it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.
It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster. Even the Cock-lane ghost had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America: which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood.
France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it. Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards. It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled tread: the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous.
In England, there was scarcely an amount of order and protection to justify much national boasting. Daring burglaries by armed men, and highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night; families were publicly cautioned not to go out of town without removing their furniture to upholsterers’ warehouses for security; the highwayman in the dark was a City tradesman in the light, and, being recognised and challenged by his fellow-tradesman whom he stopped in his character of “the Captain,” gallantly shot him through the head and rode away; the mail was waylaid by seven robbers, and the guard shot three dead, and then got shot dead himself by the other four, “in consequence of the failure of his ammunition:” after which the mail was robbed in peace; that magnificent potentate, the Lord Mayor of London, was made to stand and deliver on Turnham Green, by one highwayman, who despoiled the illustrious creature in sight of all his retinue; prisoners in London gaols fought battles with their turnkeys, and the majesty of the law fired blunderbusses in among them, loaded with rounds of shot and ball; thieves snipped off diamond crosses from the necks of noble lords at Court drawing-rooms; musketeers went into St. Giles’s, to search for contraband goods, and the mob fired on the musketeers, and the musketeers fired on the mob, and nobody thought any of these occurrences much out of the common way. In the midst of them, the hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition; now, stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now, hanging a housebreaker on Saturday who had been taken on Tuesday; now, burning people in the hand at Newgate by the dozen, and now burning pamphlets at the door of Westminster Hall; to-day, taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer’s boy of sixpence.
All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Environed by them, while the Woodman and the Farmer worked unheeded, those two of the large jaws, and those other two of the plain and the fair faces, trod with stir enough, and carried their divine rights with a high hand. Thus did the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among therest—along the roads that lay before them. …
Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back again to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants! No; the great magician who majestically works out the appointed order of the Creator, never reverses his transformations. ‘If thou be changed into this shape by the will of God,’ say the seers to the enchanted, in the wise Arabian stories, ‘then remain so! But, if thou wear this form through mere passing conjuration, then resume thy former aspect!’ Changeless and hopeless, the tumbrils roll along.
As the sombre wheels of the six carts go round, they seem to plough up a long crooked furrow among the populace in the streets. Ridges of faces are thrown to this side and to that, and the ploughs go steadily onward. So used are the regular inhabitants of the houses to the spectacle, that in many windows there are no people, and in some the occupation of the hands is not so much as suspended, while the eyes survey the faces in the tumbrils. Here and there, the inmate has visitors to see the sight; then he points his finger, with something of the complacency of a curator or authorised exponent, to this cart and to this, and seems to tell who sat here yesterday, and who there the day before.
Of the riders in the tumbrils, some observe these things, and all things on their last roadside, with an impassive stare; others, with a lingering interest in the ways of life and men. Some, seated with drooping heads, are sunk in silent despair; again, there are some so heedful of their looks that they cast upon the multitude such glances as they have seen in theatres, and in pictures. Several close their eyes, and think, or try to get their straying thoughts together. Only one, and he a miserable creature, of a crazed aspect, is so shattered and made drunk by horror, that he sings, and tries to dance. Not one of the whole number appeals by look or gesture, to the pity of the people.
There is a guard of sundry horsemen riding abreast of the tumbrils, and faces are often turned up to some of them, and they are asked some question. It would seem to be always the same question, for, it is always followed by a press of people towards the third cart. The horsemen abreast of that cart, frequently point out one man in it with their swords. The leading curiosity is, to know which is he; he stands at the back of the tumbril with his head bent down, to converse with a mere girl who sits on the side of the cart, and holds his hand. He has no curiosity or care for the scene about him, and always speaks to the girl. Here and there in the long street of St. Honore, cries are raised against him. If they move him at all, it is only to a quiet smile, as he shakes his hair a little more loosely about his face. He cannot easily touch his face, his arms being bound.
On the steps of a church, awaiting the coming-up of the tumbrils, stands the Spy and prison-sheep. He looks into the first of them: not there. He looks into the second: not there. He already asks himself, “Has he sacrificed me?” when his face clears, as he looks into the third.
“Which is Evremonde?” says a man behind him.
“That. At the back there.”
“With his hand in the girl’s?”
The man cries, “Down, Evremonde! To the Guillotine all aristocrats! Down, Evremonde!”
“Hush, hush!” the Spy entreats him, timidly.
“And why not, citizen?”
“He is going to pay the forfeit: it will be paid in five minutes more. Let him be at peace.”
But the man continuing to exclaim, “Down, Evremonde!” the face of Evremonde is for a moment turned towards him. Evremonde then sees the Spy, and looks attentively at him, and goes his way.
The clocks are on the stroke of three, and the furrow ploughed among the populace is turning round, to come on into the place of execution, and end. The ridges thrown to this side and to that, now crumble in and close behind the last plough as it passes on, for all are following to the Guillotine. In front of it, seated in chairs, as in a garden of public diversion, are a number of women, busily knitting. On one of the fore-most chairs, stands The Vengeance, looking about for her friend.
“Therese!” she cries, in her shrill tones. “Who has seen her? Therese Defarge!”
“She never missed before,” says a knitting-woman of the sisterhood.
“No; nor will she miss now,” cries The Vengeance, petulantly. “Therese.”
“Louder,” the woman recommends.
Ay! Louder, Vengeance, much louder, and still she will scarcely hear thee. Louder yet, Vengeance, with a little oath or so added, and yet it will hardly bring her. Send other women up and down to seek her, lingering somewhere; and yet, although the messengers have done dread deeds, it is questionable whether of their own wills they will go far enough to find her!
“Bad Fortune!” cries The Vengeance, stamping her foot in the chair, “and here are the tumbrils! And Evremonde will be despatched in a wink, and she not here! See her knitting in my hand, and her empty chair ready for her. I cry with vexation and disappointment!”
