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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
He was pleased, however, when my grandfather elected to enter Harvard’s divinity school. By that time Eliot had reformed it, too, along with the rest of the university. He had made it the only school of its kind in the country that charged a regular tuition, on the ground that charity to seminarians was just what turned them into hypocrites. Also he had transformed it from a Unitarian preacher mill into a nonsectarian place of broadly based theological studies. A local wit commented that the divinity school’s new teaching staff comprised “three sceptics, three mystics, and three dyspeptics.”
When a noted Episcopal bishop preached against “unhappy divisions” within Christendom, Eliot took him to task for using such a phrase. “Divisions in religion seem to me,” he wrote in his stateliest manner, “not unhappy , but natural, inevitable and desirable. What is lamentable is bitterness or strife over these natural divisions.”
Eliot never felt any qualms about correcting other people’s choice of words, let alone their conclusions. Two researchers from Oxford—the noted historian James Bryce and a quiet don named Albert V. Dicey—visited Eliot in 1870. Dicey has left an intriguing glimpse of the young Harvard president:
He is very zealous about his University and does a great deal of work for it, but has also a kind of antienthusiastic tone which is extremely like that of an Oxford Common Room. He was especially humorous about our zeal in investigating the subject of women’s education.… Our desire to know female professors specially amused him. He, however, had given a great deal of attention to the question of female education and had, I gathered, come to the conclusion that… a mixed education was not possible in settled countries or in England. In a quiet way, he laughed a good deal at what he called our English fondness for “slang,” e.g. in using “gone off” for “declined.” I think generally he thought we hardly had the dignity of a professor and a fellow. Of his kindness and consideration I can hardly say too much.
To out-English the English was still possible, it seems, for at least one New Englander.
A loose sheet that was found among Eliot’s papers, undated, carries the question “What possessions or acquisitions in college lead to success in after life?” He offers five tentative descriptions in answer, of which the final one reads as follows: “Reticent, reserved, not many acquaintances, but a few intimate friends. Belonging to no societies, perhaps. Carrying in his face his character so plainly to be seen there by the most casual observer, that nobody ever makes to him a dishonorable proposal.” That last line sounds very faint and fine to me, as if it came from far, far away. Yet Eliot’s own face was like that—so was his son’s face, and his grandson’s is, too. I have looked upon all three closely, and I know.
A recent letter from my father has this to say regarding Eliot’s political convictions and his lifelong concern for the aspirations of youth: “When, in 1910-12, I took up Socialism, his efforts to oppose boyish enthusiasm with experienced logic left on me a lasting impression. Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Socialism’ seemed so convincing to me; he asked for my copy and painstakingly wrote ‘fallacy’ in the margin of almost every page, then tried orally to combat my enthusiasm with logic, plus dark hints about Wilde’s immorality.… He even came to a few meetings of the Harvard Socialist Club, whereof I was Secretary.”
In old age Eliot twice declined to be appointed United States ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s. He felt that the transatlantic telephone had rendered the post too dependent upon Washington. Besides, he was too positive in his own views to make an ideal diplomat.
Eliot would hardly have cared for London’s social round, although, strangely enough, he was reputed to have a good head for champagne. I think he failed to grasp the fact that champagne is alcoholic. He did admit to having “used beer and wine when in company, but with no ardor, and neither ever produced any perceptible effect on me.” On the other hand, Eliot once startled an unsuspecting interlocutor by confessing: “I made a bad speech last night. I was garrulous and diffuse. In fact I was intoxicated—I had taken a cup of coffee.” Of all the evils extant in America today the widespread use of drugs would doubtless have been most difficult for him to comprehend.
Eliot’s correspondence was vast. Until old age he made a practice of replying in his own hand to every letter he received. One personal communication in particular, dating from his thirty-first year, seems to me to demand inclusion here, not so much for its probably unconscious and certainly unaffected eloquence as for the immediate light that it casts upon a tragic and prophetic early crisis in American history. On Thursday, April 27, 1865, twelve days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Eliot received news of it in Rome. Typically, he at once sat down to write out his reactions in a letter home to his mother.
“Battles and campaigns can be retrieved,” he began,