Monday, August 22, 2005

THE BLACKSMITH SYRIACOLOGIST. Hebraist too. An interesting story about an amateur philologist in the nineteenth century.
Worcester once home to ‘The Learned Blacksmith’

Albert B. Southwick (Wooster Telegram and Gazzette)

For the past 180 years or so, the American Antiquarian Society has been host to thousands of scholars, researchers, historians, genealogists and linguists. George Bancroft, Henry David Thoreau, Carl Sandburg, David McCullough and countless others have mined its vast resources of manuscripts and printed matter. But few were more remarkable than Elihu Burritt (1810-1879), a blacksmith.

Mr. Burritt was born in New Britain, Conn, one of 10 children. He was or-phaned before he reached his teens. His formal education was limited to three months in a school run by his brother. But it left him with a voracious thirst for knowledge that never waned. When, in his 20s, he heard of the AAS and its remarkable library, he walked to Worcester, got a job at William Wheeler’s blacksmith shop on Union Street, and spent all his free waking hours at the AAS, then located on Summer Street, poring over its volumes of foreign languages. An entry in his journal reads as follows:

“Six lines of Hebrew today, thirty pages of French, ten pages of Cuvier’s ‘History of the Earth,’ eight lines Syriac, ten lines Danish, ten of Bohemian, nine of Polish, 15 names of the stars, and ten hours forging.” He later wrote that the AAS had “such a collection of ancient, modern and Oriental languages that I never before conceived to be collected in one place.”


Mr. Burritt spent his last few years in his native city, New Britain. In 1874 he wrote a friend as follows: “I feel I am played out as a lecturer ... I am deeply into my philological work. I have finished the Sanscrit, Hindustan, and Persian series, and am about half through with the Turkish ... Then I intend to take up the Semitic family, or Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac and Ethiopic ... Thus you see I am beginning a work which should occupy a long life ... ”

He died five years later, presumably still studying foreign languages, as he had in Worcester 50 years earlier.

I wish we could sign him up for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project.

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