Morison: A Harvard Historian Frozen in Time

The Reporter's Notebook

Walking along the Commonwealth Avenue pedestrian mall heading west from the Boston Common and Ritz Hotel street corner, one encounters many statues and monuments.

The mall begins with a conspicuous statue of Alexander Hamilton and it ends when Mass. Ave. and the Massachusetts Turnpike conspire to beat the open green space into cemented thoroughfares.

Shortly before the Mass. Pike and Mass. Ave intersect with Commonwealth Avenue, though, Boylston Street divides the pedestrian mall in two and, unmistakably, the statue of former Harvard Professor of History Samuel Eliot Morison '09 looms from the divide and the lush green behind it.

Morison's statue upholds the popular Cambridge and Boston monument style. Like many other sites around the area, it depicts a man and his message. In Morison's case, the message speaks to his philosophy on life.

The statue looks imposing because it stands almost 15 feet tall. The sculpture shows Morison sitting atop a rocky coastal bluff, readying his right hand to gaze through his binoculars. At the same time, Morison keeps watch, with his left hand on his knapsack and three thick books at his side.

Below his booted feet, the sculpture depicts the usual New England seacoast litter: seashells, a fiddler crab or two, strands of kelp, and driftwood. What captures most passersby, however, is a quotation of Morison's engraved on a rock at his left side: "Dream dreams, then write them down-aye, but live them first!"

Morrison resembles an ancient mariner straight from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge mold. Despite his silent grandeur, his image bespeaks a certain aristocracy that has nothing to do with class or wealth.

On a clear, late spring day, hundreds of people pass the Morison statue. A few breeze on by-usually they are bikers or roller bladers or skaters. Others stop for a while to notice and admire the sculpture. Still others use the statue's location as a benchmark or rendezvous point.

"They put up the statue in the late 1970s, early 1980s," said Phillip I. Cheever of Stanhope Street in Boston. "And ever since then, I've guided every visiting out-of-town friend to my house via the statue. Not to mention, I think his intimation about life and dreams accurately describes how I want to feel most of the time."

Morison graduated from the College and except for a brief period in the early 1910s when he pursued private study, he spent his entire life either as a student or as a professor of history at Harvard. For almost 60 years Morison wrote novels and journal pieces. Arguably, his most famous work is his 1935 History of the Founding of the College, where he traces the scholarly antecedents of Harvard in both the British and French models.

Another one of Morison's great works is a book he authored in 1965 entitled Spring Tides.

"I think one of the two volumes to his left has to be Spring Tides. Why else would you place a venerable, old professor's memorial statue in the middle of the Commonwealth Avenue Pedestrian Mall, in a neighborhood in which he never lived, looking like he just spent a day at sea, and not depict one of his best works?" says Mary Ann Rothstein of Newton.

According to Anthony Tonelli '51 of Boston's Beacon Street, the Boylston Street monument helps immortalize Morison, who died in 1976.

"He was a great human being, and the best part about his classes was the way he would begin each one by asking us to describe our familiarity with such-and-such a geographical region or such-and-such element of culture and style," he says.

"This way, every person who wants to stop and appreciate his quotation will know a little bit about Professor Morison as a human being," he adds.

Unlike some monuments that may come and go, the Samuel Eliot Morison sculpture features something different. Somehow, the image of Morison up on a rocky bluff implies what Orchard Professor of Landscape and Landscape Architecture John R. Stilgoe would call an "alongshore" image.

Both Morison and the passerby stay dry, but the image gained reminds one of the sea and of the spring tides and of the touch of local history.