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The Crimson Bookshelf

THREE CENTURIES OF HARVARD by Samuel Eliot Morison. Cambridge, Harvard University Press. $3.50.


This volume is not to be taken as a summary of Professor Morison's monumental history of Harvard of which three installments have now left the press. Approaching his material from an entirely new angle, the author has left to us, the contemporary sons of Harvard, and to our successors, a book of rare charm, a history which is lightly written yet accurate, familiar but not impertinent. From start to finish it reads like a first rate novel.

The story of Harvard is here from its earliest conception by the Great and General Court of Massachusetts and its successful birth by virtue of John Harvard's gifts. Through Master Eaton and President Henry Dunster to "the great Leverett" and through Kirkland to Charles William Eliot and Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Professor Morison has traced its now illustrious now "low and languishing" course through three centuries.

For the Original Reader

All the scholastic apparatus of his long histories has been omitted from this vivid chronicle by the author. In the small area of 489 pages (plus index) he has attempted to tell, for the benefit of the average reader, what the average reader, will want to know. He has succeeded amazingly well. The undergraduate will turn immediately to the chapters on student customs and traditions, which, with those on the development of the various clubs, of athletics and other activities make fascinating reading. But these are by no means all he will find delightful. There are accounts of the political manipulations (some successful, some not so successful) which figured in Harvard's early struggles to survive. (We might mention among the less successful deals that which made John Hancock Treasurer of Harvard College, which responsible post the great signer filled to perfection except that he completely failed to render any account of his transactions.) There are great mines of valuable information on the development and perpetuation of the liberal tradition at Harvard, opposed at the beginning by Increase Mather and at the three-hundredth mark by that slightly more sooty historical character, William Randolph Hearst. There are diverting remarks on the growth and character of the Harvard curriculum under its various presidents, and sketches notable for their conciseness and intelligibility of the progressive contributions of our greatest leaders.

There is solace for the duller type of scholar, together with the occa- sional dissipater of today in Professor Morison's outline, moreover. Things were as bad as they are right now at least as long ago as the American Revolution. I quote Professor Morison: (on the Class of 1870:)

A Revolutionary Class

"Very few members of the war classes attained distinction, and the number of misfits and downright rascals was considerable. Ephraim Eliot, who in after life became an apothecary, has left us a mordant account of his own class of 1780, thirty strong at graduation. One, a transfer from Yale to the senior class, was 'a good scholar and respectable'; a second, a transfer from Dartmouth, was 'a decent scholar, and rather more than a quack doctor'; and there were also three or four 'respectable characters' who had not been to other colleges. But there was a sad example of the over-bright freshman, who, with too much time on his hands, fell in with gamblers and 'became a dissipated sot', along with a classmate who turned out an 'expert gamester.' One of an old Bay Colony family 'never had an idea in his life, except to grease his hair and clean his buckles.' A descendant of a long line of ministers 'was spoilt by a residence in Virginia, where he became dissipated'; two others became drunkards without faring so far. One committed suicide shortly after graduation, two went insane, a fourth was 'burnt to death by foolish sport after election day playing with squibs,' and a fifth was murdered!"

Intimate History

"Three Centuries of Harvard" is a triumph in the writing of intimate history. Professor Morison's genial wit never fails to refresh, his narrative to engross, even the most casual reader. This is a book which every Harvard man should treasure as a valuable item of his library. As the author remarks in his Preface ". . . this is not intended as a reference book, or a treatise; it has been written to he read and enjoyed.

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