August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
A stern but brilliant Yankee revolutionized American higher education while president of our oldest university
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.”
The classics were featured, primarily as grammatical disciplines; one was not expected to enjoy such things. As for philosophy, a remark that a Harvard alumnus of the bad old days once made to William James tells the whole story. “I can’t understand your philosophy,” James was informed. “When I studied philosophy, I could understand it. We used to commit it to memory.” Memorized philosophies are little better than superstitions, of course. They form the invisible bars of the ubiquitous birdcages of cults and sects of all descriptions. And, as Eliot put it, a university “cannot be built upon a sect, unless, indeed, it be a sect which includes the whole educated portion of the nation.”
One course only was offered in English literature—an introduction to Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer (whom Eliot, incidentally, found lamentably indecent). The poet Longfellow, as professor of belles-lettres, had to translate whatever French, Italian, Spanish, or German passages he wished his hearers to grasp. It was he, by the way, who introduced the genial practice of addressing students by name as “Mr. So-and-so.”
Abysmally parochial though it was, Harvard instruction in those days had a certain consistency. The students attended all the same courses, by and large, in a body; and they partly made up for the dullness of their academic fare by developing a certain social esprit de corps, rather as in preparatory school. Hence influential alumni firmly believed, to quote Charles Francis Adams once again,
that a classical education was the important distinction between a man who had been to college and a man who had not been to college, and that anything that diminished the importance of this distinction was essentially revolutionary and tended to anarchy; that the advent to power of men who preferred science to the classics, and the investigation of natural history to preaching from the themes of the Old and New Testaments, was going to produce an entirely new type of educated men, as the result of the instruction afforded by the college; that it would be breaking in upon all their cherished associations, recollections and sympathies, and that it was to be deferred, so far as possible, to the future, if it could not be postponed altogether.
It was precisely against such a view that Eliot set his face. He favored an elective system of higher education, as first proposed by Thomas Jefferson. He wanted more emphasis on science as well. Harvard’s science departments boasted some brilliant men, but they did very little regular teaching.
Following his graduation from Harvard, Eliot had stayed on to serve five years as an instructor in mathematics and chemistry. For some time he performed the duties of the Rumford Professor of Chemistry, and he hoped to receive a permanent appointment. That was denied him, however. Wolcott Gibbs, from New York, got the post, and Eliot felt he had no choice but to resign in protest.
Subsequently he travelled to Europe and learned at firsthand how thoroughly Harvard was outclassed abroad. Back home again in 1869 and teaching analytical chemistry at the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he published two articles in The Atlantic Monthly that presented his conclusions on how American education ought to develop. He called for a system “based chiefly upon the pure and applied sciences, the living European languages, and mathematics, instead of upon Greek, Latin, and mathematics as in the established college system.” Equally important, in his view, was that every student be allowed to organize his own course of study in cooperation with the teachers. Eliot thought that no care and attention was too great to pay to an individual student’s curriculum and that, on the other hand, efforts to impose a uniform curriculum were wasted time—the reason being, as he put it, “there is no uniform boy.”
“The natural bent and peculiar quality of every boy’s mind should be sacredly regarded in his education,” Eliot explained. “The division of mental labor, which is essential in civilized communities, in order that knowledge may grow and society improve, demands this regard to the peculiar constitution of each mind as much as does the happiness of the individual most nearly concerned.” I do not think, myself, that the present state of education would give Eliot cause to retract any of that. At the time, however, it made him a radical in the eyes of Boston society.
When, in 1869, the Harvard Corporation had to select a new president, Eliot seemed an unlikely candidate. He was untried, opinionated, barely thirty-five. Yet Eliot came to be chosen. Why? In the corporation were several powerful personalities, among them the historian Francis Parkman. On one of those seemingly trivial occasions that prove momentous in retrospect, Parkman encountered Eliot on the street and bluntly informed him that he was supporting a rival aspirant. Eliot’s first wife lay dying of tuberculosis at that moment. His own mood was very low, a rare occurrence in his case. He told Parkman in all honesty that he himself had no desire to be president of Harvard. And such is the perversity of human nature that Parkman immediately swung around to Eliot’s side. Somehow he found Eliot’s momentary moody indifference a fine recommendation for the post.
Others, however, disagreed. These were the men who had seen fit to deny Eliot the relatively lowly position of Rumford Professor of Chemistry not six years previously. To such influential figures as Louis Agassiz and Richard Henry Dana, Eliot seemed dangerously addicted to reform. The diary of Eliot’s cousin Theodore Lyman records that Eliot’s nomination by the corporation was at first rejected by the board of overseers, although the vote was close, ii to 10. The elder Charles Francis Adams, just home from England, was subsequently offered the presidency. When Adams declined to accept, Eliot was nominated a second time, and the board then concurred by formal ballot, 16 to 8.