As The Vengeance descends from her elevation to do it, the tumbrils begin to discharge their loads. The ministers of Sainte Guillotine are robed and ready. Crash!—A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One.
The second tumbril empties and moves on; the third comes up. Crash!—And the knitting-women, never faltering or pausing in their Work, count Two.
The supposed Evremonde descends, and the seamstress is lifted out next after him. He has not relinquished her patient hand in getting out, but still holds it as he promised. He gently places her with her back to the crashing engine that constantly whirrs up and falls, and she looks into his face and thanks him.
“But for you, dear stranger, I should not be so composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart; nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here to-day. I think you were sent to me by Heaven.”
“Or you to me,” says Sydney Carton. “Keep your eyes upon me, dear child, and mind no other object.”
“I mind nothing while I hold your hand. I shall mind nothing when I let it go, if they are rapid.”
“They will be rapid. Fear not!”
The two stand in the fast-thinning throng of victims, but they speak as if they were alone. Eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, heart to heart, these two children of the Universal Mother, else so wide apart and differing, have come together on the dark highway, to repair home together, and to rest in her bosom.
“Brave and generous friend, will you let me ask you one last question? I am very ignorant, and it troubles me—just a little.”
“Tell me what it is.”
“I have a cousin, an only relative and an orphan, like myself, whom I love very dearly. She is five years younger than I, and she lives in a farmer’s house in the south country. Poverty parted us, and she knows nothing of my fate—for I cannot write—and if I could, how should I tell her! It is better as it is.”
“Yes, yes: better as it is.”
“What I have been thinking as we came along, and what I am still thinking now, as I look into your kind strong face which gives me so much support, is this:—If the Republic really does good to the poor, and they come to be less hungry, and in all ways to suffer less, she may live a long time: she may even live to be old.”
“What then, my gentle sister?”
“Do you think:” the uncomplaining eyes in which there is so much endurance, fill with tears, and the lips part a little more and tremble: “that it will seem long to me, while I wait for her in the better land where I trust both you and I will be mercifully sheltered?”
“It cannot be, my child; there is no Time there, and no trouble there.”
“You comfort me so much! I am so ignorant. Am I to kiss you now? Is the moment come?”
She kisses his lips; he kisses hers; they solemnly bless each other. The spare hand does not tremble as he releases it; nothing worse than a sweet, bright constancy is in the patient face. She goes next before him—is gone; the knitting-women count Twenty-Two.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. Twenty-Three.
They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.
One of the most remarkable sufferers by the same axe—a woman—had asked at the foot of the same scaffold, not long before, to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her. If he had given any utterance to his, and they were prophetic, they would have been these:
“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.
“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
‘I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.’
‘I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.’
‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.'” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities; first and last chapters
Numero Dos—“[February 7, 1775]
In a late Debate, a certain North British Colonel thought proper to recommend himself to the Court, by grossly abusing the Americans. I send you the Answer I should have made to him had I been present when he uttered his Invective, and I rely upon it, that you will shew that Candour and Justice to America which is refused in certain great Assemblies, and not condemn them without a Hearing.
‘Mr. Sp——r, Sir,
I am an American: In that Character I trust this House will shew some little Indulgence to the Feelings which are excited by what fell this Moment from an honourable and military Gentleman under the Gallery. According to him, Sir, the Americans are unequal to the People of this Country in Devotion to Women, and in Courage, and in what, in his Sight seems worse than all, they are religious.
No one, Sir, feels the Odiousness of Comparisons more than myself. But I am necessitated to pursue, in some measure, the Path which the honourable Gentleman has marked out. Sir, let the rapid Increase and Population of America, compared with the Decrease of England and of Scotland, shew which of the two People are most effectually devoted to the Fair Sex. The Americans are content to leave with that honourable Gentleman and his Companions the Boast, while the Fact is evidently with them. They are sensible, that upon this Subject to talk much, and to do little, are inseparable.
Sir, I am at a Loss to conceive upon what Facts the Gentleman grounds his Impeachment of American Courage. Is it upon the Capture of Louisbourg, and the Conquest of Nova Scotia in the War before the last? Is it upon their having alone taken Crown Point from the French Regulars, and made their General Prisoner, or from their having covered the Retreat of the British Regulars, and saved them from utter Destruction in the Expeditions under Braddock, and to Fort Pitt?4
Sir, it happens very unfortunately that the Regulars have impressed the Provincials with a very indifferent Opinion of their Courage. I will tell you why. They saw General Braddock at the Head of a regular Army march with a Thousand Boastings of their Courage and Superiority, and expressing the most sovereign Contempt of the Virginian Provincials who accompanied him. But in a little Time these vain Boasters were totally routed by a very unequal Number of French and Indians, and the Provincials rendered them the unthanked Service of saving them from being cut off to a Man. In the same Manner a Detachment of Highlanders, under a Major Grant, accompanied by the Virginians under Major Lewis, being attacked by the Indians, the Highlanders fled immediately, and left the Provincials to retreat and cover them.5 They saw several Campaigns of shameful Defeats, or as shameful Inactivity: Till at length the all-pervading Spirit of one great Officer, and the cautious Abilities of another,6 redeemed the British Name, and led her Sons to Conquest. The Expedition under Colonel Bouquet, assisted by a large Body of Provincials, owed its Success chiefly to those Provincials. I speak it from that brave Officer’s own Letters.7 It was Wolfe, Amherst and Bouquet who roused the Spirit of the Regulars, and led them to Glory and Success; and I am proud to say, Sir, these are not the Men who traduce the Americans, or speak slightly of their Services;8 nay more, Sir, the Men who disgraced the Regulars are those only who defame the Provincials. But why should any Gentleman talk in general Terms of their wanting Spirit? Indiscriminate Accusations against the Absent are cowardly Calumnies. Will the Gentleman come to Particulars? Will he name the American he has insulted with Impunity? Who is the provincial Officer who turned his Back in the Day of Battle? There is hardly a Day or an Hour, in which the Honourable Gentleman does not meet with an American. Does he insult any one of them with Impunity? Has he, or will he put their Spirit to the Proof? Till he has done that, Silence, I am sure, will do more Honour to his own.
The Honourable Gentleman says, the Regulars treated the Provincials as Beasts of Burthen. There are many of the Provincial Officers in this Town: I have the Honour of knowing them; and I can assure this House, that no Man living would say as much to their Face with Impunity. The Americans, Sir, are well satisfied, that the Ministry intend to make Beasts of Burthen of them. They tell you, however, they will not be Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water9 for any Men upon Earth: The Object of this Motion is to compel them. It is my Duty to say, they will and ought to resist such an Attempt; and that if I were there, I should do it without a Moment’s Hesitation.
I had almost forgot the Honourable Gentleman’s Charge of their being too religious. Sir, they were such Religionists, that vindicated this Country from the Tyranny of the Stuarts. Perhaps the Honourable Gentleman may have some compassionate Feelings for that unhappy Family: Does that sharpen his Resentment against the Americans; who inherit from those Ancestors, not only the same Religion, but the same Love of Liberty and Spirit to defend it?'” Benjamin Franklin, “An Imaginary Speech ”
Numero Tres—“Were I to express my feeling of honor and pleasure in having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I should be fulsome and perhaps tedious, and I present my gratitude with a plain ‘Thank you.’
I wish, in this address, to consider certain trends, certain dangers, and certain high and exciting promises in present-day American literature. To discuss this with complete and unguarded frankness – and I should not insult you by being otherwise than completely honest, however indiscreet – it will be necessary for me to be a little impolite regarding certain institutions and persons of my own greatly beloved land.
But I beg of you to believe that I am in no case gratifying a grudge. Fortune has dealt with me rather too well. I have known little struggle, not much poverty, many generosities. Now and then I have, for my books or myself, been somewhat warmly denounced – there was one good pastor in California who upon reading my Elmer Gantry desired to lead a mob and lynch me, while another holy man in the state of Maine wondered if there was no respectable and righteous way of putting me in jail. And, much harder to endure than any raging condemnation, a certain number of old acquaintances among journalists, what in the galloping American slang we call the «I Knew Him When Club », have scribbled that since they know me personally, therefore I must be a rather low sort of fellow and certainly no writer. But if I have now and then received such cheering brickbats, still I, who have heaved a good many bricks myself, would be fatuous not to expect a fair number in return.
No, I have for myself no conceivable complaint to make, and yet for American literature in general, and its standing in a country where industrialism and finance and science flourish and the only arts that are vital and respected are architecture and the film, I have a considerable complaint.
I can illustrate by an incident which chances to concern the Swedish Academy and myself and which happened a few days ago, just before I took the ship at New York for Sweden. There is in America a learned and most amiable old gentleman who has been a pastor, a university professor, and a diplomat. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and no few universities have honored him with degrees. As a writer he is chiefly known for his pleasant little essays on the joy of fishing. I do not Suppose that professional fishermen, whose lives depend on the run of cod or herring, find it altogether an amusing occupation, but from these essays I learned, as a boy, that there is something very important and spiritual about catching fish, if you have no need of doing so.
This scholar stated, and publicly, that in awarding the Nobel Prize to a person who has scoffed at American institutions as much as I have, the Nobel Committee and the Swedish Academy had insulted America. I don’t know whether, as an ex-diplomat, he intends to have an international incident made of it, and perhaps demand of the American Government that they land Marines in Stockholm to protect American literary rights, but I hope not.
I should have supposed that to a man so learned as to have been made a Doctor of Divinity, a Doctor of Letters, and I do not know how many other imposing magnificences, the matter would have seemed different; I should have supposed that he would have reasoned, «Although personally I dislike this man’s books, nevertheless the Swedish Academy has in choosing him honored America by assuming that the Americans are no longer a puerile backwoods clan, so inferior that they are afraid of criticism, but instead a nation come of age and able to consider calmly and maturely any dissection of their land, however scoffing.»
I should even have supposed that so international a scholar would have believed that Scandinavia, accustomed to the works of Strindberg, Ibsen, and Pontoppidan, would not have been peculiarly shocked by a writer whose most anarchistic assertion has been that America, with all her wealth and power, has not yet produced a civilization good enough to satisfy the deepest wants of human creatures.
I believe that Strindberg rarely sang the «Star-Spangled Banner» or addressed Rotary Clubs, yet Sweden seems to have survived him.
I have at such length discussed this criticism of the learned fisherman not because it has any conceivable importance in itself, but because it does illustrate the fact that in America most of us – not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias.
It is not today vastly more true than it was twenty years ago that such novelists of ours as you have read in Sweden, novelists like Dreiser and Willa Cather, are authentically popular and influential in America. As it was revealed by the venerable fishing Academician whom I have quoted, we still most revere the writers for the popular magazines who in a hearty and edifying chorus chant that the America of a hundred and twenty million population is still as simple, as pastoral, as it was when it had but forty million; that in an industrial plant with ten thousand employees, the relationship between the worker and the manager is still as neighborly and uncomplex as in a factory of 1840, with five employees; that the relationships between father and son, between husband and wife, are precisely the same in an apartment in a thirty-story palace today, with three motor cars awaiting the family below and five books on the library shelves and a divorce imminent in the family next week, as were those relationships in a rose-veiled five-room cottage in 1880; that, in fine, America has gone through the revolutionary change from rustic colony to world empire without having in the least altered the bucolic and Puritanic simplicity of Uncle Sam.
I am, actually, extremely grateful to the fishing Academician for having somewhat condemned me. For since he is a leading member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has released me, has given me the right to speak as frankly of that Academy as he has spoken of me. And in any honest study of American intellectualism today, that curious institution must be considered.
Before I consider the Academy, however, let me sketch a fantasy which has pleased me the last few days in the unavoidable idleness of a rough trip on the Atlantic. I am sure that you know, by now, that the award to me of the Nobel Prize has by no means been altogether popular in America. Doubtless the experience is not new to you. I fancy that when you gave the award even to Thomas Mann, whose Zauberberg seems to me to contain the whole of intellectual Europe, even when you gave it to Kipling, whose social significance is so profound that it has been rather authoritatively said that he created the British Empire, even when you gave it to Bernard Shaw, there were countrymen to those authors who complained because you did not choose another.
And I imagined what would have been said had you chosen some American other than myself. Suppose you had taken Theodore Dreiser.
Now to me, as to many other American writers, Dreiser more than any other man, marching alone, usually unappreciated, often hated, has cleared the trail from Victorian and Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction to honesty and boldness and passion of life. Without his pioneering, I doubt if any of us could, unless we liked to be sent to jail, seek to express life and beauty and terror.
My great colleague Sherwood Anderson has proclaimed this leadership of Dreiser. I am delighted to join him. Dreiser’s great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman.
Yet had you given the Prize to Mr. Dreiser, you would have heard groans from America; you would have heard that his style – I am not exactly sure what this mystic quality «style» may be, but I find the word so often in the writings of minor critics that I suppose it must exist – you would have heard that his style is cumbersome, that his choice of words is insensitive, that his books are interminable. And certainly respectable scholars would complain that in Mr. Dreiser’s world, men and women are often sinful and tragic and despairing, instead of being forever sunny and full of song and virtue, as befits authentic Americans.
And had you chosen Mr. Eugene O’Neill, who has done nothing much in American drama save to transform it utterly, in ten or twelve years, from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor and fear and greatness, you would have been reminded that he has done something far worse than scoffing – he has seen life as not to be neatly arranged in the study of a scholar but as a terrifying, magnificent, and often quite horrible thing akin to the tornado, the earthquake, the devastating fire.
And had you given Mr. James Branch Cabell the Prize, you would have been told that he is too fantastically malicious. So would you have been told that Miss Willa Cather, for all the homely virtue of her novels concerning the peasants of Nebraska, has in her novel, The Lost Lady, been so untrue to America’s patent and perpetual and possibly tedious virtuousness as to picture an abandoned woman who remains, nevertheless, uncannily charming even to the virtuous, in a story without any moral; that Mr. Henry Mencken is the worst of all scoffers; that Mr. Sherwood Anderson viciously errs in considering sex as important a force in life as fishing; that Mr. Upton Sinclair, being a Socialist, sins against the perfectness of American capitalistic mass production; that Mr. Joseph Hergesheimer is un-American in regarding graciousness of manner and beauty of surface as of some importance in the endurance of daily life; and that Mr. Ernest Hemingway is not only too young but, far worse, uses language which should be unknown to gentlemen; that he acknowledges drunkenness as one of man’s eternal ways to happiness, and asserts that a soldier may find love more significant than the hearty slaughter of men in battle.
Yes, they are wicked, these colleagues of mine; you would have done almost as evilly to have chosen them as to have chosen me; and as a chauvinistic American – only, mind you, as an American of 1930 and not of 1880 – I rejoice that they are my countrymen and countrywomen, and that I may speak of them with pride even in the Europe of Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Galsworthy, Knut Hamsun, Arnold Bennett, Feuchtwanger, Selma Lagerlöf, Sigrid Undset, Verner von Heidenstam, D’Annunzio, Romain Rolland.
It is my fate in this paper to swing constantly from optimism to pessimism and back, but so is it the fate of anyone who writes or speaks of anything in America – the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.
Thus, having with no muted pride called the roll of what seem to me to be great men and women in American literary life today, and having indeed omitted a dozen other names of which I should like to boast were there time, I must turn again and assert that in our contemporary American literature, indeed in all American arts save architecture and the film, we – yes, we who have such pregnant and vigorous standards in commerce and science – have no standards, no healing communication, no heroes to be followed nor villains to be condemned, no certain ways to be pursued, and no dangerous paths to be avoided.
The American novelist or poet or dramatist or sculptor or painter must work alone, in confusion, unassisted save by his own integrity.
That, of course, has always been the lot of the artist. The vagabond and criminal François Villon had certainly no smug and comfortable refuge in which elegant ladies would hold his hand and comfort his starveling soul and more starved body. He, veritably a great man, destined to outlive in history all the dukes and puissant cardinals whose robes he was esteemed unworthy to touch, had for his lot the gutter and the hardened crust.
Such poverty is not for the artist in America. They pay us, indeed, only too well; that writer is a failure who cannot have his butler and motor and his villa at Palm Beach, where he is permitted to mingle almost in equality with the barons of banking. But he is oppressed ever by something worse than poverty – by the feeling that what he creates does not matter, that he is expected by his readers to be only a decorator or a clown, or that he is good-naturedly accepted as a scoffer whose bark probably is worse than his bite and who probably is a good fellow at heart, who in any case certainly does not count in a land that produces eighty-story buildings, motors by the million, and wheat by the billions of bushels. And he has no institution, no group, to which he can turn for inspiration, whose criticism he can accept and whose praise will be precious to him.
What institutions have we?
The American Academy of Arts and Letters does contain, along with several excellent painters and architects and statesmen, such a really distinguished university president as Nicholas Murray Butler, so admirable and courageous a scholar as Wilbur Cross, and several first-rate writers: the poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, the free-minded publicist James Truslow Adams, and the novelists Edith Wharton, Hamlin Garland, Owen Wister, Brand Whitlock, and Booth Tarkington.
