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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1892 Letter

William Pierce Shepard

Delivered June 1942

After the vivid, multi-colored description of the College days of the Class of 1891, drawn by the annalist of that class with a wit and charm that I cannot hope to equal, little remains for the annalist of the Class of 1892 except to “abound in his sense” or to “take an exception.” I intend to do the latter — which will be quite in keeping with the relation between the Class of 1891 and 1892 of 50 years ago. We were sure that we were as different from the Class of 1891 as chalk is from cheese. On the whole, we were rather proud of it. Moreover, we acknowledge, regretfully, that, just as we were out of tune with them, our elders, then, so now we no longer feel in harmony with the newer, bigger (and better?) world we now live in. It is a different and dangerous world, rocked by bombs and lit by the fires of burning cities. It has passed beyond our control. It tells us in the words of one of its younger poets:

Turn out the lights around the statues.
Unlock the vaults of unhewn stone; put down
An order for new men… You built a world we could not use;
You planned a course that ended in disaster;
Your time is up. The curtain’s down. We take power.

We of the generation of the 1890s have no answer to that; we bow our heads and submit.

Revenons a nos moutons. Back in those days, classes were different from one another. They varied. Each one was integrated, “class-conscious,” with a personality of its own, just as we shall see that the professors and students had personalities too. Each class felt itself a unit; each had its own Greek motto, kindly supplied us by the gracious Professor North. Parenthetically, I have often wondered if “Old Greek” were not gently spoofing us when he gave us our motto: HEMEIS PANTA ORTHOI, which is, to say the least, ambiguous. Besides, we had our own class colors — ours were mahogany and blue, and our own class yell. All that produced a feeling of solidarity, which, it seems to me, is lacking in the classes of the present day.

So it appeared to us right and proper that the Class of 1892 should be different from the Class of 1891. Let me recover, if I can a few of those faint, far-off distinctions which seemed so vital at the time, but which now have faded into a common twilight. In the first place, unlike the Class of 1891, we were more studious than sportive. The Class of 1891 never had a high honor student till its senior year. The Class of 1892 had at least seven every year and at graduation 10 — still a record in the scholarship annals of the College. But how time has taken toll of that group of “boners!” Only one of their number is left. Exactly what that proves is hard to say. Maybe it is just another illustration of the old adage that “The good die first.” Maybe it means that brawn lives longer than brains. Maybe it is a solemn warning against studying too hard. Right here we see another difference between the two classes — their comparative mortality. We numbered 40 at graduation. Of these only 11 survive today. The Class of 1891, with only 25 at graduation, still had 19 living a year ago. Possibly that is another proof that the good die first, though it would be discourteous to say so.

Last year the annalist of the Class of 1891 gave us a picturesque and striking description of the physical environment of the Hamilton student in the early 1890s, his discomforts and inconveniences, as compared to the luxuries of today. He did not exaggerate — much — but he did forget one thing: that we were not conscious of the “primitive and punitive” conditions in which we lived. Why should we have been? Most of us came from homes where the heating, lighting, furniture and plumbing were no better and no worse than those we found here in college.

Less easy to describe than those bleak winter winds that beat upon our unprotected bodies, but more lasting in their effects, were the intellectual and spiritual currents that stirred the air and touched our young, but essentially Victorian minds. In this respect, the College of the 1890s was showing, like nearly all America of that time, the effect of what has been called a “cultural lag.” It is difficult now to realize that we undergraduates of that time, so naïve, so Victorian, were the exact contemporaries of our French and English fellows like G.K. Chesterton, who has so well-expressed in verse the prevailing mood in the Oxford and Paris of that time:

A cloud was on the mind of men and wailing went the weather;
Yea, a sick cloud was on the soul when we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity, and art admired decay…
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.

We were not like those English and French boys; we did not even know the meaning of such words as “decadence” or fin de siècle. That kind of soul-sickness did come upon the American undergraduate in the 1920s, and he has not quite worked free of it yet. This illustration will suffice, I think, to indicate what I mean by a “cultural lag.” That we were better for not being exposed to that form of “culture” I shall not deny.

The lag showed in other ways, too. Last year an eminent historian, Jacques Barzun, published a book on the three writers of the 19th century whose influence — for evil as he thinks — has been the most profound and lasting. The three are Darwin, Marx and Wagner. They were all dead by 1892 and their ideas were marching on, but had scarcely reached this hillside. Of the three, most of us knew of Darwin only as an Englishman who said that men were descended from monkeys. I doubt if any of you had ever heard of Marx. Even though we sometimes debated socialism, it was the mild rose-colored socialism of Morris and Bellamy. Such Marxian terms as “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “economic determinism” were unknown to us. Only the few students really interested in music knew the name of Wagner. Of the other great movements in the world of art and letters, Naturalism, Symbolism, Impressionism, we were totally ignorant.