When Eliot got wind of his appointment, he at once sat down and wrote a note to his friend Professor George Brush at Yale. “The main objection to my confirmation,” he recorded,
came from men who thought it safer to trust a literary man or a minister to be just to science than a scientific man to be just to literature, philosophy and art.… As you say, the first and best thing to be done is to show that letters and science are not mortal enemies but helpful friends. There are many comical aspects of this anomalous thing—e.g., in fifteen minutes I am to “receive” a visit from a joint committee to inform me of my election. Ralph Waldo Emerson is, I believe, the youngest and least imposing of the members of the said committee. Query—what are they going to say or do? Pat me on the head, doubtless, and say “good boy!”
Ellen Peabody Eliot had returned to consciousness just long enough to be told the momentous news of her husband’s selection but before the struggle with the overseers. “That’s a big hole for my boy’s boots to fill,” she responded. The next day, on the thirteenth of March, 1869, my greatgrandmother died. Eliot’s thirty-fifth birthday fell the following week. He now had two boys to bring up alone—that was the really awesome hole for him to fill, one imagines. Many years were to pass before Eliot married again, to Grace Meilen Hopkinson, whom he also outlived.
Ellen, the daughter of the Reverend Ephraim Peabody of King’s Chapel, had been a cheering and much-loved partner. Her loss cannot have been easy for Eliot to bear. Yet something of the saving warmth that she had imparted remained built into Eliot’s own character. A former classmate of Eliot’s, A. W. Hill, touched upon this in a letter congratulating him on his appointment. “You will make a better officer now—pardon me for frankness—than you would have done ten years since,” he wrote. “Not only because you are older, but because you have grown broader in your views and more genial—not, indeed, in temperament, perhaps—but in its expression. In a word, the Boston in you has been extracted. I ascribe the change partly to absence from Boston coupled with your own good sense, and partly to the sunshine that your wife and children brought into your home and heart.”
Eliot’s inaugural address was delivered at First Parish Church, opposite Harvard Yard, on October 19, 1869. He had secretly met with Professor Brush in Springfield, Massachusetts, to discuss its contents. But no one at the church, apparently, had the least notion what Eliot was about to say. He began by demanding steady expansion of Harvard’s teaching facilities. “It were a bitter mockery,” he remarked in that context, “to suggest that any subject whatever should be taught less than it now is at American colleges. The only conceivable aim of a college government in our day is to broaden, deepen and invigorate American teaching in all branches of learning. It will be generations before the best of American institutions of education will get growth enough to bear pruning. The descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers are still very thankful for the parched corn of learning.”
Would Eliot now judge that the time for “pruning” had at last arrived? He foresaw, apparently, that that might happen some day. But the main thrust of his inaugural address remains as valid for our own time as it was for Eliot’s:
A university must be indigenous; it must be rich; but, above all, it must be free. The winnowing breeze of freedom must blow through all its chambers. It takes a hurricane to blow wheat away. An atmosphere of intellectual freedom is the native air of literature and science.… The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities.… Two kinds of men make good teachers —young men and men who never grow old.
One of Eliot’s first concerns at Harvard was to reform the medical school. No college or premedical training was required for admission there, and full-fledged M.D.’S were being loosed upon unsuspecting patients after as little as twelve months’ study. The philosopher William James, who went through it, recalled in afteryears that Oliver Wendell Holmes had given him an oral examination at the end of the course. It consisted of one question, which James answered correctly. The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table pronounced himself well pleased: “If you can answer that you can answer anything! Now tell me about your family and how things are at home.”
The state of the school was scandalous, as Eliot keenly felt, yet with such distinguished men as Holmes and Henry J. Bigelow on its roster it had means of resisting Eliot’s arguments for reform. The battle was soon joined, as noted in a letter that Dr. Holmes sent to a friend in April, 1870. “King Log has made room for King Stork,” Holmes wrote:
Mr. Eliot … comes to the meetings of every faculty, ours among the rest, and keeps us up until eleven and twelve at night discussing new arrangements.… I cannot help being amused at some of the scenes we have in our Medical Faculty,—this cool, grave young man proposing in the calmest way to turn everything topsy-turvy, taking the reins into his hands and driving as if he were the first man that ever sat on the box. I say amused, because I do not really care much about most of the changes he proposes, and I look on a little as I would at a rather serious comedy.
Things came to a head when Dr. Bigelow protested that the medical school had jogged along very well for eighty years. The doctor “found it very extraordinary” that changes were being proposed in so successful an institution, and, he concluded, “I should like to know how it happens.” Eliot’s reply was as follows: “I can answer Dr. Bigelow’s question very easily. There is a new President.”