But it does not include Theodore Dreiser, Henry Mencken, our most vivid critic, George Jean Nathan, who, though still young, is certainly the dean of our dramatic critics, Eugene O’Neill, incomparably our best dramatist, the really original and vital poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg, Robinson Jeffers and Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology was so utterly different from any other poetry ever published, so fresh, so authoritative, so free from any gropings and timidities that it came like a revelation and created a new school of native American poetry. It does not include the novelists and short-story writers, Willa Cather, Joseph Hergesheimer, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway, Louis Bromfield, Wilbur Daniel Steele, Fannie Hurst, Mary Austin, James Branch Cabell, Edna Ferber, nor Upton Sinclair, of whom you must say, whether you admire or detest his aggressive socialism, that he is internationally better known than any other American artist whosoever, be he novelist, poet, painter, sculptor, musician, architect.
I should not expect any Academy to be so fortunate as to contain all these writers, but one which fails to contain any of them, which thus cuts itself off from so much of what is living and vigorous and original in American letters, can have no relationship whatever to our life and aspirations. It does not represent the literary America of today – it represents only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
It might be answered that, after all, the Academy is limited to fifty members; that, naturally, it cannot include every one of merit. But the fact is that while most of our few giants are excluded, the Academy does have room to include three extraordinarily bad poets, two very melodramatic and insignificant playwrights, two gentlemen who are known only because they are university presidents, a man who was thirty years ago known as a rather clever, humorous draughtsman, and several gentlemen of whom – I sadly confess my ignorance – I have never heard.
Let me again emphasize the fact – for it is a fact – that I am not attacking the American Academy. It is a hospitable and generous and decidedly dignified institution. And it is not altogether the Academy’s fault that it does not contain many of the men who have significance in our letters. Sometimes it is the fault of those writers themselves. I cannot imagine that grizzly bear Theodore Dreiser being comfortable at the serenely Athenian dinners of the Academy, and were they to invite Mencken, he would infuriate them with his boisterous jeering. No, I am not attacking – I am reluctantly considering the Academy because it is so perfect an example of the divorce in America of intellectual life from all authentic standards of importance and reality.
Our universities and colleges, or gymnasia, most of them, exhibit the same unfortunate divorce. I can think of four of them, Rollins College in Florida, Middlebury College in Vermont, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago – which has had on its roll so excellent a novelist as Robert Herrick, so courageous a critic as Robert Morss Lovett – which have shown an authentic interest in contemporary creative literature. Four of them. But universities and colleges and musical emporiums and schools for the teaching of theology and plumbing and signpainting are as thick in America as the motor traffic. Whenever you see a public building with Gothic fenestration on a sturdy backing of Indiana concrete, you may be certain that it is another university, with anywhere from two hundred to twenty thousand students equally ardent about avoiding the disadvantage of becoming learned and about gaining the social prestige contained in the possession of a B.A degree.
Oh, socially our universities are close to the mass of our citizens, and so are they in the matter of athletics. A great college football game is passionately witnessed by eighty thousand people, who have paid five dollars apiece and motored anywhere from ten to a thousand miles for the ecstasy of watching twenty-two men chase one another up and down a curiously marked field. During the football season, a capable player ranks very nearly with our greatest and most admired heroes – even with Henry Ford, President Hoover, and Colonel Lindbergh.
And in one branch of learning, the sciences, the lords of business who rule us are willing to do homage to the devotees of learning. However bleakly one of our trader aristocrats may frown upon poetry or the visions of a painter, he is graciously pleased to endure a Millikan, a Michelson, a Banting, a Theobald Smith.
But the paradox is that in the arts our universities are as cloistered, as far from reality and living creation, as socially and athletically and scientifically they are close to us. To a true-blue professor of literature in an American university, literature is not something that a plain human being, living today, painfully sits down to produce. No; it is something dead; it is something magically produced by superhuman beings who must, if they are to be regarded as artists at all, have died at least one hundred years before the diabolical invention of the typewriter. To any authentic don, there is something slightly repulsive in the thought that literature could be created by any ordinary human being, still to be seen walking the streets, wearing quite commonplace trousers and coat and looking not so unlike a chauffeur or a farmer. Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.
I do not suppose that American universities are alone in this. I am aware that to the dons of Oxford and Cambridge, it would seem rather indecent to suggest that Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy and George Moore may, while they commit the impropriety of continuing to live, be compared to anyone so beautifully and safely dead as Samuel Johnson. I suppose that in the universities of Sweden and France and Germany there exist plenty of professors who prefer dissection to understanding. But in the new and vital and experimental land of America, one would expect the teachers of literature to be less monastic, more human, than in the traditional shadows of old Europe.
They are not.
There has recently appeared in America, out of the universities, an astonishing circus called «the New Humanism.» Now of course «humanism» means so many things that it means nothing. It may infer anything from a belief that Greek and Latin are more inspiring than the dialect of contemporary peasants to a belief that any living peasant is more interesting than a dead Greek. But it is a delicate bit of justice that this nebulous word should have been chosen to label this nebulous cult.
Insofar as I have been able to comprehend them – for naturally in a world so exciting and promising as this today, a life brilliant with Zeppelins and Chinese revolutions and the Bolshevik industrialization of farming and ships and the Grand Canyon and young children and terrifying hunger and the lonely quest of scientists after God, no creative writer would have the time to follow all the chilly enthusiasms of the New Humanists – this newest of sects reasserts the dualism of man’s nature. It would confine literature to the fight between man’s soul and God, or man’s soul and evil.
But, curiously, neither God nor the devil may wear modern dress, but must retain Grecian vestments. Oedipus is a tragic figure for the New Humanists; man, trying to maintain himself as the image of God under the menace of dynamos, in a world of high-pressure salesmanship, is not. And the poor comfort which they offer is that the object of life is to develop self- discipline – whether or not one ever accomplishes anything with this self-discipline. So the whole movement results in the not particularly novel doctrine that both art and life must be resigned and negative. It is a doctrine of the blackest reaction introduced into a stirringly revolutionary world.
Strangely enough, this doctrine of death, this escape from the complexities and danger of living into the secure blankness of the monastery, has become widely popular among professors in a land where one would have expected only boldness and intellectual adventure, and it has more than ever shut creative writers off from any benign influence which might conceivably have come from the universities.
But it has always been so. America has never had a Brandes, a Taine, a Goethe, a Croce.
With a wealth of creative talent in America, our criticism has most of it been a chill and insignificant activity pursued by jealous spinsters, ex-baseball-reporters, and acid professors. Our Erasmuses have been village schoolmistresses. How should there be any standards when there has been no one capable of setting them up?
The great Cambridge-Concord circle of the middle of the nineteenth century – Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, the Alcotts – were sentimental reflections of Europe, and they left no school, no influence. Whitman and Thoreau and Poe and, in some degree, Hawthorne, were outcasts, men alone and despised, berated by the New Humanists of their generation. It was with the emergence of William Dean Howells that we first began to have something like a standard, and a very bad standard it was.
Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men, but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity but all of what H. G. Wells has called «the jolly coarsenesses of life». In his fantastic vision of life, which he innocently conceived to be realistic, farmers, and seamen and factory hands might exist, but the farmer must never be covered with muck, the seaman must never roll out bawdy chanteys, the factory hand must be thankful to his good kind employer, and all of them must long for the opportunity to visit Florence and smile gently at the quaintness of the beggars.
So strongly did Howells feel this genteel, this New Humanistic philosophy that he was able vastly to influence his contemporaries, down even to 1914 and the turmoil of the Great War.
He was actually able to tame Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest of our writers, and to put that fiery old savage into an intellectual frock coat and top hat. His influence is not altogether gone today. He is still worshipped by Hamlin Garland, an author who should in every way have been greater than Howells but who under Howells’ influence was changed from a harsh and magnificent realist into a genial and insignificant lecturer. Mr. Garland is, so far as we have one, the dean of American letters today, and as our dean, he is alarmed by all of the younger writers who are so lacking in taste as to suggest that men and women do not always love in accordance with the prayer-book, and that common people sometimes use language which would be inappropriate at a women’s literary club on Main Street. Yet this same Hamlin Garland, as a young man, before he had gone to Boston and become cultured and Howellsised, wrote two most valiant and revelatory works of realism, Main-Traveled Roads and Rose of Dutcher’s Coolie.
I read them as a boy in a prairie village in Minnesota just such an environment as was described in Mr. Garland’s tales. They were vastly exciting to me. I had realized in reading Balzac and Dickens that it was possible to describe French and English common people as one actually saw them. But it had never occurred to me that one might without indecency write of the people of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, as one felt about them. Our fictional tradition, you see, was that all of us in Midwestern villages were altogether noble and happy; that not one of us would exchange the neighborly bliss of living on Main Street for the heathen gaudiness of New York or Paris or Stockholm. But in Mr. Garland’s Main-Traveled Roads I discovered that there was one man who believed that Midwestern peasants were sometimes bewildered and hungry and vile – and heroic. And, given this vision, I was released; I could write of life as living life.
I am afraid that Mr. Garland would be not pleased but acutely annoyed to know that he made it possible for me to write of America as I see it, and not as Mr. William Dean Howells so sunnily saw it. And it is his tragedy, it is a completely revelatory American tragedy, that in our land of freedom, men like Garland, who first blast the roads to freedom, become themselves the most bound.
But, all this time, while men like Howells were so effusively seeking to guide America into becoming a pale edition of an English cathedral town, there were surly and authentic fellows – Whitman and Melville, then Dreiser and James Huneker and Mencken – who insisted that our land had something more than tea-table gentility.
And so, without standards, we have survived. And for the strong young men, it has perhaps been well that we should have no standards. For, after seeming to be pessimistic about my own and much beloved land, I want to close this dirge with a very lively sound of optimism.
I have, for the future of American literature, every hope and every eager belief. We are coming out, I believe, of the stuffiness of safe, sane, and incredibly dull provincialism. There are young Americans today who are doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see that I am a little too old to be one of them.
There is Ernest Hemingway, a bitter youth, educated by the most intense experience, disciplined by his own high standards, an authentic artist whose home is in the whole of life; there is Thomas Wolfe, a child of, I believe, thirty or younger, whose one and only novel, Look Homeward, Angel, is worthy to be compared with the best in our literary production, a Gargantuan creature with great gusto of life; there is Thornton Wilder, who in an age of realism dreams the old and lovely dreams of the eternal romantics; there is John Dos Passos, with his hatred of the safe and sane standards of Babbitt and his splendor of revolution; there is Stephen Benét, who to American drabness has restored the epic poem with his glorious memory of old John Brown; there are Michael Gold, who reveals the new frontier of the Jewish East Side, and William Faulkner, who has freed the South from hoopskirts; and there are a dozen other young poets and fictioneers, most of them living now in Paris, most of them a little insane in the tradition of James Joyce, who, however insane they may be, have refused to be genteel and traditional and dull.
