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An essay by Rupert Brooke

Boston And Harvard

Title:     Boston And Harvard
Author: Rupert Brooke [More Titles by Brooke]

It is right to leave Boston late in a summer afternoon, and by sea. Naval departure is always the better. A train snatches you, hot, dusty, and smoky, with an irritated hurry out of the back parts of a town. The last glimpse of a place you may have grown to like or love is, ignobly, interminable rows of the bedroom-windows in mean streets, a few hovels, some cinder-heaps, and a factory chimney. As like as not, you are reft from a last wave to the city's unresponsive and dingy back by the roar and suffocation of a tunnel. By sea one takes a gracefuller, more satisfactory farewell.

Boston put on her best appearance to watch our boat go out for New York. The harbour was bright with sunlight and blue water and little white sails, and there wasn't more than the faintest smell of tea. The city sat primly on her little hills, decorous, civilised, European-looking. It is homely after New York. The Boston crowd is curiously English. They have nice eighteenth-century houses there, and ivy grows on the buildings. And they are hospitable. All Americans are hospitable; but they haven't _quite_ time in New York to practise the art so perfectly as the Bostonians. It is a lovely art.... But Boston also makes you feel at home without meaning to. A delicious ancient Toryism is to be found here. "What is wrong with America," a middle-aged lady told me, "is this _Democracy_. They ought to take the votes away from these people, who don't know how to use them, and give them only to _us_, the Educated." My heart leapt the Atlantic, and was in a Cathedral or University town of South England.

Yet Boston is alive. It sits, in comfortable middle-age, on the ruins of its glory. But it is not buried beneath them. It used to lead America in Literature, Thought, Art, everything. The years have passed. It is remarkable how nearly now Boston is to New York what Munich is to Berlin. Boston and Munich were the leaders forty years ago. They can't quite make out that they aren't now. It is too incredible that Art should leave her goose-feather bed and away to the wraggle-taggle business-men. And certainly, if Berlin and New York are more 'live,' Boston and Munich are more themselves, less feverishly imitations of Paris. But the undisputed palm is there no more; and its absence is felt.

But I had little time to taste Boston itself. I was lured across the river to a place called Cambridge, where is the University of Harvard. Harvard is the Oxford and Cambridge of America, they claim. She has moulded the nation's leaders and uttered its ideals. Harvard, Boston, New England, it is impossible to say how much they are interwoven, and how they have influenced America. I saw Harvard in 'Commencement,' which is Eights Week and May Week, the festive winding-up of the year, a time of parties and of valedictions. One of the great events of Commencement, and of the year, is the Harvard-Yale baseball match. To this I went, excited at the prospect of my first sight of a 'ball game,' and my mind vaguely reminiscent of the indolent, decorous, upper-class crowd, the sunlit spaces, the dignified ritual, and white-flannelled grace of Lord's at the 'Varsity cricket match. The crowd was gay, and not very large. We sat in wooden stands, which were placed in the shape of a large V. As all the hitting which counts in baseball takes place well in front of the wicket, so to speak, the spectators have the game right under their noses; the striker stands in the angle of the V and plays outwards. The field was a vast place, partly stubbly grass, partly worn and patchy, like a parade-ground. Beyond it lay the river; beyond that the town of Cambridge and the University buildings. Around me were undergraduates, with their mothers and sisters. 'Cambridge'! ... but there entered to us, across the field, a troop of several hundred men, all dressed in striped shirts of the same hue and pattern, and headed by a vast banner which informed the world that they were the graduates of 1910, celebrating their triennial. In military formation they moved across the plain towards us, led by a band, ceaselessly vociferating, and raising their straw hats in unison to mark the time. There followed the class of 1907, attired as sailors; 1903, the decennial class, with some samples of their male children marching with them, and a banner inscribed "515 Others. No Race Suicide"; 1898, carefully arranged in an H-shaped formation, dancing along to their music with a slow polka-step, each with his hands on the shoulders of the man in front, and at the head of all their leader, dancing backwards in perfect time, marshalling them; 1888, middle-aged men, again with some children, and a Highland regiment playing the bagpipes.

When these had passed to the seats allotted for them, I had time to observe the players, who were practising about the ground, and I was shocked. They wear dust-coloured shirts and dingy knickerbockers, fastened under the knee, and heavy boots. They strike the English eye as being attired for football, or a gladiatorial combat, rather than a summer game. The very close-fitting caps, with large peaks, give them picturesquely the appearance of hooligans. Baseball is a good game to watch, and in outline easy to understand, as it is merely glorified rounders. A cricketer is fascinated by their rapidity and skill in catching and throwing. There is excitement in the game, but little beauty except in the long-limbed 'pitcher,' whose duty it is to hurl the ball rather further than the length of a cricket-pitch, as bewilderingly as possible. In his efforts to combine speed, mystery, and curve, he gets into attitudes of a very novel and fantastic, but quite obvious, beauty. M. Nijinsky would find them repay study.

One queer feature of this sport is that unoccupied members of the batting side, fielders, and even spectators, are accustomed to join in vocally. You have the spectacle of the representatives of the universities endeavouring to frustrate or unnerve their opponents, at moments of excitement, by cries of derision and mockery, or heartening their own supporters and performers with exclamations of 'Now, Joe!' or 'He's got them!' or 'He's the boy!' At the crises in the fortunes of the game, the spectators take a collective and important part. The Athletic Committee appoints a 'cheer-leader' for the occasion. Every five or ten minutes this gentleman, a big, fine figure in white, springs out from his seat at the foot of the stands, addresses the multitude through a megaphone with a 'One! Two! Three!' hurls it aside, and, with a wild flinging and swinging of his body and arms, conducts ten thousand voices in the Harvard yell. That over, the game proceeds, and the cheer-leader sits quietly waiting for the next moment of peril or triumph. I shall not easily forget that figure, bright in the sunshine, conducting with his whole body, passionate, possessed by a demon, bounding in the frenzy of his inspiration from side to side, contorted, rhythmic, ecstatic. It seemed so wonderfully American, in its combination of entire wildness and entire regulation, with the whole just a trifle fantastic. Completely friendly and befriended as I was, I couldn't help feeling at those moments very alien and very, very old--even more so than after the protracted game had ended in a victory for Harvard, when the dusty plain was filled with groups and lines of men dancing in solemn harmony, and a shouting crowd, broken by occasional individuals who could find some little eminence to lead a Harvard yell from, and who conducted the bystanders, and then vanished, and the crowd swirled on again.

Different enough was the scene next day, when all Harvard men who were up for Commencement assembled and, arranged by years, marched round the yard. Class by class they paraded, beginning with veterans of the 'fifties, down to the class of 1912. I wonder if English nerves could stand it. It seems to bring the passage of time so very presently and vividly to the mind. To see, with such emphatic regularity, one's coevals changing in figure, and diminishing in number, summer after summer!.... Perhaps it is nobler, this deliberate viewing of oneself as part of the stream. To the spectator, certainly, the flow and transiency become apparent and poignant. In five minutes fifty years of America, of so much of America, go past one. The shape of the bodies, apart from the effects of age, the lines of the faces, the ways of wearing hair and beard and moustaches, all these change a little decade by decade, before your eyes. And through the whole appearance runs some continuity, which is Harvard.

The orderly progression of the years was unbroken, except at one point. There was one gap, large and arresting. Though all years were represented, there seemed to be nobody in the procession between fifty and sixty. I asked a Harvard friend the reason. "The War," he said. He told me there had always been that gap. Those who were old enough to be conscious of the war had lost a big piece of their lives. With their successors a new America began. I don't know how true it is. Certainly, the dates worked out right. And I met an American on a boat who had been a child in one of the neutral States. He used to watch the regiments forming in the main street of his town, and marching out, some north and some south. He said it felt as though pieces of his body were being torn in different directions. And he was only nine.

The procession filed in to an open court, to hear the speeches of the recipients of honorary degrees, and the President's annual statement. There was still, in every sense, a solemn atmosphere. The President's speech floated out into the great open space; fragments of it were blown to one's ears concerning deaths, and the spirit of the place, and a detailed account of the money given during the year. Eleven hundred thousand dollars in all--a record, or nearly a record. We roared applause. The American universities appear still to dream of the things of this world. They keep putting up the most wonderful and expensive buildings. But they do not pay their teachers well.

Yet Harvard is a spirit, a way of looking at things, austerely refined, gently moral, kindly. The perception of it grows on the foreigner. Its charm is so deliciously old in this land, so deliciously young compared with the lovely frowst of Oxford and Cambridge. You see it in temperament, the charm of simplicity and good-heartedness and culture; in the Harvard undergraduate, who is a boy, while his English contemporary is either a young man or a schoolboy, less pleasant stages; and in the old Bostonian who heard, and still hears, the lectures of Dickens and Thackeray. Class Day brings so many of that older generation together. They reveal what Harvard, what Boston, was. There is something terrifying in the completeness of their lives and their civilisation. They are like a company of dons whose studies are of a remote and finished world. But the subject of their scholarship is the Victorian age, and especially Victorian England. Hence their liveliness and certainty, greater than men can reach who are concerned with the dubieties and changes of incomplete things. Hence the wit, the stock of excellent stories, the wrinkled wisdom and mirth of the type. They are the flower of a civilisation, its ripest critics, and final judges. Carlyle and Emerson are their greatest living heroes. One of them bent the kindliness and alert interest of his eighty years upon me. "So you come from Rugby," he said. "Tell me, do you know that curious creature, Matthew Arnold?" I couldn't bring myself to tell him that, even in Rugby, we had forgiven that brilliant youth his iconoclastic tendencies some time since, and that, as a matter of fact, he had died when I was eight months old.

[The end]
Rupert Brooke's essay: Boston And Harvard