The Ghosts of Harvard


The Yard is full of ghosts. Fall term reminds us at Halloween with its spirits, goblins and things that go bump in the night, and last month Scrooge (Yale '29)--with the frightening spirits of Christmas past, present and to come--has spooked around. But the Yard is always full of ghosts, and our response to their existence will help determine our academic success and our basic happiness. I refer, of course, to the spirits of distinguished and famous Harvardians whose names, pictures, statues and marble busts, are all around us. Their presence is constant and sometimes oppressive.

You might ask why we red-blooded, indeed crimson-blooded, living persons should be intimidated by ghosts. Well, of course, there are more of them than there are of us. They've "done things," and most of us haven't "done things" yet. Almost all the ghosts who have statues and nameplates are men, and some of us who wish the positive force of the Harvard past to help us are women. Especially late at night when the blood sugar is low and there is quiet all through the house, except for the clicking of the occasional mouse, it's easy to be spooked by the ghosts around us.

Even the gate we enter from the Science Center with its quote from Emerson's September 13, 1836, journal entry is a description of Harvard men stretching back to eternity:

I went to the College Jubilee on the 8th instant. A noble & well thought of anniversary. The pathos of the occasion was extreme & not much noted by the speakers. Cambridge at any time is full of ghosts; but on that day the anointed eye saw the crowd of spirits that mingled with the procession in the vacant spaces, year by year, as the classes proceeded; and then the far longer train of ghosts that followed the company, of the men that wore before us the college honors & the laurels of the state--the long winding train reach back into eternity.

The cumulative effect of these ghostly forces upon the living classes is real. Perhaps it is greatest in the dark of the night or, for some, in the morning, before breakfast at Annenberg can provide the sustenance to invigorate the crimson cells and platelets. For others it is possibly greatest when going to class in subjects that have been shaped by the men who have become these ghosts. Think of government: Adams, Adams, Roosevelt, Roosevelt and Kennedy; philosophy: Emerson, Santayana, William James; the sciences: Agassiz, Bowdich and all those Nobel laureates; and literature: from John Harvard himself, who hailed from the same town as Shakespeare, to Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.


We don't need to hire ghostbusters. We value these spirits. After all, they have helped make the Harvard we all wanted to come to. We just don't want to be intimidated and, of course, she who is unwilling to be intimidated can't be intimidated.

I live in "Historic Hollis Hall," as the tour guides outside my window love to remind me at 8 a.m. Inevitably over the last four months, I have learned some of the history of my dorm. Hollis dates back to the 18th century, when George Washington and his troops stayed here during the Revolution. My roommate and I have looked for any musket bullet-holes in our walls, but they must have been plastered over during the renovation.

During the first week of school, I had just been trying to picture our large double as army barracks when under our door was slid the official Harvard list: "Occupants of Hollis 5." As we scanned the list we noticed three names: first, that of Ralph Waldo Emerson '21 (that's 1821), who lived in our room in 1818-19. Then, three pages down the list were printed our names: Flora Ting-ting Kao and Susannah Barton Tobin, Class of 2000. After the initial thrill of "living in Ralph's room," my next response was straight out of "Wayne's World:" We're not worthy! Three months later, although I have discovered that my roommate is definitely worthy of living in Emerson's old haunt, I am still thinking about the burden of tradition and achievement at this grand old university and how we, the fresh-faced members of the class of 2000, will fit into the grand scheme of things.

What we need to do is find that middle ground between valuing these ghosts too much and ignoring them as best we can in the interest of our own sanity and independence. My own solution--and this more a guideline than a rule--has come from using the wisdom of my ghostly Hollis roommate, R.W. Emerson himself. We know how he favored independence and how he wasn't afraid to be creatively inconsistent. As he said (probably around fall term?), "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Well, maybe I'm being a little inconsistent when I want to treasure the past and simultaneously find a space in Harvard's history for myself and my classmates right now. I believe that we who have no trouble appreciating the achievements of the past can avoid being awestruck to the point of inactivity. Emerson provides the answer in his journal, a copy of which he evidently left in our room, like a snowflake from the antler of Blitzen or one of Santa's whiskers. It is the last part of the same entry on the wall of the Science Center gate:

But among the living was more melancholy reflection, namely the identity of all the persons with that which they were in youth, in college halls. I found my old friends the same; the same jokes pleased, the same straws tickled; the manhood & offices they brought hither today seemed masks; underneath, we were still boys.

That is the key. All that greatness and still just boys! Well, we can handle that. Though we might not always remember it, we do have the best of both worlds: the inspiration of our illustrious predecessors and the independence to move forward and create our own history.

Susannah Barton Tobin '00 is learning the virtues of self-reliance.

Even the Science Center gate holds a description of Harvard men stretching back the eternity.

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