It is perhaps impossible for the contemporary undergraduate to appreciate the career of George Herbert Palmer and his relationship to the University. For many students today he was only a name, for others hardly that. A few associate him with a famous group of philosophers, but Professor Palmer, as he himself was quick to insist, made no original contribution to American thought. Even his fame as a teacher was somewhat overshadowed by the creative work of his colleagues. Yet he was in a sense more closely associated with the development of Philosophy here than more distinguished men. His forty-two years of teaching affected not only his immediate pupils, but the permanent character of the department itself.
In a short appraisal which Professor Palmer once wrote of William James, he affectionately referred to the gusto and positive character of his colleague with the words "James always Wallowed." The phrase, as a glance at his "Autobiography" will reveal, describes the exact opposite of Professor Palmer himself. His interests and character were remote from the contemporary scene, centering on the poet George Herbert, for whom he was named, on classical literature; and, alone perhaps among his contemporaries, in the more traditional aspects of philosophy. He brought to the work of teaching a faith in the critical approach which was both classical and Puritan in origin, and yet was vital enough to make him eminent in a generation of great teachers.
It would, however, be a mistake to imply that Professor Palmer's contribution to the intellectual life of Harvard was narrowly limited. By his administrative ability and his papers on education he helped to define the aims of the University in the period of transition inaugurated by President Eliot. His translation of the Odyssey is generally recognized as the most important prose version in the language, and through it ALE name is permanently associated with the classical tradition to which he was temperamentally allied. Genius in teaching, divorced from original scholarship, is not always a thing which a great university remembers with adequate gratitude: happily in Professor Palmer's case it was allied with a personality and associations which compel recognition even from those who came to Harvard too late for the actual experience of it.