Autobiography of W. J. Stillman
II. AN AMERICAN EDUCATION.
WHETHER on account of the escapade related in the preceding chapter, or from influences of which I knew, and still know, nothing, it was decided, not long after, that I should go to New York to attend a public school there and live with my eldest brother, who. being twenty-five years older than myself, and childless, had always treated me with an indulgence which was perhaps in part due to the rigor of my father’s rule, and in part to his fondness for me, of which I retain some early recollections in his annual visits home. My brother’s wife, a fellow townswoman of ours, and a marriage convert to the Seventh-Day Baptist Church, was one of the most disagreeable persons I have ever had to deal with, and hysterical to the degree of occasional insanity. She had adopted the severities of our Puritanic system with aggravations. Under her rule, the Sabbath became a day of pre-atonement for the sins I was foreordained to commit. Dinner, as was the general custom in those days, was at noon, but on Saturday I had none till I had learned by heart and recited a portion of Scripture; and as the mental apathy of the period still weighed upon me, the task of the Seventh Day was a sarcastic comment on the divine rest in commemoration of which it was supposed to be instituted. It made me grateful for the Sunday, which I generally passed in mechanical occupations in the workshop of my third brother, Paul, the foreman of the department in which the minor articles of the works were made, — steam gauges, models of inventions, etc.; and as I had my share of the family manual dexterity, I found interest enough there. As my brothers always observed the Sabbath rigidly, they attracted around them a few of the New England mechanics who were “ Sabbath keepers,” and mostly related to us, and so we had a small congregation and a church of our way of thinking.
The school to which I was sent was one of those founded by the Public School Society, a voluntary association of wellto-do citizens, who, in the absence of any municipal initiative, had organized themselves for the encouragement and support of primary education. As they excluded politics from the management of the schools, the consequence was that the politicians, finding a new field of operations and partisan activity, presently established a rival system of municipal schools, called “ ward schools.” At that time, the political intrigues of the Catholic Church for the control of the public school system had just begun. The Public School Society had been organized for the free and non-sectarian education of all children unable to meet the expense of education in the private schools, and received subsidies from the municipality. All children under sixteen were admitted without payment of any fee ; the books, stationery, and all other material necessary were furnished gratuitously, and even shoes were provided for the shoeless; the only requisites being cleanliness and regular attendance. The direction was rigidly non-sectarian. The trustees were unpaid, and they comprised many of the leading citizens interested in popular education. They had built for their service sixteen schoolhouses in New York, and in each of these there were on an average a thousand children. The schoolhouses, of three stories, had a primary department for such children as were too young to be taught their letters, or were not yet able to read and write, and to them the basement was given, the second story to the elder girls, and the upper to the boys. The teaching, for the boys’ department, was limited to the elements of English, arithmetic, elementary algebra, astronomy, and geometry ; but within these limits the education was thorough, and all who went through it were qualified for places in offices or countingrooms. The day was always opened by the reading of Scripture and prayer by the principal or one of the assistants; and this practice was made the ground of attack by the Catholic politicians, who objected to the Protestant Bible, all the schoolbooks being already expurgated of every passage to which the bishop objected. As our assistant teacher was a Catholic, and often had to read the chapter, there could have been little harm done even to a Catholic pupil ; but the political pressure was sufficient to drive the Corporation of the city of New York to adopt the political or ward school system, and the new schools, one of which was. or was to be, established in each ward of the city, began to run an active opposition to the Society schools, which they eventually drove out of existence.
At the time I was put to school, the interference of politics had just begun to make itself felt in the schools ; but the Corporation had not the courage to introduce its system on a large scale by supplanting en bloc the Society schools, which might have made a political revolt. The Irish Catholic influence was still a feeble one, and the population at large was hardly aware of its tendency ; but as the ward schools were gradually brought into rivalry with the Society schools, the children were drawn off from the latter by various inducements and by pressure on the parents. Each of our schools had four paid teachers, — the principal, an assistant, and a junior and a senior monitor. The elder pupils were employed in the instruction of the younger, in the preservation of order in school, and in the school yard during the intermissions in which gymnastics were enforced. My mental apathy must have been very profound, for it often happened that when a question which had passed other pupils came to me, the senior monitor used to address me, “Well, stupid, what do you say?” I evidently was the most stupid boy in the class, — nothing seemed to penetrate my mental dullness, — but, being tall and strong for my age, I was often made “ yard monitor ” to keep order during the physical training. There was a gang of young ruffians, street boys, who used to hang around the school gate and maltreat the stragglers, and even the boys in the yard, if the gate were left open. One day three or four of them came in, after I had dismissed the boys to go upstairs, at the end of the intermission, thinking that they would have a fine game with the monitor. One made a pretext to quarrel with me, and, gripping me round the body, called to his companions to go and get some stones to pound me on the head with, — this being the approved manner of the young roughs of New York. Finding that I could not extricate myself from his grip, I dragged him to the wall, and, catching him by the ears, beat his head against the rough stones till he dropped, incapable of further resistance. Then I ran upstairs as fast as my legs could carry me, so that when his companions came with their stones they had only their champion to carry out. On the holidays there were generally stone fights between the boys of our quarter and one of the adjoining quarters. I shall carry to my grave the scars on my head of cuts received in one of these field combats, in which I refused to follow my party in flight, and, taking the onslaught of the whole vanguard of the enemy, had my head pounded severely ; being saved from worse harm only by the intervention of the men in the vicinity. This fight gave me the unmerited reputation of courage and fighting power, and I was thereafter unmolested by the roughs, though in fact I was timid to a degree, and stood my ground from mere nervous obstinacy. I never provoked a quarrel, and only revolted against a bully when the position became intolerable. I can remember the amazement of an older boy, who had been in the habit of bullying me freely, until one day he went too far, and I took him by the collar, and shook and swung him till he was dizzy and begged for mercy ; for of downright pugilistics I knew nothing, and a deliberate blow in the face with my fist in cold blood was a measure too brutal to enter into my mind.