The curriculum of that day was in a curious intermediate stage. Five years before we entered, a moderate program of elective subjects for upperclassmen had been established, breaking for the first time in the history of the College the rigid schedule of required studies. So we were as students in a halfway state, neither bound nor free. Even so, the curriculum of that day as compared with the present one seems scanty and deficient. Art simply did not exist as a subject worthy of serious study and capable of being taught. It should be remembered, however, that at that time art did not enter into the consciousness of 90 percent of all Americans. Architecture was an eyesore, sculpture meant Roger’s groups, painting was either immoral or feminine, frequently both. Music was in a somewhat different case, but not so far as the College was concerned. We did have choirs, glee clubs, banjo clubs, other musical organizations, all directed and maintained by the students themselves, without aid or guidance from the faculty. So with dramatics. When we wanted to put on a play, we did it all ourselves, casting, drill, costuming, staging, everything.

Science was in somewhat better repute with the authorities than art; but even so Hamilton still showed a considerable lag. Biology was entirely ignored, till the coming of Professor Morrill in our senior year. His first biological laboratory was a vacant room in North College, to which he brought his own microscope and other instruments. Here, parenthetically, let me remark that Hamilton College has never sufficiently recognized Morrill’s achievement. He not only established the study of the science of life on a firm foundation, with well-equipped laboratories, but he also aroused the interest of many students and helped them shape their careers in a way that has redounded to the fame of the College and of themselves. More than any man since Oren Root the First, he has contributed to the teaching of science here. The other sciences, except chemistry, were in no healthy state either. Physics was a farce, mineralogy a fragment, geology an aspiration, astronomy a memory.

As regards the rest of the curriculum, the modern language courses were new and did not extend over three years (only two for French), but owing to the skillful teaching and thorough culture of Professor Brandt, they seemed to many of us more alive than some of the older subjects. History and law had also been recently revitalized by the sound knowledge and vivid personality of Professor Terrett. The other so-called “social sciences” had found as yet no entrée to the College. The traditional subjects, Latin, Greek, mathematics, oratory, philosophy, furnished still most of the mental pabulum offered to our young and (more or less) aspiring minds.

Thus, as compared with the replete curriculum of today, with its four-year courses in all the sciences, natural and “social,” and in nearly all the languages, ancient and modern, ours seems poor and scanty. Did our education suffer by it? Were we, at graduation, inferior in knowledge, mental grasp, intellectual and spiritual values to the seniors of 1942? A definite answer is, I fear, impossible. There is no common measure of value. “Intelligence tests” were unknown then and are broken reeds even now. We cannot show what we knew and felt in 1892 for a comparison with the brains of the youth of today. But as a personal impression, that of a man who met these young men of 1942 in the classroom and the hall, I wish to record my conviction that we were, mentally and spiritually, the equals at least of the graduates now leaving.

In what might be called extracurricular acquirements, I feel that the range and depth of our reading were greater than the annalist of 1891 admits. Besides the cheap stuff mentioned by him, we were acquainted with two of the great Russian novelists, Turgeniev and Tolstoi (Dostoevski had not yet been translated). Several of us were able to browse on Balzac, thanks to a complete edition of La Comedie Humaine, which Professor Brandt had just put in the library. Of the later English Victorians, Meredith and Hardy were both known to us; they puzzled or charmed us by turns. Our case was similar for the acted drama. Nearly all the important actors and actresses of that period gave at least one performance in the old Utica “opera house” during our College course. I remember seeing there, as a student, Irving, Booth, Barrett, Joe Jefferson, Modjeska, Mary Anderson, Ada Rehan and others. Can the boys of 1842, even with all the resources of film and radio, boast of having heard such a galaxy of stars as that?

In the final analysis, the great difference between the College of 1892 and the College of 1942 is the same as the main distinction between the Americas of those two years. The U.S.A. of the 1890s — we have been told often enough — was a nation of “rugged individualists” and of a stubborn individualism. What the U.S.A. is today is more difficult to describe; but it is certain that the country has gone rather far along the road toward socialization, if not toward socialism. In my opinion, the same difference is true as regards the College, faculty and students alike. The student of those days looked after himself. He asked nothing of the College and its rulers except tuition and a roof over his head. He supplied his own furniture, his own heat, light and plumbing — such as it was. If he fell ill, which was much less frequently than now, he called in his own doctor and generally dispensed with a nurse. Neither infirmary nor College physician had been thought of. If he were athletic or musical or dramatic, he organized his own teams, picked his own competitors and did his own training. He sometimes hired a coach who was never a member of the faculty.

