"Nothing of him that doth fade"
Not for many years will any final appraisal of Charles William Eliot's place in American education be made. That inexorable perspective without which no judgment of personal greatness is possible will demand an even longer time before he is given his ultimate niche in the larger history of the American nation. Whatever else he may have been, he was so much a part of the Zeitgeist, of the whole fabric of gradually evolving American national and cultural self-consciousness, that his own biography must be fused with the history of the near-century which his life spanned. And perhaps it is better so.
What is true of Eliot, the national leader, is not true of Eliot, the man. Boston, Cambridge, and the Yard are filled with memories of splendid, dead Olympians. One more has been added to them, one whose slight, bent figure need dispute the gravel walk with none of them, yet one whose personal charm and living quality will become with each succeeding year less a tangible memory of living flesh and blood. It is safe to say that time will add to the lustre and the glory of his fame. It is equally sure that as a personal character, Dr. Eliot will from this day on become less real. It is largely a question of shadows.
And this is very important to the undergraduate. Future generations will accept elective systems and examinations and academic freedom with little question. Dr. Eliot is only too likely to become the subject of a reading asignment in more than one course. But no man at Harvard College can ever quite escape the legends which suround him. Emerson, and James, Agassiz and Norton, are no longer listed in the Harvard College Catalogue, but they are surprisingly significant factors in a Harvard education. Eliot is already one of these men.
There is amazingly little that we know of him. The present Senior class heard him, on the occasion of what was probably the greatest ovation that has ever been given to a private citizen. He was very old, and his voice was very broken. He advised the young men who packed the Yard to marry early. Such was his last official appearance before the University he had built. Up to the last few years of his life, he was still to be glimpsed occasionally, and at very important functions, a few embarrassed undergraduates have had the privilege of stuttering before him. But except for these, the undergraduate of this college generation must fall back on the face that so serenely looks down upon the Faculty Room, and on the estimates of older men who knew him, feared him, and respected him.
Fortunately for us, these latter have been legion. Something in their spontaneity in the unprompted sincerity of their respect, betrays perhaps more than anything they say in concrete words. For three months, people have gone out of their way to pay tribute to Charles William Eliot: In his death he proved his right to the title given him by Mr. Root, "the first citizen of the country out of public office." He had not achieved this by compromise. The Manchester Guardian, with some detachment, is surprised that Dr. Eliot won such a pre-eminent position in American national life without displaying more of "the hustling temper of modern America. He had not even, like his successor at Harvard, and like the heads of Yale and Princeton, made a reputation as a specialist in political science." But he had no need to do either of these to impress himself upon the people who met him or read him. As a president of a great university for over forty years and as a constant and fearless critic of national affairs, he was unknown to few leaders in American national or educational life.
So, upon his death, there has been this chorus of memory and of appraisal. Glenn Frank, head of a large Western university and leader of that group in education today which is working almost directly away from Dr. Eliot's conception of the college, writes in the Nation. "A few letters, written in his precise longhand," with "some of the Olympian sweep of his spirit," form the only personal contact between the two men. Robert Littell in the New Republic recalls his early days as a teacher under Dr. Eliot, speaks of the warmth that lay under his austere interior, and of the calm and passionless force with which he gave rebuke or praise. Edwin Mead writes in the Springfield Republican of the courageous Eliot, the man who did not fear to speak his mind, even if he went unheeded in the face of a national blindness. John Jay Chapman writes down frankly his criticisms, speaks of the things he does not like, and cites himself as an example of the kindness of a great administrator who was not too busy to interest himself in the financial worries of an individual student. Rollo Brown, in the curent Harper's, paints a quiet personal portrait of the Olympian, finds him to have been "a very wise man, a very good man." And in an earlier number of the same magazine, Edward Martin from the editor's easy chair takes stock of the personal qualities of the great educator: "A splendid man; tolerant, generous, bold: not always right, but majestic in the steadiness of his effort to know the truth and teach it, and make it prevail."
These are the tributes of men now in their prime who knew the man, Eliot, and his work. Their names give but inadequate impression of the width and the span of his influence. And it is not confined to these representatives of an older generation. The undergraduate of today, perhaps never having seen Dr. Eliot, is no less under the spell of his personal force than he is under the influence of his educational theories.
Of the young chemist, the M. I. T. professor, the disturbing president, or the anxious, struggling administrator, the present generation knows but little. These phases of his life will be of tremendous, importance to his biographer, but it is rather his later years that will live in the realms of Harvard legends. It is the white-haired man with his full, straight lips, and the direct expression in his eyes, the eloquent sage, the national oracle, who concerns the undergraduate to come. The forces that made him this were perhaps the same that aided him throughout his whole career, but it was only in that rare fruition of life which it is given to so few men to enjoy that Eliot could round his philosophy as completely as he rounded his life.
His quality which is perhaps most important and which certainly is best known to this last fringe of the countless students who have passed under his interest, is the social bravery which stamped every one of his actions. Whether as University administrator or as commentator on national affairs, Dr. Eliot never hesitated to speak his opinion. An implacable enemy of jingoism and of militarism, he at the same time tempered his principles with wisdom. The Anti-Imperalist League which won such undeserved unpopularity in 1898 had no more ardent nor outspoken leader than the President of Harvard University. We of this generation do not know of this, but we have some idea of what he meant to America when we think that Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged him as the one man in the world he envied. The Great War is different, however, most of us know how Dr. Eliot backed President Wilson's war measures to the end. Most of us know of his attitude on a few major social questions. We have read of his courageous defence of Prohibition, his ability and willingness to change his mind at the age of nearly ninety.
"Dr. Eliot was the best judge of academic cattle in America." So states in bald terms the Manchester Guardian, conservative British weekly. No statement could be better made of what must be considered one of his most lasting qualities, one of the things which entitled him so eminently to "the lasting satisfactions of life." This aspect of his contribution to their education is one which Harvard students will find it most hard to forget. One speaks still in Cambridge with bated breath of the Trinity, James, Santayanna, and Royce. The name of Agassiz, or that of Norton, or Channing, or Haskins, are but a few of those which are words to conjure with even now. What Dr. Eliot did in securing these men, in building a university that could use them, is one service that will never be open to dispute. The hosts of other men who supported these are no less a tribute to Eliot's judgment.
The elective system, the Medical School, the Law School, are lasting monuments. With them his name will always be connected. But there is another aspect of his contribution to the intellectual and the spiritual life of his day and of our day, that boasts no such imperishable testimonials. Those human things that caused it, his smile and his grave placidity, his honesty and his courage, his unerring appreciation of human values in life as in teaching, are certain to suffer some strange sea-change. Some of us today have random personal memories upon which these legends will be built; the tributes that his ninety-two years of useful life called forth will be food for still others. The something rich and strange that his name will be to future generations in the Yard will grow even more from the personal spirit than must forever live after him that spirit which was his own and which he made Harvard's