Horton and the University

IN a marginal notation in my highschool text on the history of English literature were the words ‘At Horton.’ The reference was to John Milton and those five years after he left Cambridge when ‘to the outward view he was all but idle, merely turning over the Greek and Latin classics in a long holiday,’ but when ‘really he was hard at work preparing himself,’ and so on. To a farm girl whose chores were forever in the way of her reading, here was Utopia. I announced forthwith that some day I was going to have a Horton period. Mother hoped I might. She knew well my pathetic attempts at combining a Horton period with churning and the resultant slowing of the tempo of the old barrel churn.

From high school I went on to the state university. My reading there was good, but not Hortonic in scope. Too many courses cluttered up my days and nights. And it was much the same after I finished school and commenced teaching. My days were spent in administering courses and my nights in checking up on the efficacy of the administration. The old hunger for time off to read gnawed more acutely with my growing consciousness of the awful gaps in my education. Then after four years I decided to go to a great Middle-Western university, notably hospitable to graduate students, there to begin the process of stopping gaps.

I arrived at the university with the preconceived idea of taking a bit of French, some history, perhaps, for background, and one English course, allowing, I thought, much time for my unexplored classics — those books on which I could so glibly comment and of which I knew so pitiably little firsthand. Horton was at last coming into view — its green pastures of learning, its quiet waters of meditation. With the staff of hope, I, literary pilgrim, sought entrance to a promised land through a door marked ‘Graduate students register here.’ The gatekeeper asked, ‘What department?’ His use of the singular was so matter-of-fact in its exclusiveness that I hesitated to explain the catholicity of my tastes and stammered meekly, ‘English.’ Thereupon I was ushered to a seat before the director of graduate work in English literature.

Of just what took place during that interview I have but a hazy idea. I know that somehow I was made to understand that my way lay along a well-defined course toward a Master of Arts degree. I was troubled, and protested, but my defenses crumbled under the weight of university opinion as voiced by that professor. Horton receded into the distance. I knew I was going wrong, but there was no turning back. And the path I took led me straight to a Master’s degree, with which embellishment I left the university in June.

Well, of course, in that graduate study I read much, and some of the disconcerting gaps were filled. But, oh, the precious hours I spent in poring over obscure volumes which I knew had no vital connection with my literary needs! In my sanest, most honest moments I rebelled. Yet with that powerful argument for research, that in my humble way I was contributing to the great background of world knowledge, the rebellion was quelled. And so mesmeric was the effect of this argument that I should have been completely and contentedly under its spell had not financial necessity pulled me back to a job.

I suppose I get a human sort of satisfaction out of that degree. I have marched each spring in an academic procession with a Master’s hood hanging down my back and with arms emerging from the halfway point of the sleeves of my Master’s gown. But this scholastic distinction does n’t carry me far from a feeling of resentment at the sacrifice made for that hood and those sleeves. Was it for this that I had missed Horton?

Eight years have elapsed, and again I am Horton-bound. It chances that I am again in the neighborhood of my Alma Mater. Surely this can be no disadvantage. Think of her libraries — of her stimulating contacts. It is mid-term; I’ll not be lured into courses.

On the day of my arrival I lunched at the Graduate Club, and there met the librarian of the university’s rare-book room. She made polite inquiries about my work — in what field did it lie? It was the old challenge, and it evoked that same old response — apology and embarrassment at being classed as a trifler by the university world. I gulped down a bite of salad, and then with all the courage I could muster announced my reading programme.

‘Oh!’ She was silent for only a moment. Such a proposal was not to be taken seriously, I suppose. At any rate, with beautiful disregard of it, she came back with six distinct plans for use of material in her domain — research that I could easily turn into semi-popular literary articles. Academically I knew her plans were both workable and interesting. I confess to glowing a bit at the possibilities. But right there I took firm hold of fancy and let reason make a reckoning. There would be hours of poring over manuscripts of old unpublished plays. I made a mental retreat. Horton did not lie in that direction.

After lunch I went to the library, got a reader’s card, drew out two books, and wandered up to a manuscript exhibit. I recognized in one of the exhibitors an acquaintance of graduatestudy days. She had news of old associates who were carrying on. Her work as manuscript reader in a great editing project involved fascinating problems.

As I listened I felt a stir. Again the burrowing of the academic mole! And what was I doing? What was the use? I excused myself hastily.

‘But you’ll be having a desk in the graduate room soon.’

I murmured something about that being no place for me. In my confusion I may even have mentioned Horton. No hurt if I did, for by that time I was in full retreat, clutching determinedly my two ‘gap’ volumes and scuttling off to my room, fifteen blocks removed from those academic walls.

That night I dug out the old textbook and reread the paragraph about Horton. There was the memorable sentence: ‘To the outward view he was all but idle.’ There was something I had forgotten about woods and brimming streams, but ‘communion with lofty spirits’ was the main idea, and the ‘apparent leisure.’ To be sure, Horton was a village, definitely apart from Cambridge. But my Horton — it’s just a quiet literary environment. Why can’t I enter it through university gates without being harassed by the everrecurrent ‘How does it feel to be a lady of leisure?’ and without being turned away shamed by a sense of intellectual unworthiness because I am not doing research — no, nor yet taking a single course?