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Eliot Of Harvard
A stern but brilliant Yankee revolutionized American higher education while president of our oldest university
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
Charles William Eliot cast a long shadow for a good many of his descendants, naturally enough. As a great-grandchild of his I felt it, too. The summers of my earliest boyhood, at Northeast Harbor, Maine, were spent partly in his austere presence. When he died in 1926, at ninety-two, I was only seven; and yet an incident that occurred only a day or two before his death is still extremely vivid in my memory. My elder sister and I, together with a couple of cousins, had been called into the old gentleman’s sickroom to entertain him with a song. Quaveringly, for I at least was trembling with awe, we offered “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Eliot was meanwhile engaged in a furious battle to breathe. He knew very well that his last hours were at hand. There was no possible way for him to mask his suffering from us. I don’t believe he would have deemed concealment necessary in any case. But what he did want very much to demonstrate was that the part of him that was not in tragic straits enjoyed the song. He showed this with his eyes. They brimmed, not with tears, but with affection and a distant, tender delight. When our song was done, he made a supreme effort and gasped in sufficient breath to say “Thank you.” I bowed, the girls curtsied, and we trailed out again.
Not long after that my grandmother took me aside somewhere and told me personally, quite alone, that Greatgrandfather had “passed on.” At once “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sang back into my mind, and I had a feeling of bearing witness in some sense to his departure from this earth. It was not until years later, of course, that I understood the song had been selected with just such an end in view for us children. I cannot prove this, but I would guess that it was Eliot himself who had requested that particular song. It would have been quite in character for him to put his mind to our childish experience at such a time and to try to make it right for us.
He did in fact inform my grandfather that he hoped to die on a Saturday because that would be most convenient for the family. There would be, he matter-of-factly remarked, the fuss of bringing his body back to Cambridge for a funeral service in the Harvard College chapel and burial at Mount Auburn. He thought the family would hnd the Sunday train more comfortable than the slower weekday service. That was how his mind worked. Eliot planned everything; but, in the event, he found himself unable to die on Saturday and survived until the following afternoon.
There is grandeur, and inevitable chill as well, in the shadow that is cast by such a person. One feels that one can never live up to the standards he set. It was not so much that he served as Harvard’s president for forty years (1869–1909) but that he had continued to serve his world as a sort of oracle right up until his death. I say “his world” because it all seems very long ago and different from our own. There is a strong temptation to suppose that things were simpler then and that not even Eliot could have kept his head amid the present explosion of population and everything else. But that cannot be judged.
Eliot’s grandfather Samuel was an enterprising and sociable Yankee trader. His anonymous benefactions included endowing a professorship in Greek at Harvard and —at one point—emptying debtor’s prison by paying off the debts of everyone there. Possessing strong ties to England, he was a Tory in the Revolution. He died in 1830, leaving a fortune of $1,200,000—probably the largest in Boston at that time. However, Eliot’s father, Samuel Atkins, inherited no head for business. He served as mayor of Boston and in the United States Congress but devoted himself chiefly to music (leading the choir at King’s Chapel) and to charitable institutions. The Panic of 1857 caught him short and wiped him out financially.
So Eliot himself was born, as the saying goes, with a silver spoon in his mouth, but only to see it snatched away when he grew up. I imagine that both circumstances were crucial to the shaping of his character. His childhood surroundings must have instilled a certain aristocratic selfconfidence in him, which later reversals served to temper and refine. He developed a capacity for making up his mind firmly and fast on all sorts of questions and for articulating his opinions in no uncertain terms.
I find myself especially intrigued by this aspect of my great-grandfather’s personality. How, I sometimes wonder, would he have judged and sought to improve things as they are now? In his own lifetime Eliot intensely disapproved of many things he found, and he applied herculean efforts to turning Harvard in particular completely around.
Eliot had graduated from Harvard, second in his class, in 1853. A contemporary of his, Charles Francis Adams n, later recalled that Harvard professors of that period “drudged along in a dreary humdrum sort of way in a stereotyped method of classroom instruction; but as for giving direction to, in the sense of shaping, the individual minds of young men in their most plastic stage, so far as I know, nothing of the kind was ever dreamed of.”