George William Curtis.

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By George William Curtis


The publication of this collection of Essays was suggested by some remarks
of a college professor, in the course of which he said that about a dozen
of the "Easy Chair" Essays in Harper's Magazine so nearly cover the more
vital questions of hygiene, courtesy, and morality that they might be
gathered into a volume entitled "Ars Recte Vivendi," and as such they are
offered to the public.














Young Sardanapalus recently remarked that the only trouble with his life
in college was that the societies and clubs, the boating and balling,
and music and acting, and social occupations of many kinds, left him no
time for study. He had the best disposition to treat the faculty fairly,
and to devote a proper attention to various branches of learning, and
he was sincerely sorry that his other college engagements made it
quite impossible. Before coming to college he thought that it might be
practicable to mingle a little Latin and Greek, and possibly a touch of
history and mathematics, with the more pressing duties of college life; but
unless you could put more hours into the day, or more days into the week,
he really did not see how it could be done.

It was the life of Sardanapalus in college which was the text of some sober
speeches at Commencement dinners during the summer, and of many excellent
articles in the newspapers. They all expressed a feeling which has been
growing very rapidly and becoming very strong among old graduates,
that college is now a very different place from the college which they
remembered, and that young men now spend in a college year what young men
in college formerly thought would be a very handsome sum for them to spend
annually when they were established in the world. If any reader should
chance to recall a little book of reminiscences by Dr. Tomes, which was
published a few years ago, he will have a vivid picture of the life of
forty and more years ago at a small New England college; and the similar
records of other colleges at that time show how it was possible for a poor
clergyman starving upon a meagre salary to send son after son to college.
The collegian lived in a plain room, and upon very plain fare; he had no
"extras," and the decorative expense of Sardanapalus was unknown. In the
vacations he taught school or worked upon the farm. He knew that his father
had paid by his own hard work for every dollar that he spent, and the
relaxation of the sense of the duty of economy which always accompanies
great riches had not yet begun. Sixty years ago the number of Americans who
did not feel that they must live by their own labor was so small that it
was not a class. But there is now a class of rich men's sons.

The average rate of living at college differs. One of the newspapers, in
discussing the question, said that in most of the New England colleges a
steady and sturdy young man need not spend more than six hundred dollars
during the four years. This is obviously too low an estimate. Another
thinks that the average rate at Harvard is probably from six hundred to ten
hundred a year. Another computes a fair liberal average in the smaller New
England colleges to be from twenty-four to twenty-six hundred dollars for
the four years, and the last class at Williams is reported to have ranged
from an average of six hundred and fifty dollars in the first year to seven
hundred and twenty-eight dollars in the Senior. But the trouble lies in
Sardanapalus. The mischief that he does is quite disproportioned to the
number of him. In a class of one hundred the number of rich youth may be
very small. But a college class is an American community in which every
member is necessarily strongly affected by all social influences.

A few "fellows" living in princely extravagance in superbly furnished
rooms, with every device of luxury, entertaining profusely, elected into
all the desirable clubs and societies, conforming to another taste and
another fashion than that of the college, form a class which is separate
and exclusive, and which looks down on those who cannot enter the charmed
circle. This is galling to the pride of the young man who cannot compete.
The sense of the inequality is constantly refreshed. He may, indeed, attend
closely to his studies. He may "scorn delights, and live laborious days."
He may hug his threadbare coat and gloat over his unrugged floor as the
fitting circumstance of "plain living and high thinking." It is always
open to character and intellect to perceive and to assert their essential
superiority. Why should Socrates heed Sardanapalus? Why indeed? But the
average young man at college is not an ascetic, nor a devotee, nor an
absorbed student unmindful of cold and heat, and disdainful of elegance
and ease and the nameless magic of social accomplishment and grace. He is
a youth peculiarly susceptible to the very influence that Sardanapalus
typifies, and the wise parent will hesitate before sending his son to
Sybaris rather than to Sparta.

When the presence of Sardanapalus at Harvard was criticised as dangerous
and lamentable, the President promptly denied that the youth abounded
at the university, or that his influence was wide-spread. He was there
undoubtedly, and he sometimes misused his riches. But he had not
established a standard, and he had not affected the life of the university,
whose moral character could be favorably compared with that of any college.
But even if the case were worse, it is not evident that a remedy is at
hand. As the President suggested, there are two kinds of rich youth at
college. There are the sons of those who have been always accustomed to
riches, and who are generally neither vulgar nor extravagant, neither
ostentatious nor profuse; and the sons of the "new rich," who are like men
drunk with new wine, and who act accordingly.