The dreariness of this portion of my life was beyond description. The oppression of my sister-in-law, the harshness of my teachers, and the exclusion from the influences of nature, in which I had so long lived without restraint, brought on me an attack of homesickness, which, reaching a crisis with the coming of the first wild flowers, induced my brother to send me home.
In spite of my aversion, I was sent back to New York the next autumn, for another winter’s schooling. I landed from the steamer at the foot of Cortlandt Street on the morning after the first great fire of New York, that known as the Custom House fire, from the Custom House having been included in it, and I saw the ruins still smoking and the firemen playing on them. My baggage — a biscuit box with my scanty wardrobe, and a bag of hickory nuts for my city cousins — I carried on my shoulders, and walked the length of the city; my brother living in what was then further New York, in 7th Street, near the East River. At that time 14th Street was the extreme limit of the city’s growth, except for a few and scattering residences. Beyond, and on the East River side, even most of what lay beyond 8th Street was unreclaimed land. I sailed my toy boats on the salt swamps where Tompkins Square now is, and I used to shoot, botanize, and hunt for crystals all over the island above 32d Street, the land being sparsely inhabited and not much of it cultivated. I discovered a little wild cactus growing freely amongst the rocks, and carried home a handkerchief full of it, getting myself well pricked by the spines ; but to my botanical enthusiasm this was nothing in view of the discovery. Only here and there patches of arable land maintained small farmhouses, but the greater part of the surface of Manhattan Island was composed of a poor grazing land interspersed with rolling ledges of bare granite, on which were visible what were then known as “ diluvial scratches,” which my brother, Dr. Charles, who was an ardent naturalist, explained to me as the grooves made by the irruption of the Deluge, which carried masses of stone across the broad ledges and left these scratches, then held widely as testimony to the actuality of the great Deluge of Genesis. I think that we had to wait for Agassiz to show us that the diluvial scratches were really glacial abrasions, caused by the great glacier which came down the valley of the Hudson and went to sea off Sandy Hook. At this time my brother was making conchology his special study, and many holidays we spent in the harbor, dredging for shells; and great was our joy when he discovered a new species, which was named after him by the Lyceum of Natural History of New York.
The following year, my fifth brother, Jacob, on leaving college, took charge of a school in the centre of New York state, built by the Sabbatarian community at large, in De Ruyter, a village of which many of the inhabitants were Sabbatarians, and it was decided that I should pursue there my studies in preparation for college. I was to “ board out ” a debt which an uncle owed to my eldest brother, and which was uncollectible in any other way. I then made my first acquaintance with semi-independent life, exchanging a home for a dormitory and a boarding house. My uncle was to supply also my bedding, the academy being provided with bedsteads ; but he was a heedless man, and I had to sleep six weeks on the bedcords, with my wearing apparel as my only covering, before he awoke to the fact that I had a prepaid claim on him for mattress and bedding. But we were on the edge of a great forest, and in the almost primeval woodland I found compensation for many discomforts, and what time my tasks spared me was spent wandering there. The persistent apathy which had oppressed me for so many years still refused to lift, and my stupidity in learning was such that my brother threatened to send me home as a disgrace to the family. I had taken up Latin again, algebra and geometry ; and though I was up by candlelight in the morning, and rarely put my books away till after ten at night, except for meals, it was impossible for me to construe half of the lesson in virgil, and the geometry was learned by rote. I gave up exercise in order to gain time for study, and my despairing struggles were misery. I was then fourteen, in the seventh year of this darkness, and it seemed to me hopeless.
What happened I know not, but about the middle of the first term the mental fog broke away suddenly, and before the term ended I could construe the Latin in less time than it took to recite it, and the demonstrations of Euclid were as plain and clear to me as a fairy story. My memory came back so completely that I could recite long poems after a single reading, and no member of the class passed a more brilliant examination at the close of the term than I. At the end of the second term I could recite the whole of Legendre’s Geometry, plane and spherical, without a question, and the class examination was recorded as the most remarkable which the academy had witnessed for many years. I have never been able to conceive an explanation of this curious phenomenon, which I only record as of possible interest to some student of psychology. Unfortunately, the academy failed to meet its expenses, and at the end of my second term the students dispersed to their homes, I going with great regret; for I enjoyed intensely this life on the edge of a large natural forest, through which ran a trout brook, and in which such wild woodland creatures as still survived our civilization were tolerably abundant. Amongst my fellow students at De Ruyter was Charles Dudley Warner, with whom I formed a friendship which survives in activity, though our paths in life have been since widely separated. I recall him as a sensitive, poetical boy, — almost girlish in his delicacy of temperament, — and showing the fine esprit which has made him one of the first of our humorists. His Being a Boy is a delightful and faithful account of the existence of a genuine New England boy, which will remain to future generations as a paleontological record when the race of such boys is extinct, if indeed it be not so already. Returning to Schenectady, I found that the family had begun to discuss the future of my career, which had arrived at the point of divergence. My father, who had no opinion of the utility of advanced education for boys in our station, was tenacious in his intention to have me in his workshop, where he needed more apprentices, but my mother was still more obstinate in hers that I should have the education, and in the decision the voices of my brothers were too potent not to hold the casting vote. In the stern, Puritanical manner of the family, I had been more or less the enfant gâté of all its members except my brother Paul, who, coming into the knowledge of domestic affairs at the time when the family was at its greatest straits, had expressed himself bitterly, at my birth, over the imprudence of our parents’ increasing their obligations when they were unable to provide for the education of the children they had already, and had always retained for me a little of the bitterness of those days ; but, on the whole, the vote of the family council was for the education. My own wishes were hardly consulted, for I differed from both parties, having an intense enthusiasm for art, to which I wished to devote myself.
