Harvard and Beyond: Boyhood and Youth

I

IN l884, when I was nineteen years old, I went to Harvard from that small Quaker college, Haverford. In this translation, I was still following in the footsteps of my aspiring elder sister, who had awakened my taste for literature, who had brought Walt Whitman to our house, and who had now decided to leave Smith College for the superior feminine institution which had recently been founded in the shade of America’s oldest and most famous university. My sister’s upward flights, though never unaccompanied by swarms of wooers, were inspired by a genuine ardor for intellectual things, and she was bent on applying her excellent young mind to the study of philosophy.

This philosophic interest had been, I will not say awakened, but certainly enhanced by an incident which happened in the summer of 1883, and which was destined to have a considerable influence on her life, and on that of all our family, including my own. In the summer of this year the British Association met in Canada, and many of its members toured the United States, and came in due course to Philadelphia, whose citizens were requested to open their houses for the entertainment of these visitors from abroad. Five of them were allotted by the local committee to us, and came to stay at our house in Germantown, and of these five, three fell at once in love with my sister.

One of them was a professor of some distinction at an Irish university, and one a don at Christ Church. The third was a young London barrister of Irish origin, a Balliol graduate and favorite pupil of Benjamin Jowett’s. Though a fervent Roman Catholic, he had somehow reconciled his beliefs with the Hegelianism then current at Oxford. Much would he talk of Balliol College and of its revered Master, Benjamin Jowett, who had prophesied for him a shining future; of T. H. Green, and Arnold Toynbee and Toynbee Hall and its new philanthropy; of English Liberalism and its great leader Gladstone; and of the great radical, Joe Chamberlain, under whose banner it was his hope and purpose to march to triumph for the great causes he had espoused. This triumph was, we were given to understand, to be accompanied by fame and beneficent power for himself. These great names, the names of T. H. Green, and Jowett, of Arnold Toynbee and Gladstone and Joe Chamberlain, awake somewhat ironic echoes as I now repeat them; but then, at least in our remote environment, they sounded like the names of heroes shouted from afar.

It is no wonder, therefore, that to this music my aspiring sister would seriously incline her ears — ears which afterwards she came to think of as having been at that time somewhat gullible organs of audition. The middle-aged professor, the middle-aged don from Christ Church, had no spells like these to weave; they soon faded away across the Atlantic; but the aspiring barrister’s suggestion, which he urged with passionate eloquence upon my sister, that she should become his partner and fellow fighter in this great contemporary effort to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to earth, in England — this shining prospect began more and more to engage her grave attention. What impressed her most, and struck her as indeed momentous and imposing, was the broad and deep foundations upon which this proposed New Jerusalem was to be founded — this splendid castle of his evocation, on whose high towers she was invited to build with him their eagle’s nest.

Nothing less fundamental could have satisfied her; modern philosophy and modern science had shaken, she felt, her belief in the old evangelical explanation of the universe; but now to be assured, to be half-convinced by this accomplished dialectician, that on the very philosophy, the very science, which had daunted her he could, by sounding to the bottom of their darkest abysses, find a foundation, and build up for her anew the great edifice of faith, and thus restore to her those great watchwords, ‘God,’ ‘Duty,’ and ‘Immortality,’ which were, he added, requisite for her salvation and the salvation of the human race; that he could moreover show her all this as eternally riveted on the firm basis of the ancient and Catholic universal Church — this was indeed a high-flying courtship and a splendid wooing, and she was profoundly impressed by the prospect.

Only to soar into so exalted a region it would be necessary, she felt, for her to expand and exercise her intellectual wings; she must, in fact, study philosophy with more attention, and for that study Harvard, with its famous philosophers, Royce and William James and Professor Palmer, was obviously the place. So from Smith College my sister transferred herself to Cambridge, and, as I have said, I followed in her train. This migration was the more easily effected owing to William James’s friendship with my parents; he was an admirer of my mother’s religious writings; he had enlisted my father’s assistance in the formation of an American Society for Psychical Research, and had more than once stayed with us in Germantown when he came to Philadelphia in connection with this work. It was, I think, by his arrangement that lodgings were found in the comfortable home of two elderly Cambridge maiden ladies; and a new chapter in our lives began.

Though my sister and I lodged together, we led our lives in complete disassociation. She began at once her philosophic studies; and at once, for it was her fate, the only professor who was willing to instruct her joined himself in a headlong fashion to the band of her wooers, and began to endeavor, by displaying another metaphysic, to replace in her thoughts, and ultimately at the matrimonial altar, the London barrister with whom, as he knew, she was engaged at that time in a correspondence which much occupied her mind. While this philosophic and yet passionate drama, in which I did not take the slightest interest, was proceeding, was in fact, I may say, raging, — and the word is not too strong, for the professor’s eager courtship of a young woman who attended his lectures did more honor to his temperament than credit to the chair he occupied, — while all this was going on, I became more and more absorbed in the pleasant social life of Harvard.

My father had given me a generous allowance. I had already a few acquaintances who belonged to what was considered a good set among the undergraduates, and was elected a member of several of those societies and fraternities and clubs which play, or played, so important a part in Harvard life. I have now forgotten the names of these foolish associations, but my pleasure at my election to them I can still recall. It was in the essence a snobbish pleasure; why should I boggle at the word? Indeed the atmosphere of Harvard was at that time — whether it has changed since then I do not know — richly colored by the sense of social differences. The admiration for prestige possessed by members of the most exclusive clubs, the delight of being seen in their company, and the hope of being admitted into their select circles — these were the animating motives of life at Harvard as I knew it; and the democratic principles I had learned from Walt Whitman were of little avail against this atmosphere of social aspiration. That there was an intellectual set at Harvard of much greater interest than the foolish world in which I was, after all, little more than an outsider, that there were young men of intelligence and high promise among my contemporaries, I had not the slightest notion. I was indeed hardly worthy at that time of the notice of intellectuals like Santayana and Berenson, who were at Harvard with me, though I became acquainted with them only in after years.

I actually sat beside my present brother-in-law, Berenson, at a course of William James’s lectures, but no communication passed between us, and it was not till long afterwards, when he had married my elder sister, that we began that series of confabulations to which I owe so much. For my parents’ sake William James did, however, befriend their callow offspring, and I was often invited to his hospitable house. I need not try to describe the charm of the most charming man I ever met; Ralph Perry has performed that task in his admirable biography, but I may perhaps add a touch to his account of that free and spontaneous spirit by repeating an anecdote he related to me one night, telling me that I might repeat it anywhere but in Cambridge.

He had gone, he told me, by tram that afternoon to Boston; and as he sat and meditated in the Cambridge horse-tram two strains of thought had occupied his mind. One of these was the notion, which Mrs. James had derived from the perusal of Kipling’s writings, that our civil order, that all the graces and amenities of our social life, had for their ultimate sanction nothing but force, however much we might disguise it — the naked fist, in fact, the blow of the sword, the crack of the pistol, or the smoke and roar of guns. Superimposed upon this meditation began to recur, with greater and greater persistence, the memory of certain remarks of his brother Henry, when, on a recent visit to America, he had indignantly protested against the outrageous pertness of the American child and the meek pusillanimity with which the older generation suffered the behavior of their children without protest.

It was not long, William James said, before he became aware of what had aroused this second line of thought; it was the droning sound which filled the horse-tram — the voice, in fact, of an American child, who was squeaking over and over again an endless, shrill, monotonous singsong. Growing more and more irritated by this squeaking, William James resolved that he at least would not suffer it without protest; so, addressing the mother of the vocal infant, he said politely, ‘I think, madam, you can hardly be aware that your child’s song is a cause of annoyance to the rest of us in this tram.’ The lady thus addressed paid no attention; but a gallant American, who heard it, turned on him and said with great indignation, ’How dare you, sir, address a lady in this ungentlemanly fashion!’ At this insult William James, recalling the doctrine of naked force which his wife had impressed upon him, replied with manly promptness, ‘Sir, if you repeat that remark, I shall slap your face.’ The remark, to his consternation, was repeated, and the professor was compelled to make good his word. The slap was conscientiously administered; the occupants of the tram arose in indignation, pressing their cards upon the victim of the assault, and protesting their willingness to be witnesses at any legal proceedings which might ensue. Then they all sat down; and as the tram clattered along through the dust towards Boston, with the child still shrilly singing, the grave burden of the public disapproval which William James had encountered became almost more, he said, than he could bear.

He looked from hostile face to hostile face longing for some sign of sympathy and comprehension, and fixed at last all his hopes on a lady who had taken no part in the uproar, and whose appearance suggested foreign travels perhaps, or at any rate a wider point of view. He felt that she at least understood the motive of his action; and so great was his longing for sympathy that when at last the tram reached Boston and they all got out he committed the error of trying to make sure of her approbation. ‘You, madam,’ he said, addressing her, ‘you, I feel sure, will understand . . .’ Thereupon the lady drew back from him and exclaimed, ‘You brute!’

I may add here another anecdote of William James, for when I name that enchanting person it is difficult to dismiss him with no further mention. Some years later, when our family was at last established abroad, he came to stay with us in Sussex, and declared his desire to spend a summer in England and experience the joys of English country life. My father thereupon obtained a list of country houses to be let in our neighborhood, and orders to view them, and drove William James to see one after the other. This inspection he carried on with the utmost care, examining each house from attic to cellar, allotting the various rooms to be occupied by the various members of his family.

When this process was over, and he returned to our house to dinner, he genially remarked, ‘I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all the trouble you have taken; I have had my summer in England, and now we go abroad.’

II

While we were at Harvard, Edmund Gosse came to Boston to deliver the Lowell Lectures; my sister and many of the Harvard intellectuals went religiously to listen to the utterance of this English writer, whose name was familiar to us all. Of these lectures I have forgotten everything except one pregnant sentence, in which the name of Botticelli first echoed in our ears. ‘Botticelli,’ the lecturer said, in that cultivated ‘English accent’ which was music to us, ‘Botticelli, that name which is an open-sesame to the most select, the most distinguished, the most exclusive circles of European culture.’

The effect of these words upon us was magical. What longings it aroused in us, what delicious provincial aspirations for a world fairer than the world we lived in — for exquisite remote European things! It was the song the Sirens sang, it was the voice of the Muses that Thamyris heard, it was almost the voice that summoned Saint Paul to a higher life as he journeyed to Damascus. Would Fate, we deliciously wondered, ever vouchsafe to us to enunciate those syllables of sweet magic and thus win admission to those far-away bright circles of European culture, circles as heavenly in our provincial eyes as those circling rings of angels seen in great Italian pictures? Among that audience, although my sister and I did not know him at the time, was the future art critic, Berenson, who, he has told us since, went at once and bought himself a reproduction of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera.’

Life is an ironic thing, and when years afterwards I recalled to Edmund Gosse the words which he had pronounced long ago in Boston, he told me that his principal association with the name of Botticelli at that time was connected with a cat, which was then by its mewings causing considerable annoyance in his household. There had been a joke in Punch about an æsthete who, when shown a picture attributed to Botticelli, had denied its authenticity on the ground that he was always dumb in the presence of a work of that master. So the Gosses had purchased a photograph of an unquestioned picture by Botticelli, and pinned it up by the basket of this cat, in the hope — which proved a vain one — of silencing its voice.

I have spoken of the effect upon me of Walt Whitman’s poems; I fell at Harvard (for my time there was not utterly wasted) under the influence of another writer, Matthew Arnold. When I now think of Matthew Arnold, I am oppressed by a sense of sadness. The exquisite poet who so soon abandoned poetry; the supreme critic whose best criticism is so scanty; the beautiful stylist and great writer who wasted the energy of his best years in dull official routine; the advocate of Hellenism and sweet reasonableness who soon gave himself up to angry recrimination, and who, whether owing to exasperation with his contemporaries or to some arrogant streak in his own nature, more and more abandoned that serene aloofness from contemporary conflicts which had been his ideal, and adopted a pose of aggressive, self-satisfied contempt, and a harsh browbeating style full of derisive catchwords!

When I read again the best writings of Matthew Arnold I find in them the expression of the most truly enlightened spirit among the great Victorians, the most humane, the most European and least provincial of all English authors, whose outlook is still our outlook, who still speaks to us with contemporary accents. But fifty years ago it was that more controversial Matthew Arnold who aroused my young enthusiasm. His aggressive warfare with the Philistines delighted me; I rejoiced in his ridicule of the evangelical religion and dissent in which I had been nourished, and what delighted me most of all was his attribution of an arrogant superiority, an exclusive kind of distinction, to that culture, that sweetness and light, which now for the flimsiest reasons I believed that I had attained. But it was not only the attainment of culture for oneself, but the diffusion of it, which Matthew Arnold preached, and this part of his doctrine was most of all an inspiration to me.

I belonged by family traditions to the philanthropic world; from the American atmosphere and from the conversations and the writings of Walt Whitman I had absorbed democratic principles that floated vaguely — as such principles can easily float without conflict — side by side with my more exclusive proclivities, and above all with this ideal of cultural uplift, as it would now be called. I found that I could gild with a finer gold than that of dollars my future commercial prospects. I imagined myself as returning, when I entered the family business, to my birthplace amid its furnaces in New Jersey, to diffuse among those raw and illiberal workmen a love of true culture, a passion for things of the mind, and a desire to learn the best that is known and thought in the world. I saw myself a picturesque, a somewhat pathetic figure (for the children of light arc lonely in this world and are almost always persecuted by it), awakening in these unenlightened employees of my family their more delicate and spiritual perceptions, and by a most happy combination of circumstances drawing all the while a large income from my activities among them.

Thus Matthew Arnold’s oft-repeated watchwords of ‘culture,’ ‘sweetness and light,’ and ‘warfare against the Philistines’ were words of enchantment in my cars; and another doctrine of his, that of ‘many-sided culture,’ served usefully also to justify and ennoble the extremely many-sided, not to say miscellaneous studies — if they may be called studies — which engaged a small part of my attention during my sojourn at Harvard.

Following the example and enjoying the companionship of my gay and unstudious companions, I fell in with the strange custom which then prevailed at that university (things are changed now for the better, I believe) of attending miscellaneous and perfectly unrelated lecture courses — courses recommended more for what was called their ‘softness’ than for any other reason; going to lectures, for instance, at the same time on Dante and Meteorology, on Homer and on the practice of philanthropy, and other unrelated subjects. If this was perhaps a strange method of acquiring the many-sided culture Matthew Arnold recommended, its strangeness never occurred to me, nor was it ever suggested by any of my instructors.

I perceive that I got almost nothing of intellectual value from Harvard University. It was my fault, no doubt; if I had been a real student, I should have found genuine instruction. But, for all my assumption of superiority, the crudeness of my mind at the age of twenty wakens amazement in me. Though I read the works of Matthew Arnold, I gave equal or perhaps more serious attention to the literature of Theosophy, and was inclined to believe that the key to the problem of existence was to be found, if I could only grasp it, in a little book of Rosicrucian doctrine over which I used to pore for hours. My sister, with her superior philosophic light, scorned my Rosicrucian speculations, but she herself visited at this time, with the intention of studying her doctrine, the famous female prophet, Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy; nor was she much better able than I to discriminate between all the various names — Botticelli and Benjamin Jowett and Mrs. Eddy and Matthew Arnold and Gladstone and William James and the Rosy Cross — which sounded in our ears.

III

I detect in myself a tendency to sentimentalize over these early years of my existence. It is not that I wish to recall my youth. It is rather that I feel a kind of impatient pity for that half-baked young fool of an American boy about whom I have been writing. No, I have no regrets for youth. Gladly would I go on living at my present age, and with my present interests, for uncounted years. To become young again would seem to me an appalling prospect. Youth, intellectually considered, is a kind of delirium, which can only be cured, if it is ever cured at all, by years of painful treatment.

The debt of our civilization to the ancient Greeks is of course beyond all calculation, but in one respect we have no cause to thank them. Their adoration of the youthful human form, in contrast to the Eastern idealization of venerable age, has put a kind of blight on human life; our progress, as we grow older, in wisdom and humanity is thought of in terms of the physical decay which accompanies that luminous advance. We feel ashamed, instead of feeling proud, like the Chinese, of our accumulating years; we are always trying in vain to seem younger than we really are; and in our Western world it is by no means a compliment, as it is in the wiser East, to attribute to others a greater age than their appearance might suggest.

When I think of that brother and sister fifty years ago at Harvard, — endowed, it may be, with the grace of youth, but full otherwise of ignorance and folly, — I cannot but prize more highly our present state. Our bodies, it is true, are aching bodies, and our bones are ripening for their ultimate repose, but how small a price, after all, is that to pay for the knowledge we have acquired of the world and men, for the splendid panorama of literature and the arts which years of travel and study have unrolled before us, and above all for those adequate conceptions in whose possession, according to Spinoza’s wisdom, true felicity consists.

(To be concluded)