The "new rich" parent will naturally send his son to Harvard, because it
is the oldest of our colleges and of great renown, and because he supposes
that through his college associations his son may pave a path with
gold into "society." Harvard, on her part, opens her doors upon the
same conditions to rich and poor, and gives her instruction equally,
and requires only obedience to her rules of order and discipline. If
Sardanapalus fails in his examination he will be dropped, and that he is
Sardanapalus will not save him. If his revels disturb the college peace, he
will be warned and dismissed. All that can be asked of the college is that
it shall grant no grace to the golden youth in the hope of endowment from
his father, and that it shall keep its own peace.

This last condition includes more than keeping technical order. To remove
for cause in the civil service really means not only to remove for a penal
offence, but for habits and methods that destroy discipline and efficiency.
So to keep the peace in a college means to remove the necessary causes of
disturbance and disorder. If young Sardanapalus, by his extravagance and
riotous profusion and dissipation, constantly thwarts the essential purpose
of the college, demoralizing the students and obstructing the peaceful
course of its instruction, he ought to be dismissed. The college must judge
the conditions under which its work may be most properly and efficiently
accomplished, and to achieve its purpose it may justly limit the liberty of
its students.

The solution of the difficulty lies more in the power of the students than
of the college. If the young men who are the natural social leaders make
simplicity the unwritten law of college social life, young Sardanapalus
will spend his money and heap up luxury in vain. The simplicity and good
sense of wealth will conquer its ostentation and reckless waste.

(_October_, 1886)


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)


As if a bell had rung, and the venerable dormitories and halls upon
the green were pouring forth a crowd of youth loitering towards the
recitation-room, the Easy Chair, like a college professor, meditating
serious themes, and with a grave purpose, steps to the lecture-desk. It
begins by asking the young gentlemen who have loitered into the room, and
are now seated, what they think of bullying boys and hunting cats and tying
kettles to a dog's tail, and seating a comrade upon tacks with the point
upward. Undoubtedly they reply, with dignified nonchalance, that it is all
child's play and contemptible. Undoubtedly, young gentlemen, answers the
professor, and, to multiply Nathan's remark to David, You are the men!

As American youth you cherish wrathful scorn for the English boy who makes
another boy his fag, and you express a sneering pity for the boy who
consents to fag. You have read _Dr. Birch and His Young Friends_, and
you would like to break the head of Master Hewlett, who shies his shoe at
the poor shivering, craven Nightingale, and you justly remark that close
observation of John Bull seems to warrant the conclusion that the nature of
his bovine ancestor is still far from eliminated from his descendant. And
what is the secret of your feeling? Simply that you hate bullying. Why,
then, young gentlemen, do you bully?

You retort perhaps that fagging is unknown in America, and that
high-spirited youth would not tolerate it. But permit the professor to
tell you what is not unknown in America: a crowd of older young gentlemen
surrounding one younger fellow, forcing him to do disagreeable and
disgusting things, pouring cold water down his back, making a fool of him
to his personal injury, he being solitary, helpless, and abused - all this
is not unknown in America, young gentlemen. But it is all very different
from what we have been accustomed to consider American. If we would morally
define or paraphrase the word America, I think we should say fair-play.
That is what it means. That is what the Brownist Puritans, the precursors
of the Plymouth Pilgrims, left England to secure. They did not bring
it indeed, at least in all its fulness, across the sea. Let us say,
young gentlemen, that its potentiality, its possibility, rather than its
actuality, stepped out of the _Mayflower_ upon Plymouth Rock. But from
the moment of its landing it has been asserting itself. You need not say
"Baptist" and "Quaker." I understand it and allow for it all. But fair-play
has prevailed over ecclesiastical hatred and over personal slavery, and
what are called the new questions - corporate power, monopoly, capital, and
labor - are only new forms of the old effort to secure fair-play.

Now the petty bullying of hazing and the whole system of college tyranny is
a most contemptible denial of fair-play. It is a disgrace to the American
name, and when you stop in the wretched business to sneer at English
fagging you merely advertise the beam in your own eyes. It is not possible,
surely, that any honorable young gentleman now attending to the lecture of
the professor really supposes that there is any fun or humor or joke in
this form of college bullying. Turn to your _Evelina_ and see what
was accounted humorous, what passed for practical joking, in Miss Burney's
time, at the end of the last century. It is not difficult to imagine Dr.
Johnson, who greatly delighted in _Evelina_, supposing the intentional
upsetting into the ditch of the old French lady in the carriage to be a
joke. For a man who unconsciously has made so much fun for others as "the
great lexicographer," Dr. Johnson seems to have been curiously devoid of a
sense of humor. But he was a genuine Englishman of his time, a true John
Bull, and the fun of the John Bull of that time, recorded in the novels and
traditions, was entirely bovine.

