BECAUSE within his small world a headmaster is almost an absolute monarch, he has constantly to resist the temptation to be arbitrary and dogmatic. Moreover he must never forget that his decisions may involve the happiness or sorrow not only of students but also of faculty and employees. To a teacher's wife the assignment to a particular dormitory or the addition of a guest bathroom may mean the difference between relaxation and tension in the family. The imposition of extra tasks at unaccustomed hours may disturb a master's entire routine and peace of mind.
Having been a member of the faculty in my time, I knew well what courage it takes to approach the head on personal matters and how much fireside discussion occurs before the appeal is decided upon. My situation, furthermore, was complicated by the fact that so many of the staff were already my close friends from whom no secrets had been hidden.
At first I decided to leave my office door open and greet all callers in turn. Before long, however, I realized that people don't like to be hurried or to talk about their intimate concerns in the presence, actual or imminent, of others. Eventually I settled upon a program of appointments, like a physician, so that I could sit down with each visitor behind closed doors. This left each one free to open his heart with the assurance that he could not be overheard. I have listened to various theories on this subject, and doubtless circumstances alter cases; but I became convinced that a teacher should never be refused an opportunity of telling his troubles to the head in private conversation. Any headmaster, like a priest, is the repository of secrets ---when babies are expected or bills are overdue --- but he also learns to keep his tongue from wagging!
The weekly faculty meeting had long been an established institution at Andover, and every Tuesday afternoon we gathered in the beautiful room on the third floor of George Washington Hall to discuss current school problems. Theoretically anybody could bring up any undergraduate or any topic for discussion, and so far as I know this policy was carried out. It was sometimes hard for me, when the meetings became clogged with trivia, to conceal my impatience; but I am sure that in a school of any size such scheduled assemblies are desirable, if only to make each man realize that he is part of the show. As in any such group, a few wisecrackers could be relied upon to introduce comic relief, and the fanatics seldom failed to speak up, like automata, for their cherished doctrines. All this consumed time, but it was democratic and healthful.
With a faculty of seventy we inevitably did plenty of work through committees, and in this way each member had some part to play in operating the school. I inherited a smooth-running machine, organized on a departmental basis, which often functioned acceptably for weeks while the head was away on business. Each housemaster was in a sense responsible for his own small group of boys, and the deans, the excusing officer, the school physician, and the department heads, all had their own field of authority. I never worried about leaving the school, for I was aware that everything would be in competent hands.
The constitution of Phillips Academy provided for a body of self-perpetuating trustees, not more than thirteen or fewer than seven. For almost a century after 1808 the same Board operated both the Theological Seminary and the Academy, with the result that the minutes of many a meeting would end with the words, "No Academy business transacted." After the departure of the Seminary in 1908, however, the situation changed. The new, separate Board for the Academy was no longer predominantly clerical in its make-up. By 1933 its membership represented various occupations and for some years thereafter did not include even one Christian minister. The only nonalumnus, besides me, was President Ernest M. Hopkins, of Dartmouth, but his sagacity was of great value. At the time of my retirement the Board included one bishop, one lawyer, two college presidents, three industrialists, and four bankers, besides the headmaster. They were a fine group, faithful in their attendance, broad in their interests, and devoted to the school.
Necessarily the operation of a complicated organism like Andover had to be left largely with the headmaster, who was directly responsible to the trustees. I initiated the policy of submitting a somewhat detailed report to them at their quarterly meetings, commenting frankly on failures and successes and furnishing them with the relevant official news. In no case over a period of fifteen years did the trustees overrule any of my interim decisions. This was not the unanimity of "stooges," but of men who considered all phases of any current problem and were accustomed to compromise. The dinners when we gathered at the headmaster's house on the evening before the formal meetings were delightful, especially when Colonel Stimson or President Baxter or Bishop Hobson could be drawn into comments on men and events. Coming to Andover from New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, and other places, the members brought with them the atmosphere of the wider world.
The headmaster's duties involved serving on many national committees and speaking before such groups as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, the New England Society of New York, the Holland Society, the College Entrance Examination Board, the Educational Records Bureau, the Southern Association of Private Schools, and many others. The number of addresses before colleges and schools ran up into the hundreds. The alumni were insistent that I should pay them regular visits in cities such as Syracuse, Rochester, Chicago, Louisville, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and even more remote places. All these trips had to be fitted into a schedule which was tight and exacting.
Despite the exhausting travel and more than ample entertainment, it was a rich and rewarding experience to get out among the alumni. Even before I was elected headmaster, I had met hundreds of them at Andover and on trips with Dr. Stearns; and as time went on I became acquainted with groups from nearly every city across the continent. On long tours I felt like a candidate for political office, with appointments for luncheon, dinner, and even breakfast, and sometimes speaking engagements at three or four local high schools. That I survived without acquiring chronic dyspepsia is a tribute to my physical inheritance.
