Eliot Of Harvard

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Eliot’s sense of humor was not altogether dormant but quiet in the extreme. He once remarked to Jerome Greene that a student known to both of them had called at his house at two o’clock in the morning. The student had come to let Eliot know of a vision he had received. In the vision, he said, he had been told that Eliot was ready to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. Eliot was a thoroughgoing Unitarian. Greene, much intrigued, inquired what he had replied to the young man. “I said to him,” Eliot reported serenely, “that he must have been misinformed.”

When James A. Farley was Postmaster General, he issued a commemorative stamp bearing Eliot’s stern profile. At the celebrations, which I was then old enough to attend, Farley told the following tale: President Eliot was once on his way to watch a Harvard-Yale football game in the company of Edward Everett Hale. A student accosted them and ventured to ask the president where he might be going. “I am going,” Eliot replied, in a play on words on a popular Harvard football chant, “to yell with Hale!”

Farley’s story got a good laugh at the banquet, but my grandfather, who was also there, whispered to me that there was not a word of truth in it: “Your great-grandfather would not have attended the game; no student would have dared to accost him under any conditions; and he would never, never have brought himself to utter a remark of the sort ascribed to him.”

“Three cheers for Harvard and to hell with Yale!” struck Eliot as “rude to our guests.” He once proposed, although without much hope, changing the words of the chant to “Three cheers for Harvard and one for Yale!” That suggestion struck his own family as being pretty funny, which baffled him. To President Theodore Roosevelt, who was an ardent supporter of athletics, the rougher the better, Eliot wrote in confidence that he wished he could abolish football at Harvard. “The spectators on the two sides,” he explained in his magisterial way, as if to an unruly boy, “are never able to take the same view of the same act or event; and there result incessant recriminations.… I claim no superiority for Harvard over any other institution as regards to cheating, brutality, or quarrelsomeness, either among players or among the alumni.”

Yet Eliot was no mollycoddle, as Teddy Roosevelt might have put it. He thought every boy should, ideally, be able to swim a mile and walk twenty-five at a stretch, to row, to sail, and to ride a horse. He himself had been an oarsman at Harvard, and he continued sailing, hiking, swimming, and riding with undiminished enthusiasm until he had passed well into old age. If football had to be played, he thought the manly way to go about it would be to attack the strongest part of the opponent’s line instead of looking for holes. Baseball, which was also popular at Harvard, he could not approve. To throw curve balls at all was a low form of cunning in his view. In a memorandum announcing the suspension of a certain player from the Harvard Nine on grounds of poor scholarship, Eliot noted with satisfaction that the boy would be no great loss to the team, since he was known to have resorted to deception on the diamond. Two professors visited Eliot to ask what the deception had been. Eliot, looking grim, drew himself up to be even taller and more ramrod straight than usual and replied with epic solemnity: “Why, they boasted of his making a feint to throw the ball in one direction, and then throwing it in ANOTHER !”

What would Eliot have made of fair, foul-mouthed Harvard as it appears today? It is impossible to imagine him in conversation with such an eminent but dirtily vocal Harvard man as Norman Mailer, say. The president’s own language was sober and so simon-pure as to achieve a perverse emphasis of its own. My father told me that he used to quake in his boots to hear the old man pronounce the one and only swearword he permitted himself in the family bosom: “Grrracious!” The Reverend F. G. Peabody, a brother-in-law, was once sailing in Eliot’s sloop, The Sunshine , when a sudden gust dismasted the vessel. Peabody confessed that his own fear of imminent shipwreck was as nothing compared to the shudder that passed through him when he heard his skipper pronounce an undreamed-of expletive: “The Devil!”

Eliot regularly attended Unitarian church services on Sundays and made a practice of offering some cogent comment to the preacher afterward. On one such occasion, my grandfather recalled, the old man remarked in a voice near to trembling with indignation that the sermon had been “sadly vitiated by your reference to that scoundrel , King David!”

“Ministers as a class, and as a necessary consequence of the ordinary manner of their education and induction into office, are peculiarly liable to be deficient in intellectual candor; and that is what I, in common with millions of thoughtful men, really think,” Eliot wrote in 1883, “and I think further that this belief on the part of multitudes of educated men, most of whom are silent on the subject, is a potent cause of the decline of the ministry.”