Poetic Classicist

Faculty Profile

Harvard men of the Class of '49 were limping back to Cambridge after a 29-6 loss to the Yale eleven. "Well," a tutor asked the Master of Eliot House, "what did you think of Levi Jackson's run?" "Oh," shrugged John H. Finely, "I didn't stay for that game. I only went down to see Eliot play Jonathan Edwards."

But if Varsity athletics are expendable with Finlcy, he is genuinely devoted to House contests. Whether it means travelling to New Haven for intramural football or getting up at 6:30 a.m. to root for Eliot's hockey team, Finley's interest in House athletics has never flagged. Scholars, he says, improve with age; athletes are in their prime in college--they must be encouraged.

No one at Eliot is surprised that this slight Greek scholar should be a rabid sports enthusiast. In fact, no one in the House would be surprised at anything about Finley. He is a remarkable man, they agree, with sweeping interests, an unpredictable nature, and a character marked by both poetry and precision.

These latter two elements are easily traced. His father, John H. Finley, Sr., was president of City College in New York and also editor of the New York Times. Young John inherited his love of writing and, when he came to Harvard from Exeter in '21, he began composing poetry. President of the Advocate, Finley published his only book of verse, Thalia, a few years after graduation from College.

But while Finley was indulging his imagination, he was also disciplining his mind with the study of Greek. During his study at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens he received an invitation to return to Harvard as a classics instructor. Finley tried teaching for a year, then he determined not to continue without a Ph.D. and a wife. Two years later, he had both--the latter the former Magdalena Greenslet.

1942 was another eventful year for the Finleys. Finley had just completed Iris world-famous analysis of Thucydides when he was appointed Master of Eliot. Moving day, Finley recalls, was a dewildering experience. "The Master's residence was designed for Eliot's first Master, "Frisky" Merriman. He was a big man with four large children and he liked the barn-like size of these rooms. When Mrs. Finley and I toddled in with our two slender children, the place overwhelmed us."

Finley had no difficulty keeping the huge rooms filled with students, tutors, and his other friends. Casual and stimulating, his conversation mingles imaginative similes with slang like "guy" and "dope." Much of his quiet humor is self-directed, as when he sighs, "The part I take each year in the Eliot Christmas play is generally a seedy one. Usually a frowsy old character who spouts Latin and Greek. Mrs. Finley does so wish I'd get a more dashing role."

When Finley speaks of Eliot House it is with affection but this same lightness. "Professors are like theologians," he reflects, "they are detached from College life. It is the House Masters who must perform the duties of the parish priest." There is certainly nothing unusual to Finley's mind about knowing each sophomore as he enters the House. "That's the least a person can do. And if you don't know them after three years, you might as well jump off a bridge or something."

Planned Gen. Ed.

The high regard in which Eliot men hold their Master is shared by almost every student exposed to Finley's thoughtful, out-going personality. As enthusiastic about Finley as any Eliot man is the Kirkland senior who answered a knock on his door one morning to find Finley smiling on the doorstep. The senior had left his pipe during an interview at Eliot, and Finley had trudged up five flights to return it.

Despite his concern for Eliot and the students, Finley has not limited himself to either. The General Education program, in both theory and practice, owes much to Finley. For two years during the war, Finley met with an educational planning committee, and in 1945 he wrote much of the report, "General Education in a Free Society."

Having helped draft the blueprint, Finley was anxious to prove it practical. He began an elementary humanities course covering Homer, Vergil, and Dante; this year, "The Epic and the Novel," divided between Finley and I. A. Richards, has one of the largest enrollments in the College.

Perhaps Finley's extensive study of Greek literature is most evident in his comparisons. "On the one hand . . . on the other hand," a classic Greek construction, has been particularly useful in Finley's introductions of President Conant. Over the years, Finley has suggested that Conant has elements of Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, Robert Boyle the scientist, and Woodrow Wilson, the statesman. Conant admits he has sat spellbound at Eliot dinners "wondering who I'm going to be tonight."

This synthesis of theologian, diplomat, and scientist may describe Conant. But by substituting poet for scientist and adding a little of the parish priest, it is also an accurate composite portrait of John H. Finley.