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Chapter 15: Academic life in Cambridge

There exists abundant evidence, to which the present writer can add personal testimony, in regard to Longfellow's success as an organizer of his immediate department of Harvard University and in dealing with his especial classes. He was assigned, for some reason, a room in University Hall which was also employed for faculty meetings, and was therefore a little less dreary than the ordinary class-room of those days. It seemed most appropriate that an instructor of Longfellow's well-bred aspect and ever-courteous manners should simply sit at the head of the table with his scholars, as if they were guests, instead of putting between him and them the restrictive demarcation of a teacher's desk. We read with him, I remember, first the little book he edited, ‘Proverbes Dramatiques,’ and afterwards something of Racine and Moliere, in which his faculty of finding equivalent phrases was an admirable example for us. When afterwards, during an abortive rebellion in the college yard, the students who had refused to [177] listen to others yielded to the demand of their ringleader, ‘Let us hear Professor Longfellow; he always treats us like gentlemen,’ the youthful rebel unconsciously recognized a step forward in academical discipline. Longfellow did not cultivate us much personally, or ask us to his house, but he remembered us and acknowledged our salutations. He was, I think, the first Harvard instructor who addressed the individual student with the prefix ‘Mr.’ I recall the clearness of his questions, the simplicity of his explanations, the well-bred and skilful propriety with which he led us past certain indiscreet phrases in our French authors, as for instance in Balzac's ‘Peau de Chagrin.’ Most of all comes back to memory the sense of triumph with which we saw the proof-sheets of ‘Voices of the Night’ brought in by the printer's devil and laid at his elbow. We felt that we also had lived in literary society, little dreaming, in our youthful innocence, how large a part of such society would prove far below the standard of courtesy that prevailed in Professor Longfellow's recitation room.

Yet the work of this room was, in those days of dawning changes, but a small part of the function of a professor. Longfellow was, both by inclination and circumstances, committed to the reform initiated by his predecessor, George [178] Ticknor. He had inherited from this predecessor a sort of pioneer-ship in position relative to the elective system just on trial as an experiment in college. There exists an impression in some quarters that this system came in for the first time under President Walker about 1853; but it had been, as a matter of fact, tried much earlier,—twenty years, at least,—in the Modern Language Department under Ticknor, and had been extended much more widely in 1839 under President Quincy. The facts are well known to me, as I was in college at that period and enjoyed the beneficent effects of the change, since it placed the whole college, in some degree, for a time at least, on a university basis. The change took the form, first, of a discontinuance of mathematics as a required study after the first year, and then the wider application of the elective system in history, natural history, and the classics, this greater liberty being enjoyed, though with some reaction, under President Everett, and practically abolished about 1849 under President Sparks, when what may be called the High School system was temporarily restored. An illustration of this reactionary tendency may be found in a letter addressed by Longfellow to the President and Fellows, placing him distinctly on the side of freedom of choice. The circumstances are these: Students had for some time been [179] permitted to take more than one modern language among the electives, and I myself, before receiving my degree of A. B. in 1841, had studied two such languages simultaneously for three years of college course. It appears, however, from the following letter, that this privilege had already been reduced to one such language, and that Longfellow was at once found remonstrating against it, though at first ineffectually.

Cambridge, June 24, 1845.
Gentlemen,—In arranging the studies for the next year, the Faculty have voted, as will be seen from the enclosed Tabular view, that ‘no student will be allowed to take more than one Modern Language at a time, except for special reasons assigned, & by express vote of the Faculty.’

You will see that this is the only Department upon which any bar or prohibition is laid. And when the decision was made, the Latin & Greek Departments were allowed two votes each, & the Department of Modern Languages but one vote.

As I foresaw at the time, this arrangement has proved very disadvantageous to the Department, & has reduced the number of pupils, at once, more than one half. During this year the whole number of students in the Department [180] has been 224. The applications for the next term do not amount to 100; nor, when all have been received, can it reach 110. I therefore, Gentlemen, appeal to you, for your interference in this matter, requesting that the restriction may be removed, & this Department put upon the footing of the others in this particular. Otherwise, I fear that as at present organized, it cannot exist another year.

I have the honor to be,

Gentlemen, your ob'dt servant

[Addressed externally to the President and Fellows of Harvard College.]

[Report of Committee.]

Corporation of Harvard College, July 26, 1845.
The Committee to whom was referred the Memorial of Professor Longfellow on the subject of the arrangement of the studies of the undergraduates by the faculty of the College, & desiring that the restriction as to the number of modern languages that may be studied at once should be removed, have attended to the subject, & ask leave to report, that they have, in common with the other members of the Corporation already considered the general subject of the [181] arrangement of the studies of the undergraduates, with especial reference to the recommendations of the board of overseers; & that they were convinced by the examination of the details they made at that time that the business of ordering the times & the amount of study & recitation for the young men at Cambridge is not only a very complicated & difficult affair, but one which is in the hands of those best qualified, & considering all their relations, most truly interested to lead the students to give as much labor as is safe for them to the studies suitable to College years, & to distribute it in such manner as shall be most just & effective. The committee would not feel themselves authorized to change one part of a system, all the parts, of which are intricately dependent upon each other, without they felt a confidence they do not possess that they could recommend one which should I work better as a whole. They therefore must decline, so far as depends upon them, adopting a measure the ulterior effects of which they may not foresee with accuracy, & they express the belief that it will be well to allow the present arrangement to continue for a time, even at the risk, apprehended by Prof. Longfellow, of its producing an injurious effect upon his department. They cannot but hope, however, that the evils le fears may be avoided, or [182] if not, that they may be compensated by equivalent advantages.