The collective decision, in which my father and myself were alike overruled, was that I should go to Union College, in Schenectady, our home, as such education as might be gained there was supposed to be a facilitation for whatever occupation I might afterward decide on. This was, so far as I was concerned, a fatal error, and one of a kind far too common in New England communities, where education is estimated by the extent of the ground it covers without relation to the superstructure to be raised on it. I had always been a greedy reader of books, especially of history and the natural sciences, — everything on the vegetable or animal world fascinated me. I had no ambition for academic honors, nor did I ever acquire any, but I passionately desired a technical education in the arts, and the decision of the family deferred the first steps in that direction for years, — just those years when facility of hand is most completely acquired and enthusiasm is strongest against difficulties, — the years when, if ever, the artist is made. That one of the gravest difficulties in our modern civilized life is the excessive number of liberally educated young men, whose professional ambitions are, and can be, given no outlet, is now well recognized, and of these failures many are, no doubt, like myself, diverted from a natural bent to follow one which has no natural leading or sequence. In my case the result of the imposed career was a disaster ; I was diverted from the only occupation to which I ever had a recognizable calling, and ultimately I drifted into journalism as the result of a certain literary facility developed by the exercises of the college course. The consequences were the graver that I was naturally too much disposed to a vagrant life, and the want of a dominant interest in my occupation led to indulgence, on every occasion that offered in later life, of the tendency to wander. I came out of the experience with a divided allegiance, — enough devotion to letters to make it a satisfaction to occupy myself with them, but too much interest in art to be able to abandon it entirely. Before entering college art was a passion, but when, at the age of twenty, the release gave me the liberty to throw myself into painting, the finer roots of enthusiasm were dead, and I became only a dilettante; for the complete mastery of hand and will which makes the successful artist was no longer attainable.
It was decided that I should continue my preparation for college in the lyceum of my native town, a quaint octagonal building, in which the students were seated in two tiers of stalls, the partitions between which were on radii drawn from a centre on the master’s desk, so that nothing the pupil did escaped his supervision. The larger boys, some of whom were over sixteen, were in a basement similarly arranged, with a single tier of desks, and I earned my instruction by supervising this room. I had here full authority so far as the maintenance of order was concerned, and kept it, though some of the pupils were older than myself. I remember that one of them, about my own age and apparent strength, but himself convinced of his superiority, repeated some act for which I had reprimanded him, and as I knew that to allow it to pass unpunished was to put an end to my authority and position, yet not feeling competent or authorized to give him a regular flogging, I caught him by the collar and jerked him into the middle of the room, setting him down on the floor with force enough to bewilder him a little. I ordered him to sit there till I released him, and his surprise was such that he actually did not move till I told him to. I met no attempt to put my authority at defiance after that. A schoolfellow here and classmate in college was Chester A. Arthur, afterward President of the United States.
There were two associate principals at the head of the school, —one for the classics, and the other for mathematics. I became a favorite of the former, on account of the facility with which I got on in his branches ; and when the year was up, I passed easily the examinations for entrance into college, and by his advice entered in the freshman class, though fairly well prepared to enter the sophomore with slight conditions. He was anxious that I should do him credit in college. But long before the term was out I found that the routine gave me hardly an occupation. I had already done all the mathematics of the year at De Ruyter, and the Latin and Greek were easy. I decided, therefore, to try a fresh examination, in order to gain a year by getting into the sophomore class. The faculty declared such a thing unprecedented and inadmissible, to which I replied that I would then go to another college, quite oblivious of the fact that I had neither the means nor the consent of my family to leave its protection and go to another city. The classical principal of the lyceum, who was also a tutor in the college, did what he could to dissuade me ; but I persisted, and, on offering myself for examination, found him on the examining committee. He was really fond of me, and in my own interest wanted me to go through college with honors ; but this was to me of trivial importance, compared with the abbreviation by a year of the captivity of the college life. He punished me by putting me to read for examination a passage of Juvenal, a book which I had never opened, as it did not come in the course even of the sophomores; but I passed fairly well on it, and he, with a little irritation, gave me the certificate, saying that it was not for what I did, but for what he knew me to be capable of. So, conditioned by some trivial supplementary examinations on subjects which I do not remember, I went up a class.
Union College, at that time, had little in common with any English model. Our college buildings were three : one, West College, in the town, for the freshman and sophomore classes ; and two on the hill above the town, North and South Colleges, for the juniors and seniors. As a large proportion of the students were young men to whom the expenses of education were a serious matter, many prepared themselves at home to enter the junior class, so that a class which only numbered a score as freshmen often graduated a hundred. Others, again, used to spend the winter term and vacations in teaching in the rural or “ district” schools, to pay the expenses of the other terms. The majority of the students being of these descriptions, and often adults on entering, the class gathered seriousness as it went on. The freshmen and sophomores, delegated to the care of the junior professors and tutors, indulged in many of the escapades of juvenility for which college life in most countries is distinguished, and were continually brought under the inflictions of discipline, and now and then some one was expelled. The favorite tricks of getting a horse or cow into a recitation room, fastening the tutors in their rooms just before the class hours, tying up or stealing the bell which used to wake the students and call them to prayers or recitations, with rare and perilous excursions into the civic domain, or a fire alarm caused by setting fire to the outhouses, which always brought down on us the wrath of the firemen, varied the monotony of the student life, as everywhere else; but as I roomed at home for the first year, I never had part in these escapades, and in my sophomore winter I took a district school in one of the valleys tributary to that of the Mohawk, in which the town of Schenectady lies.
The community in which the school was situated was almost exclusively composed of Scotch Cameronians, of whom several families were the descendants of a then still vigorous patriarch of the sternest type of that creed. It was necessary to pass a special examination to get the state certificate requisite for permission to teach a district school, and this I had passed, but had still to undergo the questioning of the trustees of the district, canny and cautious beyond the common. The wages for such a school were twelve dollars a month and “ board around; ” that is, staying at the houses of the parents a week for each pupil in turn, beginning with those in best estate, so that, as the school had never less than twenty or thirty pupils, the poorer families were never called on. One of the boys intended to go to college, and his father was willing to pay a special contribution to secure a teacher of Latin, which brought my wages up to sixteen dollars a month. But the cautious Scots urged a conditional engagement, a trial of one month, — a condition which, as I might have anticipated, would end the engagement with the month, considering the composition of the district and the usual difference of views among the people. The two most advanced and oldest of the pupils belonged to families bound together by the most cordial jealousy which a petty community could inspire, and one of these was my Latin pupil. His rival was a lazy student and a turbulent scholar, with whom I had difficulties from insubordination from the beginning. As, however, I had adopted the rule of depending entirely on moral suasion in the government of the school, and refused to flog, but instead offered prizes, at my own expense, for good behavior and studiousness for each week, my confidence in the better qualities of human nature betrayed me from the beginning. The prizes went to stimulate the jealousies between the families of the two leading lads, and the only punishment I would inflict — that of sending the pupil home for disobedience — made domestic difficulties. The first week of the month I was boarded in the family of our patriarch, whose grandsons furnished a number of the pupils, and the life in his household was not one to make me regret the termination of the engagement. I was awaked while it was still night to join in family prayers, which were of a severity such as I had never dreamed. First a long selection of psalms was read, then another long one was sung, and then came a prayer, which, as I noticed by the clock, varied from ten to twelve minutes in length, through which, being still drowsy, I slept, being awakened by the family rising from their knees. This was the invariable routine gone through at night as well as in the morning. As in our own family, with the exception of the Saturday morning family service, the devotions were always those of the closet, this tedium of godliness was a serious infliction. I was waked out of sound sleep, and bored through before breakfast by vain repetitions lasting on an average half an hour, after having endured the same for another half hour before being allowed to go to bed ; for no escape was permitted even to the ill-willing. It may easily be imagined that this addendum to the annoyances of my school hours made the position of the district schoolmaster one for which sixteen dollars a month was no compensation.
But the month of trial did not elapse without signs of a storm brewing in the valley. My novel system of sparing the rod and spoiling the children could not fail to provoke the disapproval of the orthodox, and to give dissatisfaction to the jealous. It was therefore without much surprise that, at the end of the month, I received my notice of dismissal. The only things I had enjoyed, indeed, during the month, had been the walks through the dense forest from the farmhouses to the schoolhouse in the quiet sunshine of the winter mornings. The woods were more natural and older than those around my home, and there was a freshness in the early day which I never had realized so fully as in these morning walks to school. I shall always remember the snowy silence of that forest, — the first, on a great scale, I had become familiar with.
But the poverty of the lives of these prosperous farmers was a revelation to me, even, accustomed as I was to a domestic simplicity which would surprise modern Americans of any class. New books were a luxury none of them indulged in ; beyond the Bible and two or three volumes of general information there was no reading except a weekly newspaper, and the diet was such as I had never been used to, even at De Ruyter. But for the vegetables of the farm, sailors at sea would fare better than these landsmen. In later years I boarded with one of the farmers in an adjoining valley, where I was engaged in painting a cascade of great beauty, and for the six weeks I lived in the family I saw only two articles of animal food, —salt mackerel for breakfast, and salt pork for dinner. The narrowness of intellectual range and the bigotry — political and religious — prevailing among them were such as I had never encountered, even in the “ straitest sect of the Pharisees,” the Seventh-Day Baptist Church of my youth. In the community in which I had grown up, there was always the early influence of the sea to widen the range of thought and sympathy ; but here, in the narrow valley to which the farmer was confined, neither nature nor religion seemed to have any liberating or liberalizing power. A sturdy independence was the dominant trait of character, but this independence was converted into a self-enslavement by the limited range of thought which prevailed. The old Cameronian patriarch, in his sectarian exaltation, seemed almost a luminary in the intellectual twilight of that secluded settlement, and it was possible there to understand how even a narrow religious fanaticism could become an ennobling element in the character of a community living in such a restricted and materializing atmosphere. A few weeks in such a state of society enables one to understand better the irresistible attraction of cities, and of life in the midst of multitudes, to the rustic, born and grown in the back-water stagnation of a rural life like that of the farmers of my school district.
The remaining two months of the broken term of the college course, and the better part of the vacation, were spent in my father’s workshop, where the work was rather pressing and the shop short-handed. My father’s business was mainly the manufacture of certain mechanical implements for which he and his brother held the patents, and in the spring and autumn he was accustomed to carry consignments of them to his customers in New York. His workshop was resorted to by several ingenious fellow New Englanders who had inventions to work out, in the execution of which I was found useful. Among these was one Daniel Ball, whose specialty was locks, of which he invented, patented, and sold the patents of a new one every year, all worked out in my father’s shop. Ball was a man of remarkable mechanical ingenuity and extraordinary profanity, of a savage temper, and very exclusive in his human sympathies, but he had a profound reverence for my father, of whom he used to say that “ old Joe Stillman was the only honest man God ever made ; ” and I am inclined to think, looking back on a long life and wide experience in men of all classes and many nations, that Ball was justified in the esteem he held my father in, though admissibly wrong in his exclusiveness ; for I cannot recall, in all my memories of my father, a single instance of his hesitating over the most trivial transaction in which a question of honesty was involved, and I have known him to relinquish his clear rights rather than to provoke a disagreement with a neighbor. He had a profound aversion to any ostentation of religious fervor, as had my mother, but if he had lived to-day, he would certainly have been an advanced evolutionist ; even then his liberality in matters of doctrine, and his unbounded charity toward all differences of opinion in religious questions, used to cause my mother serious anxiety as to his orthodoxy. He thought the fields and woods better places to pass the Sabbath in than a meetinghouse, and this was a subject of great pain to her, — the more that he developed the same feeling in me ; but he never deferred in these matters to anybody, and never had a shade of that reverence for the clergy which was almost a passion in my mother’s nature. While of an extreme tenderness of heart to all suffering or hardship outside the family, even toward animals, his domestic discipline was harsh and narrow. In the latter respect he was a survival of the old New England system ; in the former he was himself. I had a parrot, given me by one of my brothers, and the bird took an extravagant fondness for my father rather than for me. He was allowed the freedom of the house and garden, and would go and sit on the fence when my father should be coming back from the workshop to dinner and supper, and, hearing his footstep, run chuckling and chattering with delight to meet him before he came in sight. Early one morning the parrot got shut by chance in the cupboard, and, attempting to gnaw his way out, was mistaken for a rat. My father took the shovel to kill him, while mother carefully opened the door so that the rat might squeeze his way out to be killed ; but poor Poll got the blow, instead, and had his neck broken. All that day my father stayed at home weeping for Polly ; and no business misfortune, in my recollection, ever affected him as the death of the parrot did. He could flog me without mercy, but he could not see the suffering of a domestic or wild animal without tears ; nor would he tolerate in us children the slightest tendency to cruelty to any living thing.
I have alluded to the differences between him and mother on the subject of education, the inutility of which, beyond a common-school standard, he made an article of faith. My return to the workshop for the remainder of the vacation, after my school-teaching failure, led to the final battle on the question. As the vacation drew to an end, and the time which was still available for studying up the subjects of the last term, for the examination on reëntering, approached its imperative limit, I notified him that I must stop work. He said nothing until I had actually given it up and gone back to my study, about two weeks before the examination day. Coming home from the shop that day to dinner in a very bad humor, he asked me why I had not been at work. I replied that I had barely the time absolutely necessary to make up my arrears of study to enter college for the next term. Then he broke out on me with a torrent of abuse as an idle, shirking boy, who only cared to avoid work, ending with the accusation that all I wanted was “ to eat the bread of idleness,” — a phrase he was very fond of. I suppose I inherited some of his inequality of temper, for I replied by leaving the table, throwing my chair across the room as I did so; and, assuring him that when I ate another morsel of bread in his house he would know the reason why, I left the house in a towering rage. Having forewarned him days before that I must go, without his making the least objection, and having postponed the step to the latest possible moment out of consideration for the work in hand, I considered this treatment as ungenerous, and was indignant.
I do not think that, weighing all the circumstances of the case, it can be said that my father was entitled to impose his authority in a purely arbitrary interference with a matter in which the family council had decided on my course, and which involved all my future, or that my refusal to obey an irrational command implied any disrespect to him. At all events, I decided at once that I would not yield in this matter, and I made my preparations to seek another home, even with a modification in my career. If I must abandon the liberal education, I would not waste my life in a little workshop with three workmen, and with no opportunity to widen the sphere of activity or opening into a larger occupation. If I was to be obliged to leave the college, it should be for something in the direction of art, and in this light I did not much regret the change. I had not calculated, however, on my mother’s tenacity, or the imperceptible domination she exercised on my father. When I returned to the house to get my clothes and make my preparations for leaving home for good, I had a most painful scene with my mother, and it was the only serious misunderstanding I ever had with her. She went through in a rapid résumé the history of my life from the day when I was given her in consolation for the little brother before me, who died, with a word for each of the crises through which her care had carried me, — accidents, grave maladies, — for I was apparently not a strong child, and at several conjunctures my life had been despaired of ; all the story being told as she walked up and down the chamber, with the tears running over her cheeks, and with a passionate vehemence I had never suspected her to be capable of, for she had the most complete self-restraint I ever knew in a woman. But++ it was an impasse, — I would not give up ; and to go back to the workshop then at my father’s insistence was to lose every chance of completing the career which had begun for me. It seemed brutal to refuse my mother’s entreaties to ignore the collision of wills, and go on as if nothing had happened; but to do this and remain in the house with my father in the perpetual danger of another conflict was impossible. The question had to be settled, and all I could do was to insist on my father’s making a distinct disavowal of any right or intention of demanding my services in the shop at any future time, and on his leaving me free to follow the programme agreed on in the family council. It was, in effect, a frank apology that I wanted ; but I knew him too well to suppose he would ever consent to apologize in words, or to admit to me that he had made a mistake. I left the solution in my mother’s hands, with the understanding that the definite promise should be given to her; for I was sure that this would hold him as completely as if made to a public authority. Nothing could bring her to contradict him openly, and in all my life I never saw her show a sign of disrespect for his mastery in domestic things; but I knew that if once this promise should be given to her I could count on his being held to it sternly. That evening the matter was settled, but of what had passed or what was said I never knew anything, for my mother never wasted words ; and while no apology was made and no retraction expressed, neither my father nor myself again alluded to the subject of my working in the shop, nor did I ever, as before, go into it during the vacations, or offer to assist when affairs were hurried. The habit of asserting the paternal authority and the sense of it in my father was so strong that I never risked again reviving it. I passed my examination and resumed my place in the class, but I never tried district schoolteaching again.
In my junior year I had a room in the North College. Each of the upper buildings, which should have been properly called a “ hall,” was divided into five sections, in effect separate residences, each being under the custody of one of the professors or tutors, who was responsible for its order ; the two end sections of each of the colleges being an official residence for one of the senior professors with his family. Our quarters were of the simplest : two students had one room, with one bed, and there we lived and studied. At half past five the bell rang to wake us, and half an hour later for prayers ; the sleepy ones returning to sleep after the waking bell, and thrusting themselves into their clothes as they ran when the prayer bell rang, to get to prayers before the roll call was over. From prayers we dispersed to the recitation rooms for the morning recitations, and then to breakfast, mostly in town. There were two boarding houses, one at each end of the college walk, known as North and South Halls, and here board was provided at somewhat lower terms and of much inferior quality to that at the private boarding houses in town. The price at the halls was, if I remember correctly, a dollar and twenty-five cents a week, three meals a day, that in the town ranging from a dollar and fifty cents to a dollar and seventy-five ; furnished rooms in the town costing seventy-five cents a week more, and a few favored or wealthier students had permission to room in them. But as a rule the undergraduates of Union were men of very limited means, and all arrangements were made to facilitate their attendance.
Union College, at this epoch, held a high place in public esteem and in the number of its students. It owed its character and reputation to the strong and singular personality of its first president. I have in the course of my life become more or less acquainted with many able men, and Dr. Nott was the most remarkable of all the teachers I have known, considering the limitation of his place and profession, — that of a Presbyterian clergyman in a time when sectarian differences ran high, and his sect had no lead in public opinion. He had attained his high position by the force of his character assisted by his extraordinary tact and eloquence. The manual of public speakers which we used to draw on for the speeches in class recitations included the doctor’s oration on the death of Alexander Hamilton, killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, one of the earliest and the most prominent of the demagogues of America. I have not read the oration for fifty years, but, as I remember it, it was a brilliant example of eloquence in the fashion of the day.
As a favorite pupil of the doctor in the last year of my course, and for years after, and as, in my opinion, justice has not been done to him, it is for me a debt of gratitude, as well as a matter of right, to repair as best I may this neglect. No one but a pupil could have fairly estimated his force of character, and no pupil whose intercourse with him was not carried into the post-graduate years could measure the ability with which he advised, especially in public matters, with his old pupils. In the days of his activity, no institution in the country furnished so large an element to the practical statesmanship of the United States as did Union. Seward was one of his favorite pupils, and it is well known that up to the period of the civil war he seldom took a step in politics without the advice of the doctor. Having had a struggle with poverty in his own early life, his sympathies were all with the poorer students, and a practical education was more easily gained at Union than was then possible at Yale or Harvard. Men were allowed to defer payment of the fees till later life, when their means had increased ; and though there were no scholarships, there were many students whose burthens were so far alleviated by the regulations that an earnest man, who was ready to work his way and determined to take his degree, need never leave college unsatisfied. The doctor’s reading of character and detective powers were barely short of the marvelous, and his management of refractory students became so well known that many who had been expelled from other universities were sent to Union, and graduated with credit ; so that the college acquired the nickname of “ Botany Bay.” There came to him once for admission a student expelled from Yale for persistent violation