Obscure Unitarians: Melville B. Anderson

Melville Best Anderson was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1851. He studied at Cornell University in 1870-72, where he was a classmate of David Starr Jordan, who became president of Stanford University.

Melville Anderson received his A.M. from Butler University in 1877, and taught there for the next three years; he was then professor at Knox College, 1881-1886; Purdue University, 1886-1887; University of Iowa, 1887-1891; and finally, professor of English at Stanford University, from 1891 until his retirement. He was a charter member of both the Unity Society and the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. He married Charlena Van Vleck April 27, 1877; she received her A.B. at Lawrence University in 1874. They had four children: Balfour (1878-1895); Malcolm Playfair (b. 1879, A.B. Stanford ’04); Gertrude (1883-1892); Robert (1884-1949, A.B. Stanford ’06).

Anderson was a distinguished scholar best known for his translation La Divina Commedia: The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Line-for-Line Translation in the Rime-form of the Original (Yonkers-on-Hudson, N.Y., World Book Co., 1921). He became friends with Ewald Flügel in 1891, while staying in Leipzig. Flugel joined the faculty of Stanford partly through the good offices of Anderson; and Flugel was another one of the early members of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. Unfortunately their differing viewpoints on the First World War put a damper on their friendship; Flügel was a pacifist, while as early as 1916, Anderson advocated for the entry of the United States into the First World War in a long self-published poem; one stanza will suffice to give a sense of the dreary whole:

Since men first gathered into clans
    Was peril never yet so sharp;
    Loud would I smite the chorded harp:
    Awake! awake! Americans…

The Stanford Daily, vol. 49, no. 48, Nov. 2, 1916, p. 3, said: “The poem, which is a denunciation of the apparent apathy of Americans in regard to the issues of the great war, was dedicated to David Starr Jordan, and written during Anderson’s stay in Florence, Italy, where he has been translating in triple rhyme ‘The Divine Comedy’ of Dante.”

Anderson died on June 22, 1933.

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