News

The New Gen Ed Lottery System, Explained

News

Armed Individuals Sighted in Harvard Square Arraigned

News

Harvard Students Form Coalition Supporting Slave Photo Lawsuit's Demands

News

Police Apprehend Armed Man and Woman in Central Square

News

107 Faculty Called for Review of Tenure Procedures in Letter to Dean Gay

KITTY SHARED LEARNING, HELPED STUDENTS

Made Legend Spencer Says

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

All of us who knew Professor Kittredge found it difficult to believe, when we heard of his death, that we would no longer see him imperiously crossing Harvard Square, or walking through the Library stacks in search of a reference or smoking interminable cigars in his book-jammed study in Hilliard Street. His white board, his trlin figure in its invariable light gray suit, were apparently permanent features of the Harvard landscape, and to may generations of Harvard undergraduates, who had heard him lecture, and had watched him striding out of his class room, an authority too forbidding to be approached, he seemed the permanent embodiment of learning. He was apparently a Harvard institution, and, as happens with all institution, a body of legend, most of it untrue, had grown up around him. It is an indica-of how symbolic a figure he was that so many modern folk tales ( a form of literature he loved) had him for their hero.

He was not only a tradition in himself, he was also the transmitter of a tradition. His custom of welcoming graduate students while sitting on the steps of Warren House on the morning of the opening of college, his spelling of "Shakespeare", his confining of English 2 to the study of six of Shakespeare's plays all these things he inherited from Professor F. J. Child, who was his master, and for whom he had a devoted admiration. To the end of his life he cherished the high words of praise with which Professor Child had saluted the beginning of his career, and his memoir of Child is perhaps the best example of Mr. Kittredege's clear, unambiguous prose.

Shortly after graduating from college, Mr. Kittredge started teaching as a Latin master at Exeter Academy; he was suddenly called in to replace a beloved teacher of Latin who had died in the middle of the year. He once told me that the responsibility of replacing a locally famous figure so over-awed him that for 25 years afterwards he had a recurrent dream: he dreamt that as he began to talk to his class, the students, with a look of disgust, got up one by one and in five minutes emptied the room. Perhaps the anxiety that lay behind this dream might account for the abruptness and at times even harshness, of Mr. Kittredge's class room manner; beneath his sometimes forbidding exterior he was a much shyer man than one would have supposed.

But to graduate students, and it was as a graduate student that I best knew him, no one could have been more kind, more understanding or more helpful. His learning was immense, and his memory of facts seemed impeccable; both were always at the service of any graduate student who consulted him. When I first came to the graduate school in 1925, I asked Mr. Kittredge about some obscure point connected with a topic I was investigating. He referred me to an article in a highly specialized periodical, giving the date (it was, I believe 1894), the volume and the page. "These may not be right," he said, "for I have not read the article since it first appeared." I looked the article up; Mr. Kittredge's reference was, as always, exactly correct.

It was not only his accuracy and the great range of his learning that made him so helpful to graduate students, it was also his common sense; and I think if I were asked which of his characteristics I valued the most, it would be this. There were some of Mr. Kittredge's ideas about graduate education with which it was possible to disagree, and I know I am not the only one of his younger colleagues who felt that he put more emphasis on facts for their won sake than we thought necessary or wise for a student of literature. But if one went to him with a new idea or a new interpretation, he did not dismiss it, even though it might not be the kind of thing in which he was primarily interested. He understood at once what one was trying to do, and his common sense gave sharpness and definition to one's ideas, so that they could be seen with fresh clarity and balance. Two years before his death, for example, I talked to him about some plans I had for writing about Shakespeare, which since I was full of them at the time. I had also discussed with several other people. No one else saw so quickly or so clearly just what it was I was after, and no one else gave me such sound advice about the pitfalls I should avoid.

Fashions in teaching literature change like fashions in everything else, and there is today, I suppose, a swing away from the purely factual and philological emphasis which was the Kittredge tradition. But those of us who studied in that tradition, even though we may have moved in other directions since, owe it a great debt. We were taught to be accurate, to respect external facts more than our own interpretations of them, to mistrust cloudiness and generality. Mr. Kittredge was the embodiment of a whole era in American literacy scholarship, and it is a tribute to the force of his personality that when we think era, we think chiefly of him.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags