The Literary Consul: The Appointment of George Horton to Athens

by Andrew Leech

At the turn of the century, when consulships were given as presidential favours, politicians sometimes had literary axes to grind and the elite complained of the United States' lack of Literature, George Horton (former consul who had helped oversee the preparations for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896) sought re-entry into the service. The methods used to re-instate him seem colourful and novel when compared with today’s dry bureaucratic procedures. The following article is partly based on a biography in progress by Horton’s daughter, Nancy.

George Horton, scholar of Greek and Latin and renowned translator of Sappho, satisfied a lifelong yearning to be on classical soil when he obtained the post of consul to Athens in 1893. He wrote at the time: “I was offered the post ... in recognition of some articles I had written in the Chicago Herald in favour of President Cleveland, which had pleased that great man. I could see no connection between such editorials and the ability to fill a diplomatic post intelligently, nor do I now.” However, a few years later he mentioned that the only time “utter inefficiency had interfered with a political appointment” was when they made a man who had no knowledge of music, whatsoever, the conductor of the evening band in Syntagma Square!

The creation of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 also appealed to his love for Greece and he was indefatigable in his efforts both to make them a success and inspire his country’s team. After a change of administration forced him out of office he returned to his home in Chicago and resumed his career as a successful journalist and novelist. A member of that Iiterary movement known as the "Chicago Renaissance," he was referred to as the best reviewer of the West. Edgar Lee Masters and Theodore Dreiser both acknowledged his support of their early work and Horton had pushed Dreiser's Sister Carrie despite the controversy it was arousing.

In 1903, a tragedy in his personal life impelled Horton to leave Chicago and seek re-entry into Consular Service. At the turn of the century, consulates were often purely political prey. "Saloon keepers, brokendown preachers whose congregations were tired of them, and political henchmen were apt to be appointed," Horton wrote. He recalled that a consulate on the Syrian coast was presided over by a former saloon keeper who had opened a bar just across the street from the consulate. His usual greeting was "Well, gentlemen, what'll it be, an invoice or a cocktail'."'

President Theodore Roosevelt was getting ready for a tour of the West when Horton's case was brought to his attention by George Lodge, poet and son of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Although the senator was also interested in Horton's case, it was quite fitting for his poet son to make the appeal for appointment on the strength of Horton's literary achievements and Roosevelt had made a point of acknowledging writers and often invited them to the White House. Ironically, Horton later found out the State Department considered it a sign of inefficiency at the time if one of its members wrote books! In any case, Roosevelt told Lodge that it would assist him in his decision to have letters of recommendation concerning Horton, which he could study.

George Lodge obtained the letters of recommendation with the help of Mitchell Carroll, professor of classical philology at Colombian (now George Washington) University. These were mostly from university presidents and professors of Greek. Simultaneously, Francis Fisher Brown, publisher of Horton's book In Argolis, sent copies to senators and heads of university classics departments. In today's context, it seems remarkable that a book such as this was cited as a compelling reason to place a man back in public office. It was an account of Horton's experiences on a Greek island village, where he traced customs, ballads, and folklore back to their classical sources wherever possible. It was praised for its lack of statistics and paucity of economic detail; and for telling, instead, of "wanderings through lemon orchards and green lanes, with the sea in the hearing and the nightingales forgetting it is day”.

In a full-page review in Harper's WeekIy, William Dean Howells called In Argolis a classic. Howells shared the popularly held view that a work of literary merit strongly qualified a man for foreign service. He commented, 'I thought from my friendship with his poems that he was a singularly fit man to send as consul to Athens, and I felt when he was removed that it was one of those prodigious official errors to which the tradition of our system lends itself."

Many endorsements followed Lodge's request. One professor wrote that he heartily supported Horton as the consulship at Athens ought to be reserved for someone who could assist scholars at the American School for Classical Studies there. "The commercial duties of the consul will naturally be performed by the vice-consul at Piraeus," he concluded, displaying great naivete about the position in question, for consular duties in Athens involved an extensive amount of commercial work, from statistics on pig iron to research on Greek cheeses. Some newspapermen, learning of Horton's desire to re-enter the Service, wrote on their own initiative. For example, B.D. Butler, editor and publisher of the Omaha Daily News, addressed himself directly to President Roosevelt: “I am advised that Mr. Horton, the well-known author, is desirous of a consulate appointment. He is, of course, well-known to you as an author, and his successful work when consul at Athens is a matter of record in the department. I believe that such an appointment as Mr. Horton's would not only please his friends, but reflect credit upon the Service. Let us have more such men, and less professional office-seekers.”