“The tranquil assurance of this answer,” O. W. Holmes reported in his letter, “had an effect such as I hardly ever knew produced by the most eloquent sentences I ever heard uttered. Eliot has a deep, almost melancholy-sounding voice—with a little of that character that people have when there is somebody lying dead in the house, but a placid smile on his face that looks as if it might mean a deal of determination, perhaps of obstinacy.”
Eliot’s style, he himself maintained, was not a style at all. He ordered his thoughts and his facts succinctly and stated them plainly, with no adornment and a minimum of sentiment. The better part of rhetoric, Eliot thought, is persuasion, and the most persuasive element at his own command was himself, his character of integrity. To be plainspoken was natural to him and also his most effective means of address. “It is small virtue to me to speak plainly,” he once wrote in answer to a letter congratulating him upon some unpopular stand that he had taken:
It is rather an Eliot quality—some people would say, vice. Then I am singularly independent in position, having no debts to pay except those of love and friendship, and no ambition except to do my work as well as I can. Many men I meet are afraid to speak their thoughts because they do not wish to offend people to whom they owe something or from whom they hope something. Some think it no use to growl, or to oppose evils which their temperament makes them think inevitable.
Eliot’s own temperament was always as hopeful as a boy’s. He looked for the best from everyone and everything. Disappointed in such hopes he must necessarily have been most of the time, yet his optimism and good will remained. Not that he was fatuous, although in the cynical view that sometimes appeared to be the case. The rigor of Eliot’s puritanism gave him as sharp an edge as any selfprofessed realist.
Dignity, coolness, patience, tolerance, and honesty were all qualities that Eliot consciously projected. But he projected them in private just the same as publicly. What would have astounded him most of all, perhaps, about public life today is the Madison Avenue practice of publicizing palatable images that need not reflect the inner man. Psychological cosmetics, so to speak, were as foreign to his use as lipstick and rouge.
Speaking of cosmetics, it may not be unworthy of remark that Eliot bore a facial blemish of a sort that can be frightening at first glance. The right side of his face, down to his mouth, was disfigured by a liver-colored welt, a swollen birthmark. This had made his boyhood rather difficult, even unhappy, but positively developed the virtues named above. The same Dr. Bigelow with whom Eliot was to joust for control of the medical school once made an effort to remove the blemish. They were both students at Harvard it the time, and Bigelow, to Eliot’s astonishment, knew very ittle chemistry. Although Bigelow carried the experiment is far as he dared, it was altogether unsuccessful. Stoically, Eliot carried his birthmark like a flag, a purple banner, all :he way to his death at ninety-two.
Eliot often expressed his faith in “good stock,” which led superficial critics to accuse him of snobbery. But the famiies Eliot best approved were those that manifested charicteristics of health, intelligence, cheerfulness, and above ill “serviceability” to society at large from generation to generation. Position impressed him little, riches not at all. Harvard, he insisted, must not be a university of special privilege. To Charles Francis Adams n he wrote in 1904:
I am inclined to think that you would be more tolerant thah I of the presence of stupid sons of the rich. I care for the young men whose families have so little money that it would make a real difference to them whether the Harvard tuition fee were a hundred and fifty dollars or two hundred and twenty-five dollars. You do not seem to care for that large class. To my thinking, they constitute the very best part of Harvard College.
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.”
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.”
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,
but now the horrible crime of assassination for political reasons has stained indelibly the annals of the republic. That is the horror of it to my mind—the men can be replaced, the policy of the government will probably be unchanged, the war will go on without any intermission or faltering, but the dreadful fact remains that an American President has been assassinated by an American. This is a crowning fruit of slavery to our eyes, but to the world and history it is a legitimate fruit of American institutions, such as they have actually been since the republic was founded. First, civil war, and now, political assassination. Oh, are we copying Rome?
Passing on to thoughts of the late President, Eliot noted: “I am no worshipper of men,—even now, I don’t like to hear Lincoln’s name put too near Washington’s, but his character seems to me a rough and ungraceful but truly noble growth of republican institutions. He grew to his work, which was holy and it hallowed him. You can count on your fingers the names which History will rank with his.”
Regarding his own small niche in history Eliot cherished no illusions. “As to being read a hundred years hence,” he answered an interviewer’s query in old age, “I haven’t the smallest expectation or desire of any such waste of time on the part of future generations. I am entirely content with an ephemeral influence, added to the contribution of some bricks laid in the walls of a durable institution.” And to my grandfather he once remarked: “Sam, I can’t seem to get interested in heaven; I want to know what’s to happen to the World Court.”
