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"The Five-Foot Shelf," part seven

Posted by David Mehegan  November 7, 2006 10:45 AM

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Charles William Eliot

To say so would have seemed ludicrous to either of them, but I believe there was an American commonality between Charles William Eliot (1834-1926), longtime president of Harvard and editor of the “Harvard Classics: The Five-Foot Shelf of Books,” and John Jeremiah Humphreys, my grandfather, who owned and loved those books. Eliot was a wealthy Brahmin, educated at Harvard and in Europe, a reformer in secondary and higher education. Grandad had a ninth-grade diploma from St. Mary’s Grammar School in the North End, and a law degree from Northeastern night school. But both of them believed that any person could love, acquire, and benefit from the life of the mind. Given access to books, Eliot said it required but “fifteen minutes a day.” Though Grandad fell short of his dreams, he was the proof that Eliot was right.

Grandmother and Grandad had moved to 76 West Cedar Street (the “West End” part of Beacon Hill) in 1929, and never moved again. She had always dreamed of owning a home, and, as my mother writes in her 1980 memoir, with her thrift and capacity for work, they might have done it. But Grandad was reluctant. He had various practical reasons. The real reason, my mother suspected, was that “he knew he would have to sacrifice on his reading if we owned a house.”

He retired from the Water Department in 1945, when he was 70. As a city employee, he had no Social Security, and his pension was only $125 a month (it stopped at his death). Grandad “enjoyed his leisure by at last having all the time in the world to read,” my mother writes. But he had developed diabetes when he was 54, and when he reached his late seventies, side-effects began to appear. First came neuropathies in his legs, then terrible attacks of anxiety and guilt over the imagined sins of his long-ago youth. He would pace back and forth and ask, “Why am I like this?”

Then, deep depression. “He stopped reading, even stopped going to church,” my mother writes. “He would just sit in the wing chair in the window of the living room, smoking his pipe. He became increasingly withdrawn.” I was a young child, but I remember a silent old man, carefully eating his dinner.

In the spring of 1955, he caught a severe cold, which progressed to pneumonia. With cares and family of her own, my mother did not at first realize how sick he was, but when his doctor put him into Massachusetts General Hospital, she hurried in to see him. “I was shocked at how frail he had become,” she writes. “I impulsively took him in my arms. I could not believe this was my father. I felt as if I were holding a child.” He died a few weeks short of his 80th birthday.

John Humphreys pemberton.jpg
John Jeremiah Humphreys in old age.

Though they had such different lives, no one could have revered Charles William Eliot any more than John Humphreys was admired by those who knew him. At the end of my mother’s memoir are these words: “Dad’s life, though he might have thought it unsuccessful, was, on the contrary, the life of a totally successful human being.” Besides his indirect influence and her writings, all that we have of him are a few photographs and papers, his rosary, and the “Five-Foot Shelf.”

Next week: epilogue.

(Previous installments appeared Sept. 19, 26, Oct. 4, 16, 23, and 30.)

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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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