When Roosevelt returned from the West, George Lodge sent him the letters by registered mail. Although he called them "a most remarkable endorsement," a new matter emerged that threatened to negate the positive influence of the letters and In Argolis. It is first mentioned in a letter from William Loomis, assistant secretary of state, to William Loeb, Roosevelt's secretary. Referring to Horton's proposed re-appointment, and acknowledging that his official record was satisfactory, he added: “But while there [in Athens] Mr. Horton took occasion to attack Secretary Hay's daughter because of some of her writings and has made himself very obnoxious to the secretary on that account. While, he could not say a word in this matter, and has not mentioned it to me, he would personally very seriously regret it if Mr. Horton were to be put back in the Service at this time.”

George Lodge did some checking. Three days later, he explained to the president that when Horton's review appeared in 1900, Horton was not consul at Athens, but literary editor of the Chicago Record Herald and responsible for reviewing new books. Horton then tracked down the review, but could riot see how it might have caused offence. He refers to Hay as a "rising poetess" and says, "Children are likely to clamour so loudly for her verse that hereafter she may not have time for more serious efforts." In regard to her second book of verse, called Beasts and Birds, he wrote, "Its frequent puns betray the fact that it was intended for older readers. For instance: ‘The turtle doesn't have much fun, All fast companions he must shun.’ I fear it is a horrid pun," Horton added. Perhaps' it was this comment that would decide his fate. That such a mild chastisement should be interpreted as a personal attack on the daughter of the secretary of state, and that Horton was wrongly believed to have been his subordinate at the time of this critique and was wrongly placed in Athens when in Chicago, demonstrates the awesome power of bureaucracy to damage a career. One would think that, given the paucity of telephones and the relatively small number of people involved, communication would have been less subject to error and misinterpretation than it is today.

Hay’s biographer, Tyler Dennet, theorises that the secretary, himself a distinguished poet, received vicarious satisfaction in seeing his daughter succeed as a poet and thus was excessively sensitive to criticism. According to Dennett, "Hay was trying to hand down the torch which, in his own hand, had already grown dim." Horton may also have become an unwitting pawn in the power struggle between Hay and Lodge, where Hay felt the Senate was seeking to belittle his office and encroach upon its proper functions. He remarked that the senators thought the State Department had no other duties but to provide their friends with offices. In his diary, Hay wrote, "How winter looms before me!. Every senator has promised his dozens of consulates, and Cabot is already there, yelping for loot like a Christian in China.' It is a fitting simile for the man who authored the Open Door policy.

Horton's anxiety would have been abated had he realised that Roosevelt's mind was already made up when he wrote George Lodge: “No additional letters were necessary as to Horton, for what you have said was quite enough as far as I was concerned. Besides, I liked him personally from what I had seen of him. I haven't the slightest idea what the article is to which exception seems to have been taken, and so can say nothing about justification for the feelings which seem to exist.”

The president, accordingly, signed the following petition: “We, the undersigned, respectfully present the following memorial on behalf of Mr. George Horton, former United States consul in Athens. Mr. Horton, in addition to being a most efficient consul, and, according to the testimony of all who visited Athens during his tenure, a most acceptable representative of the government, has performed literary work which evinces extraordinary attainments in the modern Greek language and has attracted the favourable attention of scholars and leading reviews, both of this country and of Europe. He also has on hand unfinished tasks which it is very desirable in the interests of literature and philology, that he be given the opportunity to finish. We believe that in the Consular Service only would it be possible for him to go on with this work, and his efficiency as consul is such that he would carry on the duties of his office with great credit, and at the same time find occasion to continue his literary pursuits. We therefore respectfully beg that at the first opportunity Mr. Horton be restored to the Consular Service.

The idyllic wish expressed by so many American academics that Horton "pursue unfinished literary tasks" was not fully realised, for most of his energy would go into promoting both his country's interests and that of common humanitarian feeling in the extensive relief and rescue work for the victims of wars and upheavals that would soon erupt in the Balkans and Near East. It was for these activities that he received the recognition which has outlived him, and made him a legendary figure in that part of the world; particularly in the evacuation of Smyrna where he is credited with saving around 18,000 Greek lives and, indirectly, creating the municipalities of Byrona and Nea Smyrni with its refugees. It is to his credit that one of his many books, the Blight of Asia (which describes the Smyrna catastrophe) is still widely in demand and has recently been reprinted (in Greek). Of his others: Athens, a Guidebook (1900), which is a charming and humorous description of the capital at the turn of the century, was translated into Greek and reprinted a couple of years ago.

(Posting date 12 May 2006)

Mr. Leech writes extensively for a number of prestigious publications, serves as editor for the 
Greek-American Review, and owns and oversees a private school in Athens, Greece; HCS is pleased to offer readers a number of his fine pieces at the URL For more information about him, view a brief biography.

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