I salute them, with a joy in being not yet too far removed from their determination to give to the America that has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost far cabins, billions of money and tons of faith, to an America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China, a literature worthy of her vastness.” Sinclair Lewis, “The American Fear of Literature;” a Nobel Literary Laureate’s lecture: http://www.nobelprize.org/
Numero Quatro—“Drawing on papers written by students in a seminar Professor Eric Foner directed in the spring of 2015 and another directed by Thai Jones in the spring of 2016, all of which will soon be posted on this website, as well as Professor Foner’s research and relevant secondary sources, this report summarizes Columbia’s connections with slavery and with antislavery movements from the founding of King’s College to the end of the Civil War. Significant gaps remain in our knowledge, and investigations into the subject, as well as into the racial history of the university after 1865, will continue. …King’s was the richest colonial college; its endowment, derived from province-sponsored lotteries, grants of land from New York’s government, and philanthropic gifts from its governors and others, reached 17,000 pounds on the eve of the Revolution, almost equal to that of all the other colonial colleges combined. Yet because of the cost of constructing and maintaining the college building, King’s found itself in constant need of operating funds and it launched numerous fund-raising campaigns, including a number in the West Indies. Many prominent New York merchants not only had business contacts in the Caribbean but owned property there and sent members of their families to live and handle their affairs. Few donations were forthcoming. Of course, those that were came from slaveowners.[i]
Most of King’s money came from New York. The College netted over 8,000 pounds from a bequest in the will of Joseph Murray, a well-connected, childless New York lawyer who served as a King’s governor from 1754 until his death in 1757. This was the largest single philanthropic gift in colonial America. Murray had acted as assistant prosecutor during the 1741 “slave plot” trials. He obtained convictions for two of his own slaves, Jack and Adam, the former of whom admitted that he planned to kill Murray and his family. Both were “transported” out of New York as punishment. These events may have made Murray think in new ways about the institution of slavery. In the will that gave his estate to King’s, he also freed two slaves and provided an annual stipend of 20 pounds for their support. Freeing slaves in a will was highly unusual in colonial New York.[ii]
Merchants, including “the wealthiest and most important men of their time” considerably outnumbered lawyers, ministers, and others on the board of governors. They donated generously to the College. The initial list of 66 “subscribers,” who donated a total of over 5,000 pounds to help launch King’s, included Atlantic slave traders John Watts, Nathaniel Marston, Adoniah Schuyler, and John Cruger, and many others engaged in commerce with the Caribbean. Apart from Governor Charles Hardy, who gave 500 pounds, the largest contribution, 200, came from Marston, one of the city’s merchants most actively involved in the slave trade from Africa. Most of the donors had a connection to slavery either via ownership or trade.[iii]
If King’s profited from its mercantile connections, some of the governors personally benefitted from their relationship to King’s. Augustus Van Horne, whose ancestors had accumulated wealth via the slave trade and who himself owned slaves (one of whom, Caesar, ran away in April 1786), became treasurer of King’s in 1779. At the request of the board of governors, he conducted an audit of the college accounts and discovered that a number of governors and graduates, as well as other prominent New Yorkers, some with no connection at all to the college, for years had used the King’s endowment as a source of credit, borrowing funds at below-market interest rates. The governors on the list included Leonard Lispenard, Van Horne’s predecessor as treasurer of King’s and a member of a prominent slaveowning merchant family; the previously mentioned Justice Hormanden; James Delancey, a slaveholding lawyer; and Henry Cuyler, a 1762 graduate who inherited his father’s sugar refining business and as late as 1800 owned four slaves. Access to credit was a persistent problem for merchants and others in late colonial New York. King’s’ endowment helped to subsidize the mercantile and other business activities of men who profited from slavery.[iv] …
Like most northern colleges (with the exception of a handful including Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, and Oberlin), Columbia admitted no black students before the Civil War. How many tried to enter remains unknown. James McCune Smith, a product of the African Free School, applied in 1831 and was rejected, he and other abolitionists claimed, “on account of his complexion.” Smith went on to earn a medical degree from the University of Glasgow. He returned to the United States to practice as a physician and became a leading figure in the abolitionist movement. Columbia’s whites-only character did not derive from a desire to attract students from the South. Unlike Harvard, Yale, and especially Princeton, with their large southern contingents, Columbia had fewer than a dozen southern undergraduates during the entire period from 1790 to 1860. Because it provided no accommodations or meals for students, the college attracted almost exclusively students from New York City. Geographical diversity meant an undergraduate from Long Island or New Jersey[i].
Between the late 1820s and the 1840s, however, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, an independent institution founded in 1807, which absorbed Columbia’s tiny medical department seven years later and which in turn was absorbed into Columbia in 1860, allowed three black students to attend lectures and laboratory classes in preparation for receiving medical degrees. This was not the result of a sudden upsurge of racial egalitarianism. Many of the founders of P and S were slaveowners and members of the faculty contributed to the era’s scientific racism. While still an undergraduate at Columbia, John Wakefield Francis, who went on to become a P and S professor and trustee, wrote a paper “On the Bodily and Mental Inferiority of the Negro,” which he presented to a medical society that included faculty members of Columbia and P and S. Francis explored various explanations for what he called blacks’ “manifest inferiority,” but his clinching argument rested on his contention that “there never has appeared among the negro a single poet, a single mathematician, in a word a single character who can claim preeminence by the power of the mind.” Several faculty of Columbia’s medical school testified in 1808 in the case of Alexander Whistelo, which revolved around a paternity suit but addressed the issue of innate racial characteristics.[ii]
The president of P and S from 1831 to 1843 was John Augustine Smith, a member of a prominent Virginia family, and a faculty member from 1808 to 1820. In his “Course of Anatomical Instruction” during his term on the faculty, Smith sought to demonstrate the superiority of “the European” over other races, including the Mongol, Malay, and Ethiopian, from an examination of their “anatomical structure,” including “facial angle” and “capacity of the cranium.” Years later, in 1843, Smith delivered a public lecture in New York City on the “different races of men.” Smith concluded that the “Caucasian … might justly be said to stand at the head of all the races of the earth,” while blacks’ “mental powers are upon an inferior scale.” In measurements such as “facial angle,” the “Ethiopian race” was far closer to the orang outan than Caucasians. Smith added that “this can never justify any people in keeping them in slavery.” Nonetheless, Smith was convinced that if freed and allowed to remain in the United States, blacks were “sure to be exterminated,” and he became an avid proponent of colonization.[iii]
On the eve of the Civil War, Dr. John C. Dalton, a P and S professor from 1855 to 1869 and later the institution’s president, published a treatise in which he concluded that “the size of the cerebrum in different races” corresponded to “their grade of intelligence.” The smallest cerebrum was found among “the savage negro and Indian tribes,” the largest in “the enlightened European races.” A prominent P and S graduate, Joseph LeConte, who grew up on a slave plantation in Georgia, received his degree in 1845 and was a professor at the University of South Carolina during and immediately after the Civil War. He was so incensed by the admission of black students as part of Radical Reconstruction that he resigned and moved as far away as he could while still remaining in the country – taking up a professorship at Berkeley. Like other medical scientists of the era, LeConte’s writings, replete with discussion of selective breeding, inheritance of racial characteristics, and the dangers of racial mixing, gave a scientific veneer to racism.[iv]
The admission of black students to P and S arose from the American Colonization Society’s desire to send black physicians to Liberia. White doctors who had made the journey had perished from tropical diseases. Three aspiring black physicians – John Brown, Washington Davis, and David McDonogh–were allowed to study at P and S, their fees and expenses paid by the Colonization Society. They were admitted on condition that they emigrated upon receiving their medical degrees. Things did not work out exactly as planned. At the conclusion of their studies, two of the students, Brown and McDonogh, decided not to leave for Liberia, whereupon President Smith withheld their degrees. Brown, the first professionally trained black physician in the city, made his living as a teacher and public lecturer and died in 1840. McDonogh, the son of a colonizationist slaveowner in Louisiana, embarked on a long career practicing medicine at the New York Ear and Eye Infirmary, where he appears to have been accepted by the other physicians. Davis, the son of black Americans who had emigrated to Liberia in the 1820s, had been brought back to the United States for education by an agent of the ACS. In 1835 he addressed a pro-colonization meeting in Philadelphia. He completed his studies at P and S and practiced medicine in Liberia from 1835 until his death in 1853.[v]
The presence of these black students does not alter the fact that P and S maintained a whites-only admission policy. This became a matter of public controversy in 1850 when James Parker Barnett was summarily expelled. Barnett’s father, also named James, ran a metal-working business in the city. The younger Barnett, born in 1830, was educated at a private academy, then at the University of the City of New York (now NYU), where he graduated fifth in his class. He entered P and S in 1848 as part of a class of 230 students, the large majority of whom, unlike him, had not completed college. Barnett attended two of the three required years of lectures. But on October 1, 1850, shortly after the start of his third year, he was summed before a group of faculty members. A “southern gentleman” at the College (P and S, unlike Columbia College, had many southern students) had complained that Barnett was “colored.” Asked about his race, the light-skinned Barnett replied, “I must confess that my mother is not of the Anglo Saxon race, but of Creole descent …. My father is neither of the Anglo-Saxon race.” (Later, Barnett would describe his father as a “French Creole gentleman” and his mother as a “French Creole lady.”) The faculty group informed Barnett that he could not continue at the school. “They said they … were mere servants of the trustees,” Barnett reported. “That they had a rule binding upon them not to admit colored students, that they had repeatedly refused former applications.” “Now, Mr. Bennett,” declared Professor of Obstetrics Chandler R. Gilman, “do not come here again, where you are not wanted.”
Bennett and his father did not go away quietly. When the trustees appointed a faculty committee to look into the matter, the senior Bennett sent them an impassioned plea. “I am a citizen of this great state of New York,” he wrote, “and annually pay a tax of $125.00 on my real estate, for the support of the government and education of the youth of the state…. I cannot be willing to believe that any citizen can thus be deprived of his rights.” But on October 30, 1850, a special meeting of trustees and faculty voted to uphold Barnett’s expulsion. They claimed that Barnett had intentionally misled the school about his race. His sister had married the black abolitionist Dr. James McCune Smith. Smith knew that in 1846, a black student had applied for admission to P and S and been rejected, because, according to Frederick Douglass’ Newspaper, “of the anticipated opposition of students from slave states. He had inquired whether a black applicant could be admitted, and been told he could not, so Barnett did not mention his race when he applied.
Barnett’s father next brought the situation to the attention of the indefatigable John Jay II. Jay filed a petition in the Supreme Court of New York for a writ of mandamus, to compel P and S to readmit Barnett. The petition dealt with the injury to his reputation Barnett had suffered by expulsion, not racial discrimination per se (partly because this was not illegal in New York State and partly because Barnett, according to a report in an abolitionist newspaper, “would pass anywhere for white.”) In March 1851, Justice John W. Edmonds, a strongly antislavery jurist, issued the writ. Eighteen months then elapsed before the trustees proposed that Barnett be awarded an honorary degree, but the senior Barnett rejected this option. The P and S trustees then decided to fight the writ in court. Their lawyer contended that having a “person of colour” as a student would injure the college because other students would withdraw. In April 1853, the case came before Justice James J. Roosevelt of the Superior Court, Columbia Class of 1815 and a slaveowner in his youth. Roosevelt ruled the original writ invalid. Bennett went on to receive a medical degree from Dartmouth. He was serving as a physician at the Colored Orphan Asylum during the New York City draft riots of 1863 and helped evacuate the children as the building burned.[vi] ” Eric Foner, a Columbia University Preliminary Report of its investigation of its slavery ties, Introduction & Chapter Two, “Where the Money Came From,” & Chapter Nine, “Columbia, Physicians & Surgeons, Race Science, & Black Students “