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"Best in the System"

Faculty Profile

By Philip M. Boffey

A House superintendent calls him "a gentleman, in every sense of the word;" a colleague feels he gives "probably this country's best graduate training in continental medieval history;" an immaculate student is shocked to see him gardening in the very oldest of clothes; an injured house athlete finds him the first to arrive at his side; a house secretary notes that he mixes "a darn good martini;" and a Harvard administrator partially explains the above by adding that "he is a truly kind human being, with a deep personal interest in people."

With such a character, Charles Holt Taylor, Henry Charles Lea Professor of Mediaeval History, would be a success in any task involving people, and he seems particularly adapted to his role as master of Kirkland House. As one student phrased it, "I don't know just what qualities the ideal housemaster should have, but I'm pretty sure Professor Taylor has them."

Two of these qualities would certainly be a wide range of interests and a genuine concern for people and what they are doing. Taylor possesses both of these to a remarkable degree. His interests run the gamut from history (especially Medieval and Civil War) to world affairs to athletics (he often closes his eyes during tense moments of football games and has to ask what happened afterward) to jazz to billiards (he was seeded in the house tournaments last year) to bird watching, geology, and gardening (it is not unusual to find him discussing a problem with a student while him discussing a problem with a studen while yard.)

Naturally one of his main concerns is with the House in particular, but he also shows a keen interest in student affairs in general. "I am not a producing scholar," Taylor once observed, and there is much truth in this statement. For time that might otherwise have been alloted to research has been spent instead in behalf of students. Taylor served six "valuable" years on the administrative board, which handles many areas of undergraduate life, and has been on the athletic committee since its inception in 1951. In addition, WHRB has just appointed him one of its initial trustees.

But perhaps the best measure of Taylor's concern for his students was supplied by a colleague in the history department. "Charles is very fond of a farm he owns up in northern Vermont," the colleague said, "but several times over the past few years he hasn't gone up because of a student problem that was bothering him. There aren't many of us who can resist the lure of a weekend."

The same spirit which impels him to miss a weekend shows up in the highly personal, more- than-academic nature of his lectures. His style is not at all flamboyant. Rather it is quiet and slow, involving much pacing up and down and straining of tortured hands. The students seem to like it though, for his courses retain their popularity year after year. His course on Medieval Intellectual History averages 80-120 pupils, while his medieval French course attracts 70-100. And this despite the fact that they are in Medieval history.

Some of his students attribute this popularity to the high level and interesting character of his presentation. But there seems to be something else involved. Some students seem to feel that they are getting more than a knowledge of medieval history--that they are getting a way of looking at history. As one student put it, "He impresses on you an integrity of reasoning, a refusal to slide over difficulties and oversimplify."

Although Taylor lays no claims to being a "publishing scholar," he has done some very sound work in his special field of Medieval French Institutional history. He has published several articles on the beginnings of French representative institutions, which demonstrate "good work on an exact basis" according to one colleague. Along with J.R. Strayer of Princeton, he has also published a book on "Studies in Early French Taxation."

Taylor got his first impetus toward history from eight great-aunts. Born in Bedford, Virginia, in 1899 to a northern father and a southern mother, he moved to Maplewood, N.J., at the age of one, but frequent visits back to Virginia enabled his aunts to bring him up in a fervor of Confederate sentiment. Strongly southern in feelings (his earliest published work, which appeared in a local paper when he was ten years old, was a pathetic poem on Lee's army), he become ambitious to rewrite the history of the Civil War "in a proper way."

After graduating second in his class from Columbia High School in South Orange, N.J., and first in his class from Washington and Lee University in 1919, he spent two more years doing graduate work and teaching history. He then came to Harvard, undecided, but still cherishing his Civil War fancies. Here, he quickly gave them up, however, partly because Professor Channing, a pronounced anti-Southerner, controlled the field.

Instead, he worked in medieval history under Professor Haskins, and in 1922 started teaching as a section man in Haskins' old History I course. He spent the next three years in Europe on a fellowship, and in Paris in 1925 he met his wife. Their marriage gave rise to many rumors at Radcliffe to the effect that he had married one French wife and divorced two other, but the gossip was spiked when his wife turned out to be an American.

On his return, Taylor took over the first half of History 1 at Radcliffe and continued as a section man in the same course at Harvard until 1930. The year 1927 was an especially big one for him, as he gained his PhD, became a tutor, and was appointed assistant professor.

With the initiation of the House system in 1931, Taylor was appointed first to the Lowell staff, then to Adams House, where the remained till 1955. In 1934 he became an associate professor and also "spent a very pleasant half-year" as acting master of Adams. He gained his full professorship in 1942.

Before that could take place, however, his academic career was severely interrupted by the Second World War. Emotionally involved in the issues, he helped form a Harvard American defense group to propagandize on the interventionist side. In 1942 he volunteered and gained his second commission (his first came in World War I) as a captain in military intelligence.

In 1943, when the historical division of the war department was formed, Taylor was one of the first appointed. He counts the rewards and pleasures of working with this tightly knit group as a "major experience," and one which has no real parallel in the somewhat isolated academic life.

The group was mainly concerned with getting fuller records on the lower levels of command, and its chief method was on-the-spot interviews of units involved. For his work along these lines and for his monograph on Omaha beach. Taylor was awarded the Legion of Merit. In 1946 he was discharged as a colonel.

On his return from the war, Taylor found it difficult to adjust to academic life. Since 1940 he had done no thinking along medieval lines, and he discovered that he was "cold," that his old notes no longer meant anything to him. In addition, he faced the problem of whether or not to continue working on military history part time. After a year of inner debate, he finally decided to devote all his efforts to the University.

When he returned to Harvard, Taylor took over the teaching of the first half of History I, but, with the advent of General Education, he and Crane Brinton transformed the course into the present Social Sciences I. Taylor taught the first fine half of this course up through last year, when he gave it up, partly to have more time for research, and partly because he felt the course had reached the stage of development he had been aiming at.

Since he has only been master of Kirkland House for one full year, no great "Taylor" legends or "Taylor" traditions have had time to develop. But both students and faculty are unanimous in voicing a warm respect for him. As one voluble staff member put it, "We feel we've got the best master in the system, and that's all there is to it."

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