The bovine or brutal quality is by no means wholly worked out of the
blood even yet. The taste for pugilism, or the pummelling of the human
frame into a jelly by the force of fisticuffs, as a form of enjoyment or
entertainment, is a relapse into barbarism. It is the instinct of the tiger
still surviving in the white cat transformed into the princess. I will not
call it, young gentlemen, the fond return of Melusina to the gambols of the
mermaid, or Undine's momentary unconsciousness of a soul, because these are
poetic and pathetic suggestions. The prize-ring is disgusting and inhuman,
but at least it is a voluntary encounter of two individuals. But college
bullying is unredeemed brutality. It is the extinction of Dr. Jekyll in Mr.
Hyde. It is not humorous, nor manly, nor generous, nor decent. It is bald
and vulgar cruelty, and no class in college should feel itself worthy of
the respect of others, or respect itself, until it has searched out all
offenders of this kind who disgrace it, and banished them to the remotest

The meanest and most cowardly fellows in college may shine most in hazing.
The generous and manly men despise it. There are noble and inspiring ways
for working off the high spirits of youth: games which are rich in poetic
tradition; athletic exercises which mould the young Apollo. To drive
a young fellow upon the thin ice, through which he breaks, and by the
icy submersion becomes at last a cripple, helpless with inflammatory
rheumatism - surely no young man in his senses thinks this to be funny, or
anything but an unspeakable outrage. Or to overwhelm with terror a comrade
of sensitive temperament until his mind reels - imps of Satan might delight
in such a revel, but young Americans! - never, young gentlemen, never!

The hazers in college are the men who have been bred upon dime novels and
the prize-ring - in spirit, at least, if not in fact - to whom the training
and instincts of the gentleman are unknown. That word is one of the most
precious among English words. The man who is justly entitled to it wears
a diamond of the purest lustre. Tennyson, in sweeping the whole range of
tender praise for his dead friend Arthur Hallam, says that he bore without
abuse the grand old name of gentleman. "Without abuse" - that is the wise
qualification. The name may be foully abused. I read in the morning's
paper, young gentlemen, a pitiful story of a woman trying to throw herself
from the bridge. You may recall one like it in Hood's "Bridge of Sighs."
The report was headed: "To hide her shame." "_Her_ shame?" Why,
gentlemen, at that very moment, in bright and bewildering rooms, the arms
of Lothario and Lovelace were encircling your sisters' waists in the
intoxicating waltz. These men go unwhipped of an epithet. They are even
enticed and flattered by the mothers of the girls. But, for all that, they
do not bear without abuse the name of gentleman, and Sidney and Bayard and
Hallam would scorn their profanation and betrayal of the name.

The soul of the gentleman, what is it? Is it anything but kindly and
thoughtful respect for others, helping the helpless, succoring the needy,
befriending the friendless and forlorn, doing justice, requiring fair-play,
and withstanding with every honorable means the bully of the church and
caucus, of the drawing-room, the street, the college? Respect, young
gentlemen, like charity, begins at home. Only the man who respects himself
can be a gentleman, and no gentleman will willingly annoy, torment, or
injure another.

There will be no further recitation today. The class is dismissed.

(_March_, 1888)


To find a satisfactory definition of gentleman is as difficult as to
discover the philosopher's stone; and yet if we may not say just what
a gentleman is, we can certainly say what he is not. We may affirm
indisputably that a man, however rich, and of however fine a title in
countries where rank is acknowledged, if he behave selfishly, coarsely, and
indecently, is not a gentleman. "From which, young gentlemen, it follows,"
as the good professor used to say at college, as he emerged from a hopeless
labyrinth of postulates and preliminaries an hour long, that the guests who
abused the courtesy of their hosts, upon the late transcontinental trip to
drive the golden spike, may have been persons of social eminence, but were
in no honorable sense gentlemen.

It is undoubtedly a difficult word to manage. But gentlemanly conduct and
ungentlemanly conduct are expressions which are perfectly intelligible, and
that fact shows that there is a distinct standard in every intelligent
mind by which behavior is measured. To say that a man was born a gentleman
means not at all that he is courteous, refined, and intelligent, but only
that he was born of a family whose circumstances at some time had been
easy and agreeable, and which belonged to a traditionally "good society."
But such a man may be false and mean, and ignorant and coarse. Is he a
gentleman because he was born such? On the other hand, the child of long
generations of ignorant and laborious boors may be humane, honorable, and
modest, but with total ignorance of the usages of good society. He may
be as upright as Washington, as unselfish as Sidney, as brave as Bayard,
as modest as Falkland. But he may also outrage all the little social
proprieties. Is he a gentleman because he is honest and modest and humane?
In describing Lovelace, should we not say that he was a gentleman? Should
we naturally say so of Burns? But, again, is it not a joke to describe
George IV. as a gentleman, while it would be impossible to deny the name to
Major Dobbin?

The catch, however, is simple. Using the same word, we interchange its
different meanings. To say that a man is born a gentleman is to say that
he was born under certain social conditions. To say in commendation or

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