Brief review of Jeffrey Abt’s bio of James Henry Breasted
Finally finished up Jeffrey Abt’s American Egyptologist. The life of James Henry Breasted and the creation of his Oriental Institute. Chicago, 2011. The book is an excellent account of the professional career of the man, a very welcome (finally) biography to supplement Charles Breasted bio of his father. Breasted is of course very well known in Egyptology circles, the first professional Egyptologist in the US, the first Professor of Egyptology in North America and the founder of the O.I. in Chicago. As a Chicago kid with the Egyptology bug, Breasted, who spent his early years in Downers Grove before his family moved to Rockford, and who attended what is now known as North Central College in Naperville, just down the road from my High School, was a boyhood hero of mine. I used to beg my parents to drive me down to the Institute’s museum on Saturdays, and I eventually did my A.M. and Ph.D. at the OI. So needless to say I was eager for this book. And it does not disappoint. It provides a much rounder and fuller account than his son’s bio Pioneer to the past. The story of James H. Breasted, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943 . I knew a lot about his career, but I got a better sense of the man, and his incredible ambitions in Abt’s account. “His” Oriental Institute in the title says it all. Indeed the Institute never really lived up to Breasted’s ambitions. Perhaps no place could have indeed. Breasted was a singular figure in American academia in the early 20th century, knowing a good many of the leading scientists of the day and advocating that Humanities should be a vital part of the National Academy of Sciences. Even in the 1920’s this was ambitious! He is also singular in writing a great deal of popular history textbooks and a general history of Egypt (1905) that in my opinion is still the best written in the English language, even though I would disagree strongly with his view of history.
Abt’s work is thorough, and he must have spent a lot of time in the archives reading Breasted’s copious correspondence and his papers. There are some nice historic photos in the volume, including one I had never seen before of the planned new Egyptian museum in Cairo-ambitious to say the least. So much so that he thoroughly undervalued (or did not care about) the Egyptians response. Given the post WWI context of the proposed project and the rise of Egyptian nationalism, Breasted seriously overplayed his hand in trying to strengthen the European and American hand in antiquities. But a shame the museum and research institute was never built.
I was inspired to look again at the short film made by Breasted in 1935 The Human Adventure. It had been a long time since I had seen it. Apparently this was widely seen and well received when it appeared, even causing near sell-out lines at Carnegie Hall over four days! It is a wonderful historic record of how Breasted was trying to integrate Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies into a very big historic picture. By the way, at the beginning of the film in the account of the rise of ear;y man, a nice few seconds of film is devoted to Mt Rainier (unattributed in the film). I presume this was shot during a Breasted family vacation. Anyway, nice to see the mountain and its glaciers in 1935, even if a bit out of context. Well worth viewing. I am sorry to say that Egyptology has not advanced very far past Breasted’s vision, and in many ways has retreated from it. Reading Abt’s book reminds us that historic vision, and thinking through why we study what we do, is still a vital part of being an ancient historian. Abt does not intend this kind of reflection I think, but it results from Breasted’s career. For this reason alone, I highly recommended the book. Breasted and his remarkable career deserves to be known by more people.