The cordiality of the alumni took different forms, usually dignified but sometimes boisterous. My friends in St. Louis had a marked propensity for practical jokes. On one occasion I was driven to the entrance of a most imposing building. "Where are we now?", I inquired. "This is our principal radio station, and you are due to speak in five minutes!" "On what subject, if I may be permitted to ask?" "Oh, just something about education in the Middle West." Some one handed me a newspaper and, sure enough, there I was, photograph and all, with the statement that I would talk at three o'clock that afternoon for fifteen minutes. I was ushered into the room, without time to make even a brief note, and almost immediately introduced. Fortunately I had been speaking for the previous two weeks and could talk extemporaneously, while my tormentors, safe behind the glass partition, made obscene gestures of mockery as I went along.
Trustees, faculty, and alumni had their place for me in the Andover picture, but the most important element was always the boys. For them the academy was founded, and it was their interests that had first to be considered. A large majority of the undergraduates went quietly and normally about their business, perhaps resigned to their fate but certainly not resentful. A small coterie of active spirits, with the instinct of politicians, could stir up trouble far out of proportion to their numbers. Every October, for example, some of these would instigate an agitation for a "Long Thanksgiving Week End," with signed petitions and personal appeals to what was vaguely described as the "administration." This the faculty did not like, for it disrupted the continuity of the school term, sent students back with the germs of mumps, measles, and chicken pox, and even exhausted with revelry, and left a considerable number of boys from distant spots stranded for three or four days on the Andover campus with little to do, and therefore easy tools for Satan. No arguments existed for this long week end except that a little group of aggressive youngsters saw a possible opportunity for escaping from their studies. I may say parenthetically that I never at Phillips Academy saw any undergraduate become seriously ill from overwork. Once it was alleged that a brilliant Chinese student was sick from too much attention to his books, but it turned out that he was suffering from acute kidney trouble. The long week end was not needed as a respite --- and anyhow the Christmas vacation of three weeks was close at hand.
The Student Council was constantly being urged to extort some concessions from the administration --- the privilege for seniors of staying out of their dormitories until ten o'clock, the privilege of more day excuses for Boston, the privilege of wearing informal clothes more frequently. This pressure, as I look back on it, was part of the laxity of the times ---the same trend which, at its worst, derided or demolished discipline and resulted in the uncontrolled outrages of teen-agers. Whether we liked it or not, a general relaxation in manners and morals did begin as early as the 1920's, and Phillips Academy, which drew its students from all sections of the country, could hardly escape its influence. But the traditions of law and order were powerful at Andover, and the faculty were not inclined to tolerate much nonsense. Within the school subversive movements were initiated by only a few boys, and the others who fell in line did so mainly because they did not wish to be ridiculed as peculiar. While the annual agitations for a longer Thanksgiving vacation were going on, many boys would seek my office and confide to me that they had no wish to leave the Hill for so long a period, but would much prefer to stay right on the campus. "My family don't really want me for that long," protested one lad. "They would like to rest up after Thanksgiving."
No one can be long in close association with boys at a school like Andover and despair of the republic. Although they were irresponsible, irrepressible, and exasperating, I have seldom known an appeal to their common sense and loyalty to fail, and the smart alecks and show-offs were not really popular. Furthermore the undergraduates were capable of extraordinary acts of generosity and helpfulness. During a terrific snowstorm in the Second World War period the tracks of the Boston & Maine Railroad were so blocked that all traffic was suspended. Some of the undergraduates heard about the crisis and asked me whether they could help. Soon groups of volunteers were on their way to Lawrence, where they were equipped with snow-shovels and set about clearing the rails. Many of them worked all night. When the job was completed, the railroad insisted on paying them union wages and sent me a check of considerable size. When I turned this over to the leaders of the enterprise, they held a short meeting and returned to say, "We don't want any money, Mr. Fuess. Please give it to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army."
Each autumn, on the night before the football game with Exeter, the Society of Inquiry conducted a Charities Drive, and with tremendous enthusiasm raised $4000 or $5000 for the support of worthy causes. More than once after a heavy blizzard which had piled deep drifts in front of my garage a troop of students, armed with shovels, would appear unexpectedly and "dig the Old Man out." Once a self-appointed committee of three boys brought me fifty dollars in small bills and requested me to give it, without mentioning its source, to a classmate who was clearly in need of a new overcoat. Incidents like this helped to restore my faith in human nature.
One of the criticisms which I would make of myself, and indeed of most teachers, is that we seem to be aiming to turn out citizens too much like ourselves. We are annoyed by roughness, noise, and independence, and place too much emphasis on mere receptivity and docility. The neat, well-dressed, and obedient lad is ordinarily the one who receives the faculty approval for being the "best all-round boy." Far more promising, in reality, is the imaginative, high-spirited fellow who sometimes gets into trouble through sheer exuberance but has what we call "drive." Give me for my money a robust nonconformist who has the courage of his convictions.
Sitting on the platform in chapel or church, I was again and again impressed by the immense vitality of the assembled group. Even in the silence of prayer, they almost exuded energy, like runners awaiting the starting gun. Although some of them were inarticulate, I knew that deep in their hearts they were conscious of the "burden of this unintelligible world" but were not dismayed by the prospect. Their potentialities for good were almost overwhelming.
