The college’s first professor of modern and ancient languages, William Ireland Knapp, taught at Vassar from 1865 until 1867. President John Raymond’s daughter, Cornelia Raymond ’83, recalled the impression Knapp made on Vassar students and faculty: “He was quite strikingly handsome, had a delightful personality and was. . . a brilliant linguist.” The son of the Reverend H.R. Knapp was born on March 10, 1835, in Greenport, Long Island, the birthplace, three years later, of his wife, Adeline Roberts Knapp, whom he married on December 25, 1861. According to his later friend and fellow linguistic historian David MacRitchie, Knapp spent his youth in a “philological and literary bent of mind.” A trip to Europe in 1858 made a long-lasting impression on him, and for the rest of his life he periodically returned to the continent to live and study.
Knapp received his bachelor’s degree in 1860 from Madison University (after 1890, Colgate), and two years later, in 1862, his master’s degree. From 1860-1865, Knapp was Professor of Modern Languages at Madison. He received Ph.D and L.L.D from the University of the City of New York (later, New York University) in 1867 and 1868.
Knapp left his position at Madison when Vassar opened in 1865 to become the new college’s chair of modern and ancient languages, teaching classes in French, German, Latin, and Greek. The two latter classes included Livy, Homer, and the Greek Testament. Martha S. Warner’68 wrote to her mother, “Prof. Knapp is splendid! I really believe he’s the best teacher I ever saw. He is a wonderfully [sic], linguist. He has lived in Paris and understands all the crooks and turns completely. We study our French just as we do Latin, take the Grammar thoroughly and parse every thing. He is very handsome too. ”
Students both praised and feared the popular professor’s rigorous demand for academic excellence. A freshman in Knapp’s last year, Mary Norris’70, described coming into his class with an incomplete translation of Livy. She could read only one line by sight, and when Professor Knapp asked the students to translate that very line and several students had failed, Knapp called on Norris: “Up I rose with fear and trembling, believing I was right, but yet not quite sure, and gave my version. Professor Knapp smiled. ‘This is the translation I have been looking for,’ and then and there, to my great shame and confusion, because of the dark background of ignorance lying behind that one illuminated sentence, he took the opportunity further to praise me. To this day, I am in doubt whether the silence I maintained over my lack of preparation was culpable or justifiable.”
William Ireland Knapp
Students noted and worried about the obvious strain on him of Knapp’s work. In a letter, Martha Warner wrote, “Poor Prof. Knapp is killing himself just as fast as he can. He is worn out and sick, under the doctor’s care, yet he persists at coming out here every day. Thursday he gave our Latin class a lecture on ‘Comparative Philology,’ he had to carry his chair to and fro, to sit down, when he wanted to write on the board.” A deeply religious man, Knapp also taught a Bible class. Mary Norris stated that he once said to her, “‘We each of us have one friend, and only one, who will never fail us, even to the limit of our greatest need. That only friend, the one absolutely faithful and efficient friend, is God!’”
After only two years at Vassar, Knapp resigned in June 1867. In a letter to her father, Helen Sylvester claimed that “The real trouble was that there was not enough attention paid to his suggestions and wishes. The course of study is not high enough to suit him… He does not wish to be professor in a young ladies Seminary— that this is nothing more than a Seminary. He says the young ladies have more than met his expectations, he has not had a student in College better than some of his pupils but it is nonsense to call this a college without having a higher course of study.” On June 13, 1867, Sarah Louise Blatchley ’68 wrote a farewell letter to Knapp on behalf of twenty other students from the classes of ’67, ’68, ’69, and ’70:
“Dear Professor Knapp;
As we are now about to leave your Department, we are all very desirous of expressing our appreciation of your instructions during the past two years. We shall not forget that however others may have hesitated and held back, you met us fairly and frankly as students, and that the lessons you have drawn from the books we have read together have been such as were calculated to interest the educated mind.
Although you have often gone beyond the horizon of our knowledge to lead us toward new realms of wisdom we had not yet attained, you have never doubted or insulted us by ‘delaying in a common and obvious round’ suited to inferior comprehension.”
After Vassar, Knapp moved to Europe. He went to Spain as an independent Baptist missionary but shortly after moved to Paris after his work was impeded by the reign of Queen Isabella II. In an 1867 letter to her mother, Martha Warner’70 wrote, “We hear occasionally little items of news regarding Prof. Knapp – He is at present in Paris, teaching a class of Spaniards, and also a Sunday school class.” In 1868, Knapp moved back to Spain, taking advantage of the newfound religious freedom after the Spanish Glorious Revolution (1868) had driven Isabella into exile. He became the first Baptist missionary in Spanish history. In a letter on April 5, 1870, Knapp wrote that, despite the “uneducated Spanish help,” he was able to enroll 1325 converts after a seven-month campaign in Madrid.
William Knapp lived in Spain until 1878. He also travelled throughout England and France. Expanding his knowledge of linguistics, he became a renowned expert in Basque studies. In 1877, due to his work and dedication towards Spanish literature, he was appointed Knight of the Order of Isabella the Catholic. In the same year, he returned to the United States to teach at Yale University. From 1879-1892, he taught as Professor of Modern Languages and was later appointed Head Professor of Romance Languages. In 1892, he joined the faculty of the new University of Chicago, where he held the title of Head Professor of the Romance Languages and Literatures until 1895.
Knapp moved back to Europe after his years in Chicago, staying there for the remainder of his life. Living in both England and France, he devoted his life to literary pursuits and established himself as the respected authority on Spanish history and literature. A prominent member of the Gypsy Lore Society, he continued his life-long practice of intellectual pursuit.
William Ireland Knapp published over a dozen books. His works include A grammar of the modern Spanish language as now written and spoken in the capital of Spain (1882); Concise bibliography of Spanish grammars and dictionaries: from the earliest period to the definitive edition of the Academy’s dictionary, 1490-1780 (Boston, 1884); and Pascual Lopez, Autobiografia de un Estudiante de Medicina (Boston, 1905). He is most remembered for his compilation, organization and annotation of Life, Writings, and Correspondence of George Borrow. Derived from Official and other Authentic Sources(London, 1899), the first comprehensive account and appreciation of the life, work, and travels of the English linguist, novelist, and cultural diarist.
Professor Knapp died in Paris on December 5, 1908, and his wife Adeline died in 1938. He and she are buried in the Colgate University Cemetary, where he is hailed as “Knight Comander of the Order of Isabel la Catolica of Spain, Professor in Madison University, in Yale University and in the University of Chicago.”
Vassar College Special Collections Biographical File
Blatchley, S.L. “Letter to Professor William I. Knapp.” June 13, 1867.
Hughey, J.D. “The First Baptist Missionary to Spain.” 1956.
“Knapp, William Ireland (1835-1908).” La Biblioteca Virtual de la Filología Española. Edited
by Manuel Alvar Ezquerra.
MacRitchie, David. “William Ireland Knapp.” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Vol. 2.
Edinburgh: Jan 1, 1908.
Norris, Mary Harriot. The Golden Age of Vassar. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1915.
Raymond, Cornelia. “Letter to Mr. Joseph Seronde, Yale.” March 22, 1929.
Sylvester, Helen (Seymour). “Letter to father.” February 28, 1866
Warner, Martha S. “Letter to mother.” October 1865.
Warner, Martha S. “Letter to Will.” June 1866.
JLD, 2005, MT, 2018