Phyllis Walter Goodhart Gordan


Adapted by Welby E. Lynn ’98 from a lecture given by Julia Gaisser, Professor Emeritus of Latin at Bryn Mawr College. 

Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, BMC ’35, was deeply rooted in the Bryn Mawr community. Indeed, the Bulletin of 1913 identifies her as the 1912 class baby (the caption appears below a photo of a small and serious – dare we say “scholarly”? – baby in a long white dress). Her mother, Marjorie Walter Goodhart, was a member of the class of 1912. Her father, Howard Goodhart, gave the college not only Goodhart Hall, but also over 960 incunabula – the bulk of the College’s collection. Both gifts were given in memory of his wife, who had died – so young – in 1920, only a few years after leaving Bryn Mawr.

As an undergraduate the young Phyllis Goodhart majored in Latin, studying with some of my most eminent predecessors in the Department, including Bob Broughton, Lily Ross Taylor, Berthe Marti, and a very young Agnes Kirsopp Michels (Nan Michels), then Agnes Lake. (Nan graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1930, and took her Ph.D. in 1934. Berthe Marti was a few years older, but, like Nan, she was a graduate student during most of Phyllis’s undergraduate career.)

Two of Phyllis’s undergraduate papers are preserved in the Archives. One is her senior essay, entitled “The Classical Background of St. Augustine’s Reading as Shown in the De civitate dei.” (I think she must have written it for Nan Michels – Berthe Marti would have been the obvious candidate, but she is not listed in the College Calendar for 1934 or ’35.) This paper, nearly 90 pages long, lives up to its title, for Phyllis has traced and followed to its source every classical reference in Augustine’s great work, using the testimony of Augustine’s Confessions as evidence for his intellectual background and education.

Phyllis’s comment that “Augustine presents a very pleasant field for exploration since the background of De civitate dei is confined to the Bible and Latin literature.” is quite amusing. The young Phyllis Goodhart was already a serious student and researcher, but I think I detect a note of honest relief that she wasn’t going to have to survey the whole of Greek, as well as Latin literature, for Augustine’s sources.

Her other undergraduate paper is entitled “Written by the Hand of Poggio.” Phyllis wrote it in her junior year for Lily Ross Taylor, who had encouraged her to work on the rediscovery of lost classical texts. Miss Taylor was a famous and charismatic teacher, but probably none of her assignments ever had a greater impact on the life of one of her students. Phyllis’ paper on Augustine is thorough and dutiful, but the one on Poggio is a labor of love. The paper is 22 single-spaced pages, and includes in its bibliography not only several works of Poggio, especially his letters, but also various works of intellectual history in French and German, as well as in English. (I might note that we see a similar level of attainment in the Augustine paper, for it is clear that she read all of the City of God and the Confessions in Latin, and then studied all of Augustine’s classical allusions and their contexts in the Latin sources.) This is the kind of work that one might expect from a good Bryn Mawr student 60 years ago.

After graduating from Bryn Mawr, she went to Harvard to study Greek palaeography with Nan Michels’ father, Kirsopp Lake, as she records in a wonderful article for the Alumnae Bulletin of January 1939. Its title, appropriately enough, is “Manuscript Hunters.” In 1936, after her first year at Radcliffe, she and her Bryn Mawr classmate, Helen Ripley, traveled abroad seeking material for Kirsopp Lake’s book, Dated Greek Minuscule Manuscripts. The highpoint of their summer was a week spent in Cheltenham studying the famous manuscript collection of Sir Thomas Phillips under the not very watchful eye of his 80-year-old grandson, T. Fitzroy Fenwick. Although everyone had told them that they would never be admitted, they somehow managed it. Mr. Fenwick discouraged visitors by charging them a pound a day to see the collection, but as Phyllis relates: “He refused to charge us anything, because he had never before had two American college girls come to study his Greek manuscripts.”

Phyllis took her M.A. at Radcliffe in 1938 and married John Gordan in the same year. Between 1942 and 1950 she produced four children. The College News for April 1953 reports that Phyllis visited Bryn Mawr to give a lecture entitled, “How Latin Can Be Fun.” The student reporters, though obviously unconvinced, nevertheless gave the event detailed coverage. They report that “with a microfilm reader set up beside the babies’ playpen she combined her hobby of reading Latin documents from the Renaissance with entertaining her children.”

In these years, and indeed for the rest of her life, Phyllis devoted as much time and energy to fostering the scholarship of others as she did to her own. In 1951 she became one of the 7 founding members of this body, The Friends of the Bryn Mawr College Library; and in the same year she became the first woman trustee of the American Academy in Rome. She was a trustee of the College, of the New York Public Library, of the Renaissance Society, and of the American Philological Association. Among her innumerable gifts to Bryn Mawr scholars I can note only three: the reference room in Canaday, our first microfilm reader, and Mario Cosenza’s invaluable Biographical Dictionary of Italian Humanists.

At last, in 1974, forty years after her fateful undergraduate paper for Lily Ross Taylor, Phyllis brought the first part of her Poggio project to fruition, publishing 108 of Poggio’s letters in an elegant annotated translation entitled: Two Renaissance Book Hunters. The Letters of Poggius Bracciolini to Nicolaus de Niccolis. She planned to publish the rest in subsequent volumes, but, alas, that goal was never realized. Yet her work is not lost. She has left us her Poggio notes and papers with the relevant microfilms and library in the hope that someone else might take up the task. Completing the publication of Poggio’s correspondence will be no easy project (for something like 450 letters remain); but whoever undertakes it will be immeasurably assisted by the resources of the Gordan collection and above all by the meticulous work of Phyllis herself, a woman who knew better than most, “Of  What Use are Old Books.”