And judging by results in football and track, this system did not work so badly. At least the games won were more numerous in 1891-92 than they have been in 1941-42. Our publications we directed, edited and composed ourselves, with no help from anyone. If we felt the need of amusement, as we frequently did, we amused ourselves in ways too numerous and varied to describe here. Some may perhaps better be left in the penumbra of a half-century’s obscurity. Whether all this individualism was “rugged” or not, we were not aware of it then and are not sure of it today. But it is evident that our mores, complexes and reactions were quite different from those of the student of 1942, surrounded as he is by more than the comforts of home and watched over maternally by a more than maternal College. If the Hamilton of the present is truly an alma mater, then in sooth the College of 1892 was a saeva noverca. But once more we were not conscious of it; to us who loved her then as now, she was a mother just as devoted to her sons as she seems to the boys of today.

This individualism showed itself in all departments of College life, students and faculty alike. What personalities some of our professors had! Who among us can ever forget the tart tongue and tender heart of “Old Square” (Professor Oren Root II), the delicate culture and friendly smile of “Old Greek” (Professor North), the sturdy directness and downright honesty of “Bill Nye” (Professor Terrett), the sound scholar ship and the teaching ability of “Schnitz” (Professor Brandt)? Such men gave zest to a student’s classroom work that I feel is often lacking now. No doubt the level of scholarship in the faculty is higher today than it was then. No professor now is quite so incompetent as some of the Class of 1892 whom I might mention, but will not. But where are the peaks? With all due respect to the present faculty, hard-working and learned as they are, I dare affirm that since Brandt’s death in 1920 no professor here has shown such a striking personality, has so impressed the mind and memory of students and alumni as the four I have just mentioned. So, just as Tocqueville prophesied for all democratic life in America 100 years ago, the leveling has been down as well as up.

The same law holds good, in my opinion, for the student body likewise. Just as each class had its own peculiar character, so in each class could be found certain vivid and distinctive personalities. Some students took from the start their position as natural leaders, by their rugged and forceful individuality. Leaders in scholarship, in sports, in other activities, such men stood out then, will be long remembered by those who knew them. To mention only those who have gone from us, who of our time can forget Cal Lewis and Wally Root of the Class of 1890, Bayard Peck of the Class of 1891, George Wood and Johnny Curran of our class, Starr Cadwallader of the Class of 1893? I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that of late no class has produced such striking personalities as those.

At long last, I must reluctantly put a question that evidently did not occur to my friend, the annalist of the Class of 1891. After his vivid picture of the College and the students as they were 50 years ago, his closing words imply that to him both seem inferior to those of today. He evidently believes that “progress” has been made. Now like all good Victorians of that age, we too believed that “progress” was continual and uninterrupted. We assumed, as nearly all Americans of that era did, that “progress” consisted in the improvement and accumulation of material things, in the invention of new mechanical gadgets that increased our ease and comfort. That was the favorite American assumption. Because we possessed more bathtubs, telephones, motorcars, radios and movies than other nations, we thought that we had “progressed” further, that we were more civilized than they or than our own ancestors of the 18th, the 13th or the first centuries. Most of us are, I think, much less sure of that now. Looking at the state of this planet today, when many of our wonderful mechanical inventions are used to deal out death and destruction, dare we affirm a belief in “progress,” dare we assert that we are more “civilized” than our forefathers of 100, 500 or 1,000 years ago? Are we better and wiser than the Athenians of the fifth century B.C.?

About 25 years ago, in another great world crisis, a wise Frenchman told us: Si la civilization n’est pas dans le Coeur de l’homme, elle n’est nulle part. I believe that thoroughly; and that is why, in the present crisis, with our old world lying broken around us, And with our earth so marred, Shattered in shard on shard, I feel that I must put some questions, such as: What are education and civilization? What are the essential values in both? What constitutes progress in either? Fifty years ago I was educated and civilized. Now, at times, I feel only partly civilized, and I know that my education is not ended, will not end till death — I hope not even then. And so I ask: Do the conveniences, the comforts, the pleasures of today’s Hamilton make it necessarily better, more civilized, more fitted to teach, direct and inspire the youth of 1942 than our “primitive” College of 1892? I have no answer to those questions. Only the future can answer them fully. We of the Class of 1892, as we leave the stage, leave the solution, if there is one, to you. Be sure that your answer is the right one, for the future depends on that. As for us, we oldsters of the past can only say:

The twilight of our life draws down apace.
Grandeur is dead, and time is very old.
Evening with swift foot and averted face
Goes homeward, and the roads of life are cold.
Come home, ye Wanderers, make the doors fast;
The long enduring twilight shuts at last.