A year later than the above correspondence, the subject was evidently revived on the part of the governing powers of the College, and we find the following letter from Professor Longfellow:—

Cambridge, Sept. 25, 1846.
dear Sir,—In answer to your favor of the 18th inst. requesting my opinion on certain points connected with the Studies of the University, I beg leave to state;

I. In regard to the ‘advantages and disadvantages of the Elective System.’ In my own department I have always been strongly in favor of this system. I have always thought that the modern languages should be among the voluntary or elective studies and form no part of the required Academic course. As to the Latin and Greek. I have many doubts; but incline rather to the old system, particularly if the fifth class can be added to the present course; for we could then secure the advantages of both systems.

II. The class examinations in my department are very slight and unsatisfactory. They serve however as a kind of Annual Report of [183] what has been done in the department; and as there is nothing depending upon them, it does not seem to me a matter of very urgent necessity to have them rendered more thorough.

III. ‘The Fifth class or New Department in the University’ seems to me of the greatest importance, as it would enable us to carry forward the studies of each department much farther than at present, by means of Lectures, for which there is now hardly sufficient opportunity. Last year there were fifteen Resident Graduates. Why should not these have formed the Fifth Class?

IV. In regard to the ‘practical working of any other of the changes made in our system during the last twenty years,’ I can hardly claim any distinct views. Many, perhaps most of them were made before I came to the University; so that I hardly know what is old and what is new.

I have made but a brief statement in answer to your enquiries, partly because writing is a painful process with me, and partly because many things here touched upon can be more clearly explained vive voce than with the pen.

I remain, with great regard

Faithfully Yours


It is a curious fact that more than half a century later, at a meeting of the American Modern Language Association, held at the very institution where this correspondence took place, it was President Charles William Eliot, son of the author of the letter just quoted, who recognized the immense advance made in this particular department as one of the most important steps in the progress of the University. His remarks were thus reported in the Boston Herald of December 27, 1901:—

When the meeting opened yesterday afternoon President Eliot was present and graciously said a few words of welcome. He said that he knew of no body of modern learned men whom he would be so glad to welcome as the professors of language.

“Here at Harvard,” he said,

we have been pressing forward for many years toward the same object you have in view. I congratulate you upon the great progress made in the last thirty years. One of the most striking features of American education has been the rapid development of the study of languages. It has been more rapid at some of the other colleges than at Harvard. They started at nothing a shorter time ago. [Laughter.]

You are to be congratulated upon the cohesion which exists among learned men in [185] dealing with this important subject. The study of modern languages is beginning to connect itself with the life of the nation. It no bears a real connection to national life and interest. No great subject in educational thought ever obtained a firm hold that had not some modern connection with the day. I do not overlook the literary element in the study of modern languages, but you will have a stronger hold for the next twenty years than you have in the past, wing to this use of modern languages in daily life, incident to the industrial and commercial activity of the country.

It is always to be borne in mind that Longfellow's self-restrained and well-ordered temperarent habitually checked him in the career of innovator. Both in public and private matters, it was his way to state his point of view and then await results. It is clear that his mental habit, hi foreign experience, and the traditions of his immediate department predisposed him to favor the elective system in university training. This system, after temporary trial and abandonment, was now being brought forward once more and was destined this time to prevail. Towards this success, the prosperity of the Modern Language Department formed a perpetual argument, because it was there that the reform was first introduced. The records of the Faculty at that [186] period give very little information as to the attitude of individual professors, and Longfellow may be viewed as having been for the most part a silent reformer. One finds, however, constant evidence in his diaries of the fact that his duties wore upon him. ‘I get very tired of the routine of this life.’ ‘This college work is like a great hand laid on all the strings of my lyre, stopping their vibrations.’ ‘How the days resemble each other and how sad it is to me that I cannot give them all to my poem.’ ‘have fallen into a very unpoetic mood and cannot write.’ It must be remembered that his eyes were at this time very weak, that he suffered extremely from neuralgia, and that these entries were all made during the great fugitive slave excitement which agitated New England, and the political overturn in Massachusetts which culminated in the election of the poet's most intimate friend, Sumner, to the United States Senate. He records the occurrence of his forty-fourth birthday, and soon after when he is stereotyping the ‘Golden Legend’ he says: ‘I still work a good deal upon it,’ but also writes, only two days after, ‘Working hard with college classes to have them ready for their examinations.’ A fortnight later he says: ‘Examination in my department; always to me a day of anguish and exhaustion.’ His correspondence is very [187] large; visitors and dinner parties constantly increase. His mother dies suddenly, and he sits all night alone by her dead body, a sense of peace comes over him, as if there had been no shock or jar in nature, but a ‘harmonious close to a long life.’ Later he gets tired of summer rest at Nahant, which he calls ‘building up life with solid blocks of idleness;’ but when two days later he goes back to Cambridge to resume his duties, he records: ‘I felt my neck bow and the pressure of the yoke.’ Soon after he says: ‘I find no time to write. I find more and more the little things of life shut out the great. Innumerable interruptions—letters of application for this and for that; endless importunities of foreigners for help here and help there—fret the day and consume it.’ He often records having half a dozen men to dine with him; he goes to the theatre, to lectures, concerts, and balls, has no repose, and perhaps, as we have seen at Nahant, would not really enjoy it. It was under these conditions, however, that the ‘Golden Legend’ came into the world in November, 1851; and it was not until September 12, 1854, that its author was finally separated from the University. He was before that date happily at work on ‘Hiawatha.’

1 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. XIII. 363.

2 Harvard College Papers [Ms.], 2d ser. XIII. 13.

3 Harvard College Papers [Mss.], 2d ser. XIV. 61.

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