IN 1796 Dr. Timothy Dwight, President of Yale College, began a series of journeys for the sake of vacation recreation. These excursions he kept up for a number of years, and visited at one time or another nearly every town in New England and many in New York. At about the same period he became curious to know the manner in which New England appeared eighty or a hundred years before his time. He was unable to find any information such as he searched for. He was led to think, therefore, that those who lived eighty or a hundred years after him might desire the same information in regard to the time in which he lived, and he resolved, as far as lay in his power, to furnish this information. Accordingly he carried a note-book with him on his travels, and took down observations on the appearance of the towns and country through which he passed, the customs of the people, and any peculiarities which struck him as worth preserving. These notes he afterwards embodied into letters addressed to an English gentleman, and published them in four large volumes.
These travels were begun in 1796, and as it is now 1876, President Dwight's eighty years are just completed, and the time has come to take down his ponderous volumes from the shelves, and after having brushed off the dust which has been accumulating for eight decades, to obtain a view of the country as it appeared at the end of the last century. Besides, this is the Centennial year, when people everywhere are looking up the records of the past. So let every New-Englander and New-Yorker, and every one who is interested in any New England or New York town, look up President Dwight's account of this place eighty years ago.
Having occasion lately to consult this work, I found quite a long description of Cambridge and Boston, a few extracts from which may be of interest to students of an antiquarian turn of mind.
When Dr. Dwight visited this region, Cambridge had a population of only about two thousand. "The houses," he says, "exhibit every gradation of building found in this country, except the log hut. Several handsome villas and other houses are seen here, a considerable number of decent ones, and a number, not small, of such as are ordinary and ill-repaired." In regard to these last the good Doctor had a theory of his own. He thought they must be "inhabited by men accustomed to rely on the University for subsistence; men whose wives are the chief support of their families by boarding, washing, mending, and other offices of the like nature. The husband, in the mean time, is a kind of gentleman at large; exercising an authoritative control over everything within the purlieus of the house; reading news-papers and political pamphlets; deciding on the characters and measures of an administration, and dictating the policy of his country. In almost all families of this class the mother and her daughters lead a life of meritorious diligence and economy, while the husband is merely a bond of union and a legal protector of the household. Accordingly he is paid and supported, not for his services, but for his presence..... He is a being creeping along the limits of animated and unanimated existence, and serving, like an oyster, as a middle link between plants and animals." I board at Memorial Hall; will not some one who boards outside inform me whether any specimens of these "gentlemen at large," with "meritorious wives and daughters," have come down to our time?
In those days the College officers consisted of the President, three Professors, four Tutors, and the Librarian; the number of students averaged two hundred and twenty; the library had fifteen thousand volumes, and was then "unquestionably the best in the United States." "Here the leaning is towards the languages, in Yale College towards the arts and sciences," President Dwight says; but he regrets that even here the admission requirements in Latin ("to speak true Latin and write it in verse as well as prose") were being "continually lowered by gradual concessions." The buildings then were "four colleges, a chapel, and a house, originally a private dwelling, now called College House." Of the arrangement of the college edifices he speaks more temperately than certain art professors who have lived since his time, for he only says, "the plan for locating the buildings, if any such plan existed, was certainly unfortunate." Our proximity to Boston he bewails as the "greatest disadvantage under which this seminary labors. The allurements of this metropolis," he continues, "have often become too powerfully seductive to be resisted by the gay, and sometimes even by the grave, youths who assemble here for an education..... The bustle and splendor of a large commercial town are necessarily hostile to study. Theatres, particularly, can scarcely fail of fascinating the mind at so early a period of life." Thus what to us seems one of our greatest advantages appears our greatest disadvantage when seen through the spectacles of a Yale President.
Dr. Dwight's first remark on Boston is the same as that of ordinary mortals, - it is in regard to the streets. Next he laments (as Dr. Holmes did only last year) "that the scheme of forming public squares should have been almost universally forgotten." The houses he calls "superior to those of every American city," and says they "appear with peculiar advantage on Mount Vernon (which used to be called Beacon Hill)." He characterizes the people as being "noted for intelligence, love of liberty, generosity, and civility." They are, he says, "distinguished by a lively imagination, having characters more resembling that of the Greeks than that of the Romans"; "from this source their language is frequently hyperbolical, and their pictures of objects, in any way interesting, highly colored"; so that the "Boston Style is a phrase proverbially used to denote a florid, pompous manner of writing"; "from this ardor," too, "springs a pronunciation unusually rapid," contracting "two short syllables into one," and pronouncing words "terminating with a liquid, particularly with l, m, or n, in such a manner as to leave out the sound of the vowel: thus, Sweden, Britain, garden, vessel, are extensively pronounced Swed'n, Brit'n, gard'n, vess'l. The syllable ing they abbreviate into en. They also omit the aspirate in words beginning with wh; for example, wheat and wharf are made weat and warf." Do any traces of these peculiarities still linger among Bostonians?
President Dwight regrets that "a considerable number of the inhabitants had lately eagerly engaged in the design of erecting theatres," but rejoices that theatres are declining, and "the stage is now regarded with very general indifference."
The account of Boston ends with some reflections on fashionable education; children, he deplores, are taught that "what they are is of little consequence, but what they appear to-be is of importance inestimable." Young men read novels, and the "sight of a classic author gives them a chill, a lesson in Locke or Euclid a mental ague." Young ladies "sink down to songs, novels, and plays." The reverend President is particularly severe towards the young ladies, and solemnly warns them that "between the Bible and novels there is a gulf fixed which few novel-readers are willing to pass"; and then he paints quite a vivid picture, which I think the fair Bostonian novel-reader would hardly recognize as herself: "A weary, distressed, bewildered voyager amid the billows of affliction, she looks around her in vain to find a pilot, a pole-star, or a shore."