Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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Francis J. Child

Fifty years ago it was the fashion at Harvard, as well as at other colleges, for professors to cultivate an austere dignity of manner for the purpose of preserving order and decorum in the recitation-room; but this frequently resulted in having the opposite effect and served as a temptation to the students to play practical jokes on their instructors. The habitual dryness of the college exercises in Latin, Greek, and mathematics became still more wearisome from the manner in which these were conducted. The youthful mind thirsting for knowledge found the road to it for the most part a dull and dreary pilgrimage.

Professor Francis J. Child would seem to have been the first to break down this barrier and establish more friendly relations with his classes. He was naturally well adapted to this. Perfectly frank and fearless in his dealings with all men, he hated unnecessary conventionality, and at the same time possessed the rare art of preserving his dignity while associating with his subordinates on friendly terms. Always kindly and even sympathetic to the worst scapegraces in the division, he could assert the superiority of his position with a quickness that often startled those who were inclined to impose on him. He did not call out the names of his class as if they were exceptions to a rule in Latin grammar, but addressed each one of them as if he felt a personal interest in the man; so that they felt encouraged to speak out what they knew and even remembered their lessons so much the better. As a consequence he was universally respected, and there were many who felt an affection for him such as he could never have imagined. His cordial manner was sufficient of itself to make his instruction effective.

Francis J. Child was the first scholar in his class at the Boston Latin School, and afterwards at Harvard. That first scholars do not come to much good in the world is an illusion of the envious. It is true that they sometimes break down their health by too strenuous an effort, but this may happen to an ambitious person in any undertaking. In Professor Child’s case, as in many another, it proved the making of his fortune, for which he did not possess any exceptional advantages. Being of an amiable disposition and good address, he was offered a tutorship on graduation, and rose from one position in the university to another until he became the first authority on the English language in America. His whole life was spent at Harvard College, with the exception of a few short expeditions to Europe; and his influence there steadily increased until it became a power that was universally recognized.

He was a short, thick-set man, like Sophocles, but as different as possible in general aspect. Sophocles was always slow and measured, but Professor Child was quick and lively in all his movements; and his face wore an habitual cheerfulness which plainly showed the sunny spirit within. Most characteristic in his appearance was the short curly yellow hair, so light in color that when it changed with age, his friends scarcely noticed the difference.

During his academic years he created a sensation by declining to join the Hasty Pudding Club. This was looked upon as a piece of inordinate self- conceit; whereas, the true reason for it was that he had little money and preferred to spend it in going to the theatre. He said afterwards, in regard to this, that he was not sorry to have done it, for “the students placed too much importance on such matters.”

Through his interest in fine acting, he became one of the best judges of oratory, and it was always interesting to listen to him on that subject. He considered Wendell Phillips the perfection of form and delivery, and sometimes very brilliant, but much too rash in his statements. Everett was also good, but lacked warmth and earnestness. Choate was purely a legal pleader, and outside of the court-room not very effective. He thought Webster one of the greatest of orators, fully equal to Cicero; but they both lacked the poetical element. Sumner’s sentences were florid and his delivery rather mechanical, but he made a strong impression owing to the evident purity of his motives. The general public, however, had become suspicious of oratory, so that it was no longer as serviceable as formerly.

“After all,” he would say, “the main point for a speaker is to have a good cause. Then, if he is thoroughly in earnest, we enjoy hearing him." He once illustrated his subject by the story of a Union general who tried to rally the fugitives at Pittsburg Landing, and said, waving his sword in the air: “In the name of the Declaration of Independence, I command, I exhort you,” etc., while a private soldier leaning against a tree, with a quid of tobacco in his mouth, remarked, “That man can make a good speech,” but showed no intentions of moving. This summary, however, gives no adequate idea of the brightness of Professor Child’s conversation. He was an animated talker, full of wit and originality.

When the classes at Harvard were smaller than at present, he would arrange them in University Hall for declamation, so as to cover as much space as possible. They did not understand this until he said, “Now we have a larger audience, if not more numerous;” and this placed every one in the best of humor.

Besides his regular college duties, Professor Child had three distinct interests to which he devoted himself in leisure hours with all the energy of an ardent nature. The first of these, editing a complete edition of the old English ballads, was the labor of his life, and with it his name will always be associated, for it is a work that can neither be superseded nor excelled. He was the first to arouse English scholars to the importance of this, as may be read in the dedication of a partial edition taken from the Percy manuscripts and published in London in 1861. He recognized in them the true foundation of the finest literature of the modern world, and he considered them so much the better from the fact that they were not composed to be printed, but to be recited or sung. Matthew Arnold wrote in a letter from America: “After lecturing at Taunton, I came to Boston with Professor Child of Harvard, a very pleasant man, who is a great authority on ballad poetry,” very warm praise, considering the source whence it came. Late in life Professor Child edited separate versions in modern English of some curious old ballads, and sent them as Christmas presents to his friends. It is not surprising that he should have been interested as well in the rude songs of the British sailors, which he heard on crossing the ocean. He was mightily amused at their simple refrain:

  “Haul in the bowlin’, long-tailed bowlin’,
  Haul in the bowlin’ Kitty, O, my darlin’.”

