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The Life and Work of Francis Willey Kelsey: Archaeology, Antiquity, and the Arts

The Life and Work of Francis Willey Kelsey: Archaeology, Antiquity, and the Arts

By John Griffiths Pedley. Pp. xi + 468, figs. 36. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2012. $75. ISBN 978-0-472-11802-1 (cloth).

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Francis Kelsey, of the University of Michigan, was an extremely important founding figure in the disciplines of American classics and classical archaeology. He led the creation of what has become one of the most important classical programs in America. He gathered much of the archaeological, epigraphic, and papyrological materials that today form the University of Michigan antiquities collections. He organized and raised funds for key early American excavations in the Mediterranean, and especially for Karanis in Egypt. He was active in the emerging American archaeological profession, serving for many years as both secretary and president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Kelsey was an American archaeological pioneer, as important as Charles Eliot Norton or the generation that founded the classical archaeology programs at Princeton and Johns Hopkins. Yet he is less well known. Two reasons may be given for that. The first is that Kelsey was not part of that early scholarly cohort who received “professional” archaeological training in the German tradition. Indeed, his education, even in philology, was considered somewhat old fashioned, and as an archaeologist he was largely self-taught. He was not part of the eastern academic elite by background, education, or even mentality. He came out of a midwestern public university tradition, whose contributions to American classics and classical archaeology are still underappreciated. Pedley provides a biography, rich in detail, that traces that life in its personal and institutional setting. It is an important contribution to our understanding of the American classical world at a key moment of transition. As a biography rather than a synthetic study, it provides an important if incomplete insight into that moment.

Born in 1858 and raised near Rochester, New York, Kelsey received all his advanced education at the University of Rochester. His B.A. concentration was classics, but the university provided an overall program more broad based than that found in many mid 19th-century institutions. While he later received an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Rochester, they appear to have been degrees more honorific than academic. He had little of the rigorous, “Germanic”-style advanced formal education that was becoming increasingly expected for American academics. From Rochester, he moved to Lake Forest University in Illinois and then in 1889 to the University of Michigan, where he spent the rest of his career.

Kelsey’s focus as a teacher was Latin studies. He regularly taught Latin and published school texts of Latin authors. He worked closely with school teachers and ensured that Michigan remained involved with secondary education. He early on developed an interest in Caesar, and that turned him to historical studies. He appreciated the value of illustrations and material culture for understanding the Roman past and for making that past come alive in the classroom. He expanded the Michigan cast collection, purchased inscriptions, and acquired large numbers of photographs of ancient sites. An early fascination with Pompeii led to a collaboration with Mau, which produced the classic English-language handbook on that site (Pompeii: Its Life and Art [New York and London 1899]).

In Ann Arbor, Kelsey's multifaceted personality flourished. He is best remembered today as the creator of the museum collection that bears his name. The Michigan holdings, especially those from Karanis, were largely the result of Kelsey’s efforts. He appreciated the opportunities for acquisitions that the last era of colonialism in the eastern Mediterranean provided. He sponsored excavations but also worked with dealers and private collectors to create at Michigan one of the most important papyrus collections in the world. He appreciated the importance of the production of scholarship, and his efforts made Michigan into a pioneer in the field of scholarly publication.

Kelsey was also very much a man of the community, serving the University of Michigan in a variety of capacities well beyond the world of classics. His Presbyterian faith sustained him, and he did much to support the Presbyterian church in Ann Arbor. His great aesthetic love was music, and both the city and the university owe much to his efforts to advance the music scene.

Kelsey’s style was not that of a dreamy academic, but of a driven, turn-of-the-century entrepreneur. His energy and hard work were impressive. He traveled constantly in pursuit of his goals. Indeed, his frenetic pace probably contributed to a relatively early death. His attitude fitted in with that of the capitalists who were creating the great midwestern industrial base. They turned to him for advice and made use of his astute mind and worldly knowledge. One of the most interesting if unexpected parts of this biography concerns Kelsey’s involvement with mining ventures in Mexico. The capitalists in turn appreciated Kelsey and contributed generously to his projects. He encouraged them in their own humanistic pursuits. Among his closest associates was the collector Charles Freer.

Kelsey created a massive archive that documented his activities. The letters, diaries, and other papers provide an almost day-by-day record, which Pedley has mined with energy and insight to create his detailed narrative biography. The footnotes are used to document sources and to explicate people and events mentioned in the text. The writing is disciplined and clear. It is a rich narrative of a dynamic Midwestern professor at the turn of the century.

The problem with a comprehensive archive formed by a strong personality like Kelsey is that the biographer can become a prisoner of his subject. That, to a certain degree, has happened to Pedley. The result is more a “life and letters” in the 19th century than a biography that places its subject in a larger context. Little is said about the world in which Kelsey was raised and educated. What was distinctive about the University of Rochester at that time? Much is narrated about people and policy at the University of Michigan during the Kelsey era, but there is little about the wider importance of those formative decades either at Michigan or in the larger world of the great public universities. Emphasis on the history of classical studies in the elite East has neglected the role of the public institutions, especially in the Midwest, in creating a distinct American world of classical studies. The Kelsey biography was an ideal occasion to place the scholar in context, and some of that opportunity has been missed.

Still, Pedley deserves our thanks for telling this important scholarly story of a fascinating figure. Recent writings on the history of classical archaeology and the opening of a renewed Kelsey Museum in Ann Arbor have reminded us of the rich contributions of a scholar who had become more an obscure name than a living academic presence. It is also important at a time when public universities are under siege to be reminded of their rich contributions to the legacy of American scholarship and education.

Stephen Dyson
Department of Classics
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
Buffalo, New York 14260-1660

Book Review of The Life and Work of Francis Willey Kelsey: Archaeology, Antiquity, and the Arts, by John Griffiths Pedley

Reviewed by Stephen Dyson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 1 (January 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1171.Dyson

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