A headmaster is often the repository of strange secrets and possesses information which he is pledged not to disclose. But except under unusual circumstances, boys find it difficult to treat him as a human being. He may try his best to be a boon companion, he may even play games with them, but he cannot in their eyes escape from his pedestal. I had within my control a small fund which I could use at my discretion to help students out of difficulties. Early in my administration I learned that a scholarship boy had only one rather threadbare coat, and I summoned him to my office with the intention of buying him a new one. He entered and sat down, his hands trembling, and evidently on the verge of tears, and asked immediately, "Mr. Fuess, what have I done?" He just couldn't believe that a request to come to the headmaster's office meant anything except a reprimand or punishment. I did everything I could think of to remove the barrier between them and me, but never could I make them feel completely at home in my presence.
One lad had been told by his father ---one of my former English students ---to come to see me if he got into any trouble. He appeared one morning to ask my counsel on a problem, spent a few minutes, and then left with a smile on his face. His father later sent me a paragraph in his son's next letter home, reading as follows --- "You told me to go in and see the Old Man, and I did, and he was really very decent. What he said was all right. It all goes to show that you can learn something from anybody."
The headmaster's day at Andover was devoid of monotony. At eight o'clock I was in my office, ready to read the morning's mail. Then followed half an hour, perhaps more, with my secretary, answering correspondence. After that came a succession of appointments, with teachers and students and often with the parents of candidates for admission. At ten we held an assembly, over which I usually presided, with the Dean and the Registrar also on the platform. Often I had to deliver a short talk of admonition or praise. Bishop William Lawrence, to the end of his long life and after preaching hundreds of sermons, frequently had vertigo in the pulpit and was forced to grasp its sides tightly in order to pull himself together. No matter how many times I rose to address the Andover undergraduates I seldom stood up without some slight dizziness. As I became more experienced, I thought I could detect every mood of that audience, but I could never be quite sure. On some mornings they were chatty, restless, and noisy; on others they were preoccupied and subdued. The atmosphere before any athletic contest with Exeter was charged with electricity and any slight spark would produce an explosion. A headmaster has to keep his fingers on the pulse of the undergraduates and select the right moment for producing the right effect.
Later in the morning I held conferences with the school physician, the dean, and other administrative officers to find out what had happened overnight. Frequently I visited the infirmary to call on the patients. If a diagnosis of appendicitis had been made, we would have to get in touch with parents, who might be on a train between New York and Washington, or, as in one case, flying from Lima to Buenos Aires. Guests would arrive for luncheon, and my wife had to be notified of the number. In the afternoon I usually toured the grounds, pausing at the playing fields and the gymnasium to see what was going on in sports and ending at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library for a chat with the librarian. Whenever I returned to my office telephone calls had to be made and visitors greeted. Seldom in the evening did I have leisure to pick up a book, for committee meetings were always being called and guests arriving. And after I had gone to bed, I often lay awake, wondering whether I had made a blunder in giving the troublesome Pete Jones a respite or approving the faculty action in putting Bill Johnson on probation. Ian Hay, describing the ideal headmaster, says:
He is always tired, for he can never rest. His so-called hours of ease are clogged by correspondence, most of it quite superfluous, and the telephone has added a new terror to his life. But he is always cheerful, even when alone; and he loves his work. If he did not, it would kill him . . . . A man who can run a great public school can run an empire.
Even in my sixties my own education was astonishingly incomplete; and although my boys could never have suspected it, I was learning from them constantly, penetrating every day into the hidden recesses of some interesting adolescent minds. It was fascinating to speculate why this lad had responded in one way and that one in another, when confronted with the same problem. I learned gradually to keep my temper, to listen calmly to both sides of a dispute (and there usually were two sides!), to make allowances for moods and illnesses both mental and physical, to reserve judgment, to be dignified when I wanted to laugh and stern when I reproved a youngster for an indiscretion, to bear no grudges --and above all to remember my own youth. Boys are men in the making, and not too much should be expected of them. They often try to be more sophisticated than they really are and assume a maturity which they do not feel. The primary virtue of a teacher, after all, is patience ---and then more patience!
When faculty, trustees, alumni, and students had been satisfied, the general public had still to be considered. Because the relationship of the academy to the town had always been close, I felt both as teacher and headmaster the importance of participating in local affairs. For ten years I was Chairman of the Andover Chapter of the American Red Cross, and I tried in other ways to do my share in a community which for me had exceptional attractiveness. As time passed, my circle gradually widened until responsibilities presented themselves in state and nation. Naturally I accepted invitations as Headmaster of Phillips Academy which I should have declined as a private citizen. It was important for the school that people should know what it stood for, and the business of interpretation through the spoken and written word fell to me.
My long experience as a schoolmaster has not left me cynical. On the contrary, and despite some disillusionment, I have found more good than bad in both boys and men. The evil is superficially more evident, and the good is more deep-seated, but it is there for emergencies. The liars, the cheats, the gangsters, and the exhibitionists all get publicity in our newspapers, which can never resist the temptation to sensationalism. But meanwhile quiet people go their unadvertised ways, attending to the sick, comforting the unhappy, and relieving the indigent, in the true spirit of the philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.
I am old enough in years and experience to venture profferring advice to young, and even to prospective, headmasