Howlers

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

WHEN summer really comes and the college instructor reaches the end of his strictly official tasks, he is apt to find, if he be one of those unfortunates who have to do with problems of getting young men into one of those few institutions which still adhere to the fast-fading tradition of entrance examinations, a certain grim amusement in his Sisyphean task. He has just helped to roll one huge unwieldy stone to the top, — and behold another, huger and more unwieldy, waiting at the bottom. And if ever man had cause to be at once elated and depressed, surely he who reads entrance papers may be said fairly, in the words of one of these, to ‘scintillate’ between hope and despair. Especially is this true of history. Geography weird as a monastic map; battles as mythical as t hose of Geoffrey of Monmouth ; science beyond the dreams of alchemist or astrologist; language which takes one back to the childhood of the world—and sometimes beyond; cities located on maps apparently according to the principles of that amusing game of pinning on the donkey’s tail, — these make at once for laughter and for tears.

Consider, in this light, the classical tradition of the modern world. ‘Hercules was the modle of Greece, he was very strong, he went into atheletics and was excelent so that he was the greatest profesional athelete and every one looked up to him and he was very famus.’ This is no mere series of illiteracies; it is a philosophy of scholastic life, — as witness further. ‘The Academy was a place where the Greek youth learned to run races and play games and thus acquired culture.’ How modern it sounds, here with all our young barbarians at play. Yet beside the games was music. Consider again the story of Jason. ‘The greatest, obstacle he had was to get his ship launched. This obstacle was overcome by a great musician who played the sweetest music in the world. When he began to play the ship jumped into the sea.’ Here was a worthy rival of ‘Nero the Emperor of Rome who while Rome was burning sang an orgy which he had himself composed on the roof of his house.’ It is not surprising, in view of these things, to learn that there was in Athens ‘a music-hall which was called the Odium,’ or that ‘Rome had been running down hill for a long time and finally fell.’

Nothing is more illuminating than a comparison of the civilizations of antiquity in this connection. Egypt, whose ‘people were a gay people who did not mingle with other people’ but confined themselves chiefly to building ‘pyramids and sphinks,’ had ‘priests who were the highest class, they were supposed to be economical and had to wash and shave three times a day, the soldiers on the other hand did not have much of anything to do.’ Contrast this with that Sparta which was a ‘terrible place to bring up a boy,’ or Rome, which ‘ before the invasion of the barbarians was a great place to have a good time.’ Nothing in the ancient world was quite like that curious Greek marriage custom, ‘where one man married one woman and that was called monotony’; but there were doubtless, in every land, men who in some respects resembled ‘Plato who was the wisest man who ever lived, he never worked’; even though few or none could boast of a Socrates who ‘suffered great privations but bored them,’ and who, though he was ‘the greatest moral teacher the world ever saw,’was ‘convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens’ and ‘died of drinking.’

But let us turn from these darker glimpses of a pagan world to the coming of Christianity. Hear the legend of Helen. ‘When the Christian Era became very strong and dangerous to the King and Queen of the Grecian Empire (to Constantine and Helen) the king was not too much desirous to do every where a massacree and tyranical opression; especially the Queen Helen, who was a very God feared woman. So, she plunged into-deep discussion of the question of the Christian Era, and, naturally, dreamed that she saw up in the “Heaven” a cross—and after the dream she became a Christian (Orthodox Catholic) and declined the all Greeks to the same.’ Hence that ‘ pious and godly stunt,’ the Crusades, which ‘furnished the food for so many romances and ballads,’ to say nothing of examinationpaper fiction. Take, for example, this admirable piece of Alice in Wonderland, in reply to a modest inquiry regarding the decline of the crusading zeal: ‘The leaders tried to restrict it into more solid (forever) form than the political. The political got up stronger. It was contested by gradually but I forget when it was in Cadiz.’ Surely this deserves a place in our literature beside the mouse when it spins.

The middle ages were, indeed, peculiarly prolific in picturesque personalities appealing to the scholastic mind, from Charlemagne, who ‘clapped the climax,’ to Edward the First, whose ‘first trouble was with whales. His polacy was to emphasize his national character. In his continental polacy he was rather reserve. He showed himself a true worrier.’ Among these interesting figures not the least fascinating was ‘Elenor of Aquitaine, a woman who came from the vicinity of what was then called Aquitania, where, in the ancient days, Cæsar and the inhabitants of Aquitania did much bloody fighting. Elenor was an inhabitant of this place and being of a wild and daring nature she caused quite a disturbance among the English kings. She came over into England and Scotland and raised disturbances, being the main factor herself, although only a woman. She was at last defeated and finally death after many hardships put an end to her adventurous career.’ Fortunately or unfortunately for her, the ‘Salic law by which no woman or her offspring could have any right to the throne’ did not prevail in the British Isles.

Nor were these remarkable institutions established during the dark ages less interesting than its individuals, that curious custom of ‘ transsubstantiation by which allegiance was transferred from one lord to another,’ and that no less extraordinary ‘ Primogeniture we read about in the eleventh century, which was that all should die at a certain time and that God had some who were his and the rest must perish.’ Then, too, originated the cabinet system of government, by means whose memory should not be allowed to die. ‘In the dark Ages of English history kings were accustomed to meet with a few of their accomplices in a small room or cabin, that is from French cabinette, whence, naturally came at once the thing and its name.’ But we must not linger here, not even to look more closely into ’the man or which was the home of a lord to geth er with his ten aunts’; or to weep over Joan of Arc, that ‘poor pheasant ’ who was ' burned to a steak’; or to wonder over the fact that ‘in 1453 on the fall of Constantinople there appeared in a Paris newspaper the statement that “There are no longer any Pyrenees.’” In these days when war went on ‘sponsmatically,’ — among conflicts between the ‘two classes of clergy, regular and irregular,’ to say nothing of true ‘Prodestism’ or the ‘catastrathrope’ which ensued; when Europe was decimated by the ravages of ‘Richard I who was called the Black Death,’ — there is too much (to speak the language of this strange dialect) that is ‘ malagious ’ for us to delay longer.

Let us turn again to a happier theme, and none is happier, surely, than Henry VIII, who ‘got a divorce and then married again and again ’ until he ‘had five wives all told and this was the beginning of the Church of England.’ Stories naturally differ about him even in this realm of unnatural history; but this one will perhaps serve as well as any. ‘After his first wife died he tried to marry his brother’s widow, which he could not legally do. The Pope refused his application and Henry took the law in his own hands and married her. After some years he fell in love with another and began to feel his marriage was not right. The Pope refused to divorce him and he tried to have the archbishop of Canterbury get it. But Becket would n’t do it. Henry made a rash statement and Becket was killed by the courtiers. The divorce however was never received.’

It is of interest to see how the Becket story is preserved in the most unexpected ways and places, as thus: ‘John Pym was a great Puritan leader. When the king nominated him as leader he did away with all his rash doings, put on his religious gown, gave his money to help the poor and did a great work among the people,’ — and so on to the end. This, it may be observed, was a very different method from that used by Pym’s great contemporary, Cromwell, who ‘belabored effectually to keep the peace.’ The innate, unconscious truth of that ingenuous remark lies as far beyond the bounds of mere invention, as does the statement that the inventor of the Popish Plot was ‘a liar born and bread’; or that the two greatest enemies of France were Gladstone ‘who defeated the king at Naseby,’ and Nelson ‘who defeated Napoleon in the last battle of the Hundred Year’s War.’

Yet it is, after all, in the history of their own country that these aspiring youths reach their greatest heights, and reveal most clearly the fact that the provincialism of the nation is so largely confined to certain relatively small districts, however wide its ignorance may be. No one outside of New England surely would enumerate Omaha among the western states; no Southerner surely could locate Gettysburg in Kentucky, as no New Englander could put Louisburg in Texas. This species of error, doubtless, is less due to dull scholars than to defective instruction. To what the statement that ‘ formerly men were nominated for the presidency by the people but now they are nominated by party conventions’ is due, let each man decide for himself. In the recurrent confusion between Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson, it is, perhaps, only natural that careful study of more recent events should now and then betray one into a still more entertaining complication with Jack Johnson.

And this brings to our attention, finally, how short are the memories of men. Let us take three composite lives. Oliver P. Morton who came to this country to escape religious persecution first caused a great, deal of trouble for the Massachusetts Puritans; then, having played some part in the Revolutionary War, became ambassador to England, signed the Ostend Manifesto, and later was Vice-president under Cleveland and a member of Harrison’s cabinet. Still more remarkable was the life of Seward. A radical Abolitionist of New York, he served some time in the House and the Senate, besides one term as governor of Ohio, became a strong advocate of slavery, and went to Texas as the leader of the United States troops. He was secretary of war, the treasury and state under Jefferson, Lincoln and Johnson and finally bought Alaska, known since as ‘Seward’s Folly.’

Longer and even more romantic was the career of a certain John Marshall as here delineated by various hands. Having signed the Declaration of Independence, he served as minister to France and England, as a member of the cabinets of Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, and Hayes, some thirty or thirty-five years as chief justice of the Supreme Court, became the leader of a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, and finally was elected Vice-president under McKinley, Taft, and Wilson, which last position he still occupies, — and, with his experience of a century and a half of the Republic, is of more than ordinary value to the administration, without doubt. In view of such a career as this on the part of a political opponent it is no wonder that ‘The Scientific Republicans are anctious of a prosperity and mostly of a progress but the business Republicans are endeavoring to establish a more stronger Trust,’ or that they, too, may have come to regard a plebiscite as a ‘deceitful method of gaining popularity with the people.’