“That rude couplet,” he said, “contains all the original elements of poetry. Firstly, the anthropomorphic element; the sailor imagines his bowline as if it had life. Secondly, the humorous element, for the bowline is all tail. Thirdly, the reflective element; the monotonous motion makes him think of home,—of his wife or sweetheart,—and he ends the second line with ’Kitty, O, my darlin’.’ I like such primitive verses much better than the ’Pike County Ballads,’ a mixture of sentiment and profanity.”

Then he went on to say: “I want my children, when they grow up, to read the classics. My boy will go to college, of course; and he will translate Homer and Virgil, and Horace,—I think very highly of Horace; but the literal meaning is a different thing from understanding the poetry. Then my daughters will learn French and German, and I shall expect them to read Schiller and Goethe, Moliere and Racine, as well as Shakespeare and Milton. After that they can read what they like, but they will have a standard by which to judge other authors.” He was afraid that the students wasted too much time in painting play-bills and other similar exercises of ingenuity, which lead to nothing in the end.

He gave some excellent advice to a young lady who was about visiting Europe for the first time, who doubted if she could properly appreciate the works of art and other fine things that she would be called upon to admire. “Don’t be afraid of that,” said Professor Child; “you will probably like best just those sights which you do not expect to; but if you do not like them, say so, and let that be the end of it. Now, I am so unfortunate as not to appreciate Michel Angelo. His great horned Moses is nothing more to me than a Silenus in a garden. The fact does not trouble me much, for I find enough to interest me as it is, and I can enjoy life without the Moses.”

After mentioning a number of desirable expeditions, he added: “You will go to Dresden, of course, to see Raphael’s Madonna and Titian’s ’Tribute Money’; and then there are the Green Vaults. I have known the Green Vaults to have an excellent effect on some ladies of my acquaintance. They did not care one-quarter as much for a diamond ring as they did before they went into the Green Vaults. You will see a jewelled fireplace there which is worth more than all I own in the world.” The young lady looked, however, as if it would take more than the Green Vaults to cure her love for jewelry.


Professor Child’s second important interest was politics, and as a rule he much preferred talking on this to literary subjects.

Josiah Quincy was the most distinguished president that Harvard College has had, unless we except President Eliot; and his admirers have been accustomed to refer to his administration as “Consule Planco.” His politics did not differ widely from those of John Quincy Adams, who was the earliest statesman of the anti-slavery struggle, and a true hero in his way. After Quincy, the presidents of the university became more and more conservative, until Felton, who was a pronounced pro-slavery Whig, and even attempted to defend the invasion of Kansas in a public meeting. The professors and tutors naturally followed in the train of the president, while a majority of the sons of wealthy men among the undergraduates always took the southern side. The son of an abolitionist who wished to go through Harvard in those days found it a penitential pilgrimage. He was certain to suffer an extra amount of hazing, and to endure a kind of social ostracism throughout the course.

For many years before the election of Lincoln, Professors Child, Lowell, and Jennison were the only pronounced anti-slavery members of the faculty; and this left Francis J. Child to hear the brunt of it almost alone, for Lowell’s connection with the university was semi-detached, and although he was always prepared to face the enemy in an honest argument, he was not often on the ground to do so.

Now that the most potent cause of political agitation resides in the far- off problem of the Philippine Islands it is difficult to realize the popular excitement of those times, when both parties believed that the very existence of the nation depended on the result of the elections. Professor Child was not the least of an alarmist, and deprecated all unnecessary controversy. In 1861 he even cautioned Wendell Phillips Garrison against introducing too strong an appeal for emancipation in his commencement address; but he was as firm as a granite rock on any question of principle, and when he considered a protest in order he was certain to make one. He did not trust party newspapers for his information, but obtained it from persons who were in a position to know, and his facts were so well supported by the quick sallies of his wit that those who interfered with him once rarely attempted it again. Moreover, as we all see now, he had the right on his side.

He was proud of having voted twice for Abraham Lincoln. What he thought of John Brown, at the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid, is uncertain; but many years later, when one of his friends published a small book in vindication of Brown against the attack of Lincoln’s two secretaries, he wrote to him:

“I congratulate you on the success of your statement, which I have read with very great interest. John Brown was like a star and still shines in the firmament. We could not have done without him.”

He considered Governor Andrew’s approbation of John Brown as more important than anything that would be written about him in the future.

He did not trouble himself much in regard to Lincoln’s second election, for he saw that it was a foregone conclusion; but after Andrew Johnson’s treachery in 1866, he felt there was a need of unusual exertion. When the November elections arrived, he told his classes: “Next Tuesday I shall have to serve my country and there will be no recitations.” When Tuesday came we found him on the sidewalk distributing Republican ballots and soliciting votes; and there he remained until the polls closed in the afternoon. He had little patience with educated men who neglected their political duties. “Why are you discouraged?” he would ask. “Times will change. Remember the Free-soil movement!” He attended caucuses as regularly as the meetings of the faculty, and served as a delegate to a number of conventions. More than once he aroused the good citizens of Cambridge to the danger of insidious plots by low demagogues against the public welfare. The poet Longfellow took notice of this and spoke of him as an invaluable man.

On another occasion Professor Child was discoursing to his class on oratory and mentioned the fact that Webster and Choate both came from Dartmouth; that Wendell Phillips graduated at Harvard, but the university had not seen much of him since. At the mention of Wendell Phillips some of the boys from pro-slavery families began to sneer. Professor Child raised himself up and said determinedly, “Wendell Phillips is as good an orator as either of them!” He was chagrined, however, at Phillips’s later public course,—his support of Socialism and General Butler. Neither did he like Phillips’s Phi Beta Kappa oration, in which he advocated the dagger and dynamite for tyrants. “A tyrant,” said Professor Child, “is what anyone chooses to imagine. My hired man may consider me a tyrant and blow me up according to Mr. Phillips’s principle.” The assassins of Garfield and McKinley evidently supposed that they were ridding the earth of two of the worst tyrants that ever existed. Professor Child was exceptionally liberal. He even supported Woman Suffrage for a time, but he held Socialism in a kind of holy horror,—such as one feels of a person who is always making blunders.

In 1878 Professor Child and some other political reformers were elected to a Congressional convention and went with the hope of securing a candidate who would represent the educated classes,—the incumbent at that time being a shoe manufacturer. They argued and worked hard all day, but without success. Late in the afternoon the shoe manufacturer, a worthy man but very ignorant, who afterwards became governor of the State, was renominated; and when it was proposed to make the nomination unanimous Professor Child called out such an emphatic No that it seemed to shake the whole assembly. Not content with this he entered a protest next day in the Boston Advertiser. He was so much used up by the exertion that he was unable to attend to his classes. Some years later he enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing his candidate, Theodore Lyman, nominated and elected.

Emerson once delivered a lecture in Boston on university life in which he made the rather bold statement that “in the course of twenty years the rank-list is likely to become inverted.” One of Professor Child’s class paraphrased this lecture for a theme, and against the sentence above quoted the Professor wrote: “A statement frequently made, but what is the fact?” I do not think he liked Emerson quite so well after this, and he can hardly be blamed for feeling so. It was not only a disparagement of good scholarship but like a personal slight upon himself. That Emerson graduated near the foot of his class ought not to prove that an idle college life is a sign of genius.

Professor Child talked freely in regard to the meetings of the college faculty, for he believed that graduates had a right to know about them. He quoted some amusing anecdotes of a certain professor who led the opposition against President Eliot and praised the dignified manner with which Eliot regarded him. In 1879 he said one day:

“We are in the half-way stage between a college and a university, and there is consequently great confusion. If we once became a university, pure and simple, all that would be over; but the difficulty is that the material which comes to us is so poor. I do not mean that the young men are lacking in intelligence, but the great majority of them do not brace themselves to the work. As Doctor Hedge says, the heart of the college is in the boating and ball-playing and not in its studies.”

His third occupation and chief recreation was his rose-garden. The whole space between his front piazza and Kirkland Street was filled with rose- bushes which he tended himself, from the first loosening of the earth in spring until the straw sheaf-caps were tied about them in November. What more delightful occupation for a scholar than working in a rose-garden! There his friends were most likely to find him in suitable weather, and when June came they were sure to receive a share of the bountiful blossoms; nor did he ever forget the sick and suffering.

He was greatly interested to hear of a German doctor at Munich who had a rose-garden with more than a hundred varieties in it. “I should like to know that man,” he said; “wouldn’t we have a good talk together?” He complained that although everybody liked roses few were sufficiently interested in them to distinguish the different kinds. Naturally rose- bugs were his special detestation. “Saving your presence,” he said to President Felton’s daughter, “I will crush this insect;” to which she aptly replied, “I certainly would not have my presence save him.” When he heard of the Buffalo-bug he exclaimed: “Are we going to have another pest to contend with? I think it is a serious question whether the insect world is not going to get the better of us.”

After his painful death at the Massachusetts Hospital in September, 1896, the president and fellows of the university voted to set apart little Holden Chapel, the oldest building on the college grounds, and yet one of the most dignified, for an English library dedicated to the memory of Francis J. Child. Such an honor had never been decreed for president or professor before; and it gives him the distinction that we all feel he deserved. It is much more appropriate to him, and satisfactory than a marble statue in Saunders Theatre would have been, or a stained-glass window in Memorial Hall. Yet his presence still lingers in the memory of his friends, like the fragrance of his own roses, after the petals have fallen from their stems.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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Cambridge Sketches
By Frank Preston Stearns
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