Theodore Roosevelt was a Harvard man, and in the year 1905 he returned to Cambridge for the twenty-fifth reunion of his class at the college. “As he was President,” Eliot later recalled in conversation, “I invited him to stay at my house.” Eliot’s account continued as follows:
He appeared very early in the morning, a very warm day in June. He said he was dirty, and he looked dirty. I showed him to his room. The first thing he did was to pull off his coat, roll it up with his hands, and fling it across the bed so violently it sent a pillow to the floor beyond. The next thing he did was to take a great pistol from his trousers pocket and slam it down on the dresser. After a while he came rushing downstairs, as if his life depended on it, and as I stood at the foot of the stairs I said, “Now, you are taking breakfast with me?” “Oh, no,” came the reply, “I promised Bishop Lawrence I would breakfast with him,—and good gracious! (clapping his right hand to his side) I’ve forgotten my gun!” Now he knew that it was against the law in Massachusetts to carry that pistol, and yet he carried it. Very lawless; a very lawless mind!
I find the picture of an American President, gallant in his own defense, relying for protection on a six-shooter in his pocket instead of surrounding himself with a phalanx of oyster-eyed Secret Service operatives, both quaint and appealing. Yet when he carried a pistol in Massachusetts, Roosevelt consciously violated a state law. That was enough to excite Eliot’s stern condemnation. What would Eliot have said—and what might Teddy Roosevelt himself have thought—regarding the assassinations, the corruption in government, the mass warfare and concomitant abominations of our time?
For all his optimism, the present state of the world—and of America in particular—would surely have caused Eliot mental suffering. He would have thrown himself into some sort of work, however, to alleviate the evils that we seem to wish to heap upon ourselves. His favorite motto came from Edward Everett Hale. “Look up and not down,” Hale’s homily ran, “look out and not in, look forward and not back, and lend a hand.”
In his day Eliot lent a hand by flinging open the doors and windows of American education. If I may repeat the key phrase from his inaugural address, he let “the winnowing breeze of freedom” blow through and refresh the American academic world. “He labored,” as the famous old Eleventh Edition of the Encylopedia Britannica has it, “to unify the entire educational system, minimize prescription, cast out monotony, and introduce freedom and enthusiasm; and he emphasized the need of special training for special work.… His success as an administrator and man of affairs and as an educational reformer made him one of the great figures of his time, in whose opinions on any topic the deepest interest was felt throughout the country.”
Add to this the statistical information that Eliot managed to multiply Harvard’s student body by four, its faculty by ten, and its endowment by nearly eleven times (to twenty million dollars), and one has the picture of an extremely forceful educator—one might almost be justified in saying educational force.
Not all present-day educators, however, feel Eliot’s influence was really positive in the long run. W. H. Ferry, always a stimulating critic, put the case like this in a recent letter:
I can’t say, even now—and with respect—that he helped education much. Getting rid of shackles is one thing, and probably worth doing in itself. But the fragmentation and downgrading of the idea of education that followed was scarcely a substitute for the shackles, merely a new kind of imprisonment. But I don’t want to carry on about this, for it’s all a matter of glands and taste, nothing else. No-one, least of all its onlie begetter, should ignore Ferry’s imperishable rule: No Important Statement about Education can be Proved.
Be that as it may, Eliot did address himself to urgent educational problems that had not previously been solved. He saw that education in America ought to be made more responsive to individual students’ desires and altogether hospitable to the scientific spirit of free inquiry. He led a long pull for reform along those lines; in the end it succeeded brilliantly. That is one reason why today’s needs are so different. Were Eliot alive at this moment, no doubt he would devote his powerfully organizing mind and-persuasiveness to very different educational goals than the ones he set himself more than a century ago. For example, he might conceivably war against the flabbiness of moral and philosophical teaching today. He might search out new methods of inculcating wholeheartedness and a spirit of service at university level. Reforms like those, perhaps, would be more than welcomed by a good many students. Education always requires pioneers.
Originally critics feared that Eliot would propel Harvard in the direction of scientific materialism. During the past hundred years, it is true, education in general has drifted that way. Yet Eliot should not, I submit, be convicted of implementing the early stages of such drift. He opposed materialism with all his heart.
At the centennial exercises at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1881, Massachusetts politico Ben Butler delivered an oration in praise of the machine. No sooner had the governor concluded his address than Eliot, who was on the same platform, sprang to his feet and demanded: “What drives the steam engine?” The question was rhetorical, of course. Eliot serenely proceeded to answer it himself, his purpose being to correct the mistaken impression that he feared Butler’s speech had created in the largely youthful audience. “Not the engineer,” he declared,
but the life-giving sun which elaborated centuries ago the coal that is put under the boilers. What is it that you must learn here which will always be above all literature and all science, powerful though science may become? You must learn the eternal worth of character; you must learn that the ultimate powers of the human race lie in its undying instincts and passions: you must learn that above all material things, is man—the thoughtful, passionate and emotional being, the intellectual, and religious man. Here lies the source of the power of educated men—they have refined and strengthened their minds and their souls. And, believe me, the supreme powers of this universe are not mechanical or material; they are hope and fear and love.