of the regulations, and naturally without the letter which, by general usage, was required from the president of one university to another, certifying the good standing of the student. The president of Yale wrote to the doctor to ask if he meant to take “ that scoundrel ” into his college. The doctor, who had taken a rapid examination of the man, replied, “ Yes, and make a man of him.” In one of my post-graduate years, when I was staying with Dr. Nott, he told me the story of this man. The doctor had estimated his character at a glance correctly, and saw in him a mismanaged student. He was admitted unconditionally, as if he had come with the best of characters, and for a time he justified the confidence reposed in him. But the uneasy nature one day broke out, and he committed a gross violation of the rules. The discipline of the doctor began always with a friendly conversation, and with some men ended there, for he knew so well how to paint the consequences of expulsion that it sufficed ; but on the entry of this student into his library he saw, looking at him, that the youth “ had the devil in his eye.” He had, in fact, said to his roommate, on getting the summons to the interview, “ If the doctor thinks he is going to break me in, he ’ll find himself mistaken.” The doctor had a curious kind of vision which made it impossible to say which of the persons in the room he was looking at, and when, while seeming to be engaged on his book, he had looked into the eyes of the student, and saw that the light of battle was kindled in them, he waited for a little. Then, as if preoccupied, he said to him in his most kindly tone, “ I am very much occupied at this moment, my son ; won’t you come in to-morrow evening ? ” The young man went back to his room already half conquered by the affectionate manner ; but the important point gained in the doctor’s tactics was that the psychological moment of combat in the student had been reached, and could not be kept up for a day, and when on the next evening the interview took place, his combativeness had given place to perplexity and complete demoralization. In this state the doctor gave him a paternal lesson on the consequences to his future life of the rebellion against necessary discipline and of persistent disorderly conduct, but without any actual reproof or mention of his offense, — all in his invariably kind tone, as if it were a talk on generalities, — and then dismissed him to think it over. He had established cordial relations with the rebel, and from that day had no trouble with him. The doctor understood men so well that he never wasted his trouble on those who had nothing in them, but let them drift through the course unnoted. Expulsions were very rare, and the secret police of the university was so competent that the almost absolute certainty of detection generally deterred the men from serious infractions of the rules. The government seemed to be based on the policy of giving an earnest man all the advantages of the institution, and getting the indifferent through the course with the least discredit. In a state of society in which collegiate standing was of importance to a man’s career, this system would have been a grave objection to the college; but in our Western world the degree had very little importance, and the honors no effect on the future position. In politics, it was, indeed, often rather an obstacle than a recommendation that a man was a “ college man.” What the doctor tried to do, then, was to make a man, when he found the material for one, and to ignore the futile intellects. This was the scheme of the education at Union when I was there, and it rarely failed to find the best men in the class and bring them forward.
Our college life may have been, to the men of ampler means, more largely supplied with the elements of excitement, but for the poorer students there was little romance in it. Now and then a demonstration against an unpopular professor, — a “ bolt,” that is, abstention en masse from a recitation, — or a rarer invasion of the town and hostile demonstration, gave us a fillip ; but the doctor had so well policed the college, and so completely brought under his moral influence the town, that no serious row ever took place. Later, he told me how he managed one of the worst early conflicts, in which the students on one side of the college road, and the town boys on the other, were arrayed in order, determined to fight out the question who were the better men. The doctor had early notice of the imminent row, and, fetching a circuit behind the “ town,” encouraged the boys on that side with assurances of his impartiality, and even his content with a little punishment of the students if they were aggressive. “ But,” said he, “ don’t begin the fight, and put yourselves in the wrong. If my boys come over, thrash them well, but let them strike the first blow.” Having put them in the strongest defensive attitude, believing that they had the doctor with them, he went round to the students and applied the same inducements to the defensive, leaving them under the persuasion that he entirely approved their fighting, and then he went home and left them to their conclusions. As time passed, and neither took the offensive, they all cooled off and retired. The tact with which he dealt with the occasional outbreaks in the college was very interesting. If it was a case of wanton defiance of the habitual order, there was a very slight probability of its being overlooked. The favorite prank of the stealing of the college bell was invariably punished, first by having a hand bell rung a little earlier than regulation hours all through the sections ; and when his secret police had found out the offenders, they were punished according to custom, never very severely, yet sufficiently to make them feel humiliated. But the mystery of his police was never explained, and we were at a loss to conjecture how he discovered the most elaborately concealed combinations, so that suddenly, even weeks after, when the culprits thought they had finally escaped detection, he might announce at prayers that they were to come to his study to explain. If the outbreak had been in any way justified by an arbitrary or unwise act of discipline by any of the professors, he used to ignore it altogether.
As I look back on the life and work of my college days, it seems to me that the greater part of them were most unintelligently spent. When I reached my senior year, and came under the direct stimulus of Dr. Nott, I recognized that, so far as true education was concerned, I had wasted my time; and had I been master of my future, I should have been inclined to go back to the beginning, and repeat the three years’ course of study under the new light, and with a recognition of the purpose of higher study, for I saw that all which I had yet gained was little more than parrot learning. The doctor, indeed, tried to make us think ; he used to say that the textbook was a matter of entire indifference, and that he would as soon have a book of riddles as Kames’s Elements of Criticism, so long as he could make us think out our conclusions. With him, the recitations were a perpetual contest of our wits against his. He showed us the shallowness of our acquisitions, and dissected mercilessly both textbook and the responses to the questions which he had drawn from it ; admitting nothing, and pushing the pupil perpetually into the deeper water as soon as he began to think his foot had touched firm land. The first term under the doctor brought up every intellectual faculty I possessed, and I suppose it was by this intense appreciation of his leading that I secured his friendship and partiality in the following years. So far as the influences of school can go, I owe to him the best of my education, and especially the perception of the meaning of the word itself. In the senior year I turned back in my life, and sought, not to hasten, but to linger in the precincts of study ; and the imperious necessity of getting to some occupation which would give me independence alone deterred me from a post-graduate course of study to compensate for the inadequacy of the past years.
In entering the ministry Dr. Nott had deprived the world of a statesman of no ordinary calibre ; but in the eyes of the Protestant as of the Catholic Church, in the country which had its precedents to make as in that which had precedents a thousand years old, the maxim, “ Once a priest always a priest,” kept him in the pulpit, to which he had no irresistible call, and to which the accident of his career only had led him. Had the sect to which he belonged been organized as an episcopal body, he had certainly been its primate ; but in the church there was no career for him beyond that of the isolated pastorate of a single congregation. In this insufficiency of interest for an active and influential life, there was only the educational calling left to satisfy his enormous mental activity, and in this he found his place. The future which may look for his record in libraries, or in the results of research, scientific or literary, will not find it there. He had, however, great mechanical inventive powers, as well as a marvelous knowledge of human nature: the former solved the problem, amongst others, of anthracite-coal combustion for American steamers; in the latter lay his qualifications as one of the greatest teachers of young men of his generation. Nobody could know him except the pupils to whom he disclosed himself, and to whom his kindly and magnanimous nature was unreservedly open ; they were few, and the list is fast being canceled ; when we are gone, no adequate evidence of his life and character will remain. The power he exercised over his favorite boys was extraordinary ; any of us would have done anything permitted to human nature to satisfy his wish. When, several years subsequent to my graduation, and on the election of Lincoln as President, I had used what influence I could enlist with the government (my brother being a prominent Republican) to get the appointment as consul to Venice, which was generally given to an artist, the principal petition in my favor went from Cambridge. It was written by Judge Gray (now on the Supreme Court bench), headed by Agassiz, and signed by nearly every eminent literary or scientific man in Cambridge ; but it lay at the Department of State more than six months, unnoticed. In the interim the war broke out, and I had gone home from Paris, where I was then living, to volunteer in the army; but being excluded by the medical requisitions, and the ranks being full, eight hundred thousand volunteers being then enrolled, I turned to my project for Venice, and wrote a word to Dr. Nott, recalling his promise of years before, to use his influence in my favor if ever it were needed. He inclosed my letter with one containing an indorsement of it, and sent it to Seward, the Secretary of State. The appointment— not to Venice, which had just been given to Howells, but to Rome — came by return of post.
Union was then the only college of importance not under some form of denominational control, and for this reason had perhaps more than the usual share of extreme liberalism, or atheism, as it was at that time considered, among the students. One of my classmates, a man a couple of years older than myself, and of far more than the average intellectual power, made an active propaganda of the most advanced opinions. He also introduced Philip James Bailey’s Festus to our attention, and for a time I was carried away by both. The great revulsion from my previous straitened theological convictions was the cause of infinite perplexity and distress. Up to that time nothing had ever shaken me in my orthodox persuasions, and the necessity of concealing from my mother and family my doubts and halting faith in the old ideas made my condition all the more trying. I had to fight out the question all alone. It was impossible for me to follow my classmate so far as to become the materialist that he was, and so find a relative repose. The conflict became very grave; the entire scheme of Christianity disappeared from my firmament ; but in the immediately previous years I had been a reader of Swedenborg, and I held immovably an intuition of immortality, or perhaps rather the conviction that immortality is the foundation of human existence, grounded in my earliest thoughts and as clear as the sense of light. This never failed me, and Swedenborg helped my reason in its struggle, though I could never see my way to the entire acceptation of his doctrine. My dogmatic theological education had been entirely incidental ; for my mother never discussed dogmas or doctrines, but the simple duties and promises of religion, and my intelligence, therefore, had never been so kept captive as to make release grateful. Christianity had not been a doctrinal burthen to me, nor in my mind was any form of belief inconsistent with true grace ; in my mother’s thought there was only one thing utterly profane, and that was self-righteousness. And there happened to me in this conjuncture what has in my later life been often seen, — that the modification of religious views imposed on us by the superior force of another mind, a persuasion of what seems to be truth as it is only seen by others’ vision, could not hold its own against early convictions, and that the revulsion to the old faith is sooner or later inevitable. The trouble passed, and though it gave me great distress for the time, it made my essential religious convictions stronger in the end. It is, I think, Max Müller who says that no man can escape from the environment of his early religious education. I have seen, in my experience of life and men, many curious proofs of that law, — men who have lived for many years in the most absolute rejection of all religions, returning in their old age to the simple faith of childhood, ending as they began. The change of religious convictions which holds its own against all influences is that which comes from the natural evolution of our own thought. At any rate, in my own case the rationalistic revolution completed its circle, and brought me back to that simple faith, to remain in which is a reproach to no man, and the departure from which, to be healthy, must be made on lines conformed to our better natures. I was not the worse for my excursion into new regions, and the freedom of movement I acquired I never lost.
Of my college course I retained only what held my sympathies. I never went in for honors, or occupied myself beyond the requirements with studies which did not interest me. Greek and Latin, but especially physics, the humanities, and literature, enlisted all my ambitions, and the little weekly paper which was read at the meetings of our secret society perhaps occupied me more than was in due measure. I took my degree, of course, but with no special honors. Prior to my graduation the majority of the family had gathered at or near New York city ; the object for which my father and mother had remained in Schenectady having been attained, they also moved to New York ; and I, finally liberated for the study of art, gave myself seriously to that end.
William James Stillman.