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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
Dr. L. R. G. Crandon, of the class of 1894, wrote a reminiscence that demonstrates Eliot practiced what he 3reached. In his junior year Crandon determined to borrow money if he could. Accordingly he
knocked on the President’s door in University Hall, went in, in response to his command, and said, “Good morning, Sir,” with a dry mouth. He said, “What can I do for you” in that wonderful voice that none of us can forget. I felt better right away and was able to tell him, I hope coherently, that I would like to borrow fifty dollars from the Loan Fund. He did not ask me about my family or their circumstances. He did not ask me if I had borrowed money before. He replied without any delay, “You may have the money,” and he signed and handed me an order on the Bursar.
I made my heart-felt thanks and started to leave, when he said, “Pray be seated.” Then he proceeded, to my amazement, to say in effect: “I am told that you cook and eat in your room. Now Îdon’t think that that is at all bad for you if you get the right food and enough of it. When I was in College I did the same. Did you ever make veal loaf? That, if made from sufficiently mature and sufficiently cooked veal is one of the best things you could have, because there is no waste. This is the way I used to make it.” He then told me how to pick the veal, how to cook it slowly, with such evaporation that the soup would turn into jelly later, then how to cut it up and press it with one pan inside another and eat it cold. He had given me a pad and pencil with which to make notes and I did so. He then stood up, took me by the hand and said “We shall expect you to pay back this loan with interest after you have graduated and become prosperous.”
Eliot’s salary as president of Harvard was five thousand dollars annually (later raised to eight thousand “for himself and his successors in office”). It was not a princely sum even for those days. Still he lived comfortably enough according to his tastes. He found himself able to entertain guests, to keep up a summer home, to ride and sail for recreation, and to educate his own two boys at Harvard. But he never gained prosperity until after his retirement, when he consented to edit The Harvard Classics for publication by Collier and Company.
“Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books,” as it was advertised, had sold 350,000 sets (some 17,500,000 volumes) by 1930. This is the only figure I can find at present, but it is a safe guess that most of those enormous sales were in Eliot’s own lifetime. F. W. Allen, when he was reorganizing Collier’s affairs, wrote to inform Eliot that in view of the project’s success he would henceforth increase the editor’s royalty beyond the terms called for in the original contract. Eliot responded with bewilderment; he wrote to one of Allen’s partners to ask, as gently as he might, whether Allen was feeling all right.
What would Eliot have thought regarding professors who gain prosperity by pursuing outside interests and individual research at the expense of teaching? The chances are that he would have sided with today’s students who protest this trend. “The common amusements of society have no charm for scholars,” Eliot wrote in 1891. “No man can be a successful student who does not devote his evenings to work; and the ordinary university teacher counts an evening given to the theatre or to social amusement, as an evening lost or wasted.”
There spoke the puritan, and to certain of his own professors at Harvard it must have been chilling. A young colleague once plucked up his courage to ask Eliot, “Have you looked at the copy of my new book which I sent you?” The president was not to be caught off guard so easily. Lifting his eyebrows, he inquired, “Ginn?” True, Ginn and Company had published the book, but whether Eliot troubled himself to peek between its covers was to remain forever in doubt.
In the 1870’s Professor C. L. Jackson presumed to request that he be relieved of teaching one class in order to carry out a particular line of research. “What will be the result of these investigations?” was Eliot’s response. They would be published, Jackson promised. The president asked where. The professor named a German chemical journal. Eliot thought a moment and then made his decision in the negative: “I can’t see that that will serve any useful purpose here.”
On being asked what was the most necessary qualification for a university president, Eliot once responded with startling grimness, and sadness, too: “The capacity for inflicting pain.” No wonder that the Cambridge of his era was described as a place “which an unusual number of interesting people somehow turn into a social desert.” No wonder, either, that Eliot used to meet fierce opposition. He kept his temper, however; Eliot’s patience was proverbial. Yet one evening when he rose from listening to a long and bitter attack upon both his person and his policies, it was observed that the right arm of Eliot’s chair had been wrenched to fragments in his seemingly impassive grip. His biographer Henry James, upon whom I have relied for much of the material recounted here, put the case poignantly and with justice when he wrote: “Inside the nonconducting integuments that encased him, he felt the same affections and longings that other men expose.”