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"The Five-Foot Shelf," part six

Posted by David Mehegan  October 30, 2006 04:57 PM

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It's fun to think what we might include if offered the chance, as Charles William Eliot was in 1909, to create our own version of the "Harvard Classics: the Five-Foot Shelf of Books." No one today, perhaps no one in Eliot's time, would make all the choices he made. He was striving to create a tool of self-education -- to do good. In his 2001 Harvard Magazine article, Adam Kirsch notices Eliot's optimism in treating science as a force for social uplift, and his use of philosophy "to teach ...a manly ethic, a stoical toughness in the conduct of life."

Likewise, Eliot's selection of imaginative literature is weighted toward triumphal storytelling: the Odyssey, Beowulf, Nordic epics, the 1001 Nights, Malory's telling of the quest for the Holy Grail, tales of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Richard Henry Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast" is included, as well as "Voyages and Travels, Ancient and Modern." The only novel is "Don Quixote" --another quest.

Kirsch notices that things truly dark have mostly been omitted. The Odyssey is here, but not the Iliad. Machiavelli is present, but not Freud, Marx, nor Nietzsche -- little to rattle the solid structure of Victorian/Edwardian self-esteem and intellect. But then, in 1910 the horrors of 1914-1918, to say nothing of the Holocaust, could scarcely have been imagined by an optimist who believed, as Eliot wrote, in "the upward tendency of the human race."

Steeped as he was in his beloved "Five-Foot Shelf," which he read all his life, a fissure gradually opened for my grandfather, John Humphreys, between his love of learning and his old dreams of what it might mean beyond pleasure. Somewhere in my mother's writings, she quotes Grandmother as saying to her, "Mary, what you think is the most important thing about yourself doesn't make a bit of difference to other people." For Grandad, that truth had a cruel inversion: What others treasured in him was of less value in the implacable gaze of his own self-expectation.

One incident in my mother's 1980 memoir of him I have always found to be heartbreaking. It took place on May 15, 1925:

"I remember standing with him looking out the window of our apartment on North Anderson Street [in Boston's West End] on his fiftieth birthday. I was 14. Suddenly he turned to me and he said, 'Mary, I'm fifty and I'm a complete failure. I thought the world would be my oyster when I was this old.' To this day, I can remember how shocked and saddened I was, because I thought he was the world. I can remember telling him how wrong he was, but not convincing him."

Often I have puzzled at this passage over the last 25 years. What did he mean, the man who never made it as a lawyer because he could not bring himself to bill the poor, who refused to stuff his pockets with graft as a city inspector because he had "never accepted to much as a cigar," who worked hard all his life, who was totally involved with his wife and children's lives?

There was, I surmise, a tension between the dream of making the world his oyster, and the old Catholic ideal -- still very much with us -- of holy poverty. Not that you should aspire to poverty, but that if it were your lot, it had a beauty in God's sight that far exceeded wealth. Material success, and the effort to attain it, was regarded with suspicion. "You have no idea how this was hammered into us," my mother writes -- the lilies of the field, the camel in the eye of the needle, seek ye first the Kingdom of God, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, etc., an emphasis that no doubt would have seemed bizarre to New England Protestants or to Jews. But Grandad was American, and much closer to Eliot than to his Irish parents. He didn't want to be rich, but he did hope to attain some kind of distinction, at least to create a better, more secure life for his children than that which he had known.

However, with his honed conscience and sensitive nature, he might not have been cut out for worldly success. His father once ordered him, when he was a small boy, to drown a litter of unwanted kittens. Grandad recalled, "I died with every one of them."

So disillusioned did he become about education that he did not encourage my mother and uncles to go to college. One quality he lacked, my mother writes, was vision. He could not imagine that the future could be any different from the present. Education hadn't improved his lot, so how could it do so for Joe, Mary, Jack, or Ned? To keep the wolf from the door, at times he had to accept help from his unmarried firefighter brother, who surely didn't know Charles Darwin from Charlie Chaplin.

Still, he read, read, read. "I know Mama felt his reading was excessive," my mother writes. "One time she said, 'John, will you fix the lock on the kitchen door, and see if you can do it without bringing Socrates into it??' Books and reading became anathema to her, in one way, because they seemed to be obstacles to progress." She was chagrined to see my mother become almost as bookish as Grandad. More next week.

(Previous installments appeared Sept. 19, 26, Oct. 4, 16, and 23. )

John Humphreys.jpg
John Jeremiah Humphreys in middle age

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About off the shelf News about books, authors, and publishers from The Boston Globe.
Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.

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