Italian. My Elegies are in the Tibullan-Propertian vein. I could go on--but perhaps you claim that my world has been softened, enervated by those Christianizing Dark Ages? Me they did not christianize, whom this young generation contemptuously calls "the old pagan." --Well, what remains? Your distinction lies not with me, but with you scholars and your own disparate methods for approaching the Ancients and the Moderns. You had good reason, of course.
Ancient works washed up upon your beaches as rare flotsam from a thousand-year sea of scribal copying, error and conjecture. You thanked chance and many generations of tedious collecting for your precious little knowledge of what Cicero "wrote," or dictates, or declaims, or commands his faithful servant Tiro to set down. Even an army of devoted slaves turns out scrolls only by the tens, not in the hundreds. Therefore the great bulk of all Ancient literature is forever lost. Only those authors who are greatly loved, frequently copied--and lucky--are able to "thole the assize of the centuries." Cicero himself, because he takes great pride as a man of letters, probably looks over Tiro's work, may even correct it. But of course those tablets are a far cry from what any modern scholar was able to put his hands on. The very oldest scrap of text he was able to seek out was still a thousand years and dozens of copyings removed from Tiro's editing. And by no means was the oldest manuscript the best. In order to select their preferred reading from among the many which came down to them, Renaissance Humanists developed a rigorous science which kept on growing more complex.
How different, Herr Professor, was your scholarly method when it came to us "Moderns"! For with the passing millennia had come machinery, the paper mills, the printing press, finally even a steam engine to roll out books by Moderns in the tens and hundreds of thousands of copies, all as alike as peas in a pod. As my works come from the press, I and my secretaries proof read and correct them, so that every word is "authentic," as you say. As the entire science of textual criticism developed for Ancient manuscripts became quite useless for Modern books, the career scholars contrived a new "higher criticism" which authorized them to proclaim with great assurance what I really am thinking when I write.
Don't you think that this distinction of yours between Ancient and Modern smells a little--of chalk dust? By that I mean to say it is a distinction for the classroom, for the edification of your students . Your purpose was to tell them about your own work and your own method and your own classifications applied as you burnt the midnight oil for the benefit of their society. Oh, you busily erected monuments to the classics, but you built them to honor yourselves, not us. So you see, I stray not so far from the subject, Herr Professor, if that subject still be odors.
In all due respect, I remain your
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or see the correspondence with Goethe.