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An essay by George William Curtis

Brains And Brawn

Title:     Brains And Brawn
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It is towards the end of June and in the first days of July that the great college aquatic contests occur, and it is about that time, as the soldiers at Monmouth knew in 1778, that Sirius is lord of the ascendant. This year it was the hottest day of the summer, as marked by the mercury in New York, when the Harvard and Yale men drew out at New London for their race. Fifty years ago the crowd at Commencement filled the town green and streets, and the meeting-house in which the graduating class were the heroes of the hour. The valedictorian, the salutatorian, the philosophical orator, walked on air, and the halo of after-triumphs of many kinds was not brighter or more intoxicating than the brief glory of the moment on which they took the graduating stage, under the beaming eyes of maiden beauty and the profound admiration of college comrades.

Willis, as Phil Slingsby, has told the story of that college life fifty and sixty years ago. The collegian danced and drove and flirted and dined and sang the night away. Robert Tomes echoed the strain in his tale of college life a little later, under stricter social and ecclesiastical conditions. There was a more serious vein also. In 1827 the Kappa Alpha Society was the first of the younger brood of the Greek alphabet--descendants of the Phi Beta Kappa of 1781--and in 1832 Father Eells, as he is affectionately called, founded Alpha Delta Phi, a brotherhood based upon other aims and sympathies than those of Mr. Philip Slingsby, but one which appealed instantly to clever men in college, and has not ceased to attract them to this happy hour, as the Easy Chair has just now commemorated.

But neither in the sketches of Slingsby nor in the memories of those Commencement triumphs is there any record of an absorbing and universal and overpowering enthusiasm such as attends the modern college boat-race. The race of this year between the two great New England universities, Harvard and Yale--the Crimson and the Blue--was a twilight contest, for "high-water," says the careful chronicler, "did not occur until seven o'clock." At half-past six he describes the coming of the grand armada and the expectant scene in these words: "The _Block Island_ came down from Norwich with every square foot of her three decks occupied, the _Elm City_ brought a mass of Yale sympathizers from New Haven, and the big _City of New York_ filled her long saloon-deck with New London spectators. A special train of eighteen cars came up from New Haven, a blue flag fluttering from every window. The striking contrast to the life and bustle of the lower end of the course was the quiet river at the starting-point. The college launches, the huge tug _America_, the press-boat _Manhasset_, loaded with correspondents, the tug _Burnside_, swathed in crimson by her charter party of Harvard men, and the steam-yacht _Norma_, gay with party-colored bunting, floated idly up-stream, waiting for the start. The long train of twenty-five observation-cars stood quietly by the river-side, its occupants closely watching the boat-houses across the river."

Did any fleet of steamers solid with eager spectators, or special train of eighteen cars, or long train of twenty-five observation-cars, a vast, enthusiastic multitude, ever arrive at any college upon any Commencement Day in Philip Slingsby's time to greet with prolonged roars of cheers and frenzied excitement the surpassing eloquence of Salutatorian Smith, or the melting pathos of Valedictorian Jones? Did ever--for so we read in the veracious history of a day, the newspaper--did ever a college town resound with "a perfect babel of noises" from eight in the summer evening until three in the summer morning, the town lighted with burning tar-barrels and blazing with fireworks, the chimes ringing, and ten thousand people hastening to the illuminated station to receive the victors in triumph--because Brown had vanquished the calculus, or Jones discovered a comet, or Robinson translated the _Daily Gong and Gas Blower_ into the purest Choctaw? In a word, was such tumult of acclamation--even the President himself swinging his reverend hat, and the illustrious alumni, far and near, when the glad tidings were told, beaming with joyful complacency, like Mr. Pickwick going down the slide, while Samivel Weller adjured him and the company to keep the pot a-bilin'--ever produced by any scholastic performance or success or triumph whatever?

Echo undoubtedly answers No; and she asks, also, whether in such a competition, when the appeal is to youth, eager, strong, combative, full of physical impulse and prowess, in the time of romantic enjoyment and heroic susceptibility, study is not heavily handicapped, and books at a sorry disadvantage with boats. This is what Echo distinctly inquiries; and what answer shall be made to Echo? Who is the real hero to young Slingsby, who has just fitted himself to enter college--the victor in the boat-race or the noblest scholar of them all? The answer seems to be given unconsciously in the statement that the number of students applying for entrance is notably larger when the college has scored an athletic victory. But this answer is not wholly satisfactory. There may be an observable coincidence, but young men usually prepare themselves to enter a particular college, and do not await the result of boat-races.

But the fact remains that the true college hero of to-day is the victor in games and sports, not in studies; and it is not unnatural that it should be so. It is partly a reaction of feeling against the old notion that a scholar is an invalid, and that a boy must be down in his muscle because he is up in his mathematics. But, as Lincoln said in his debate with Douglas, it does not follow, because I think that innocent men should have equal rights, that I wish my daughter to marry a negro. It does not follow, because the sound mind should be lodged in a sound body, that the care of the body should become the main, and virtually the exclusive, interest.

Yet that this is now somewhat the prevailing tendency of average feeling is undeniable, and it is a tendency to be considered by intelligent collegians themselves. For the true academic prizes are spiritual, not material; and the heroes for college emulation are not the gladiators, but the sages and poets of the ancient day and of all time. The men that the college remembers and cherishes are not ball-players, and boat-racers, and high-jumpers, and boxers, and fencers, and heroes of single-stick, good fellows as they are, but the patriots and scholars and poets and orators and philosophers. Three cheers for brawn, but three times three for brain!

(_September_, 1887)

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George William Curtis's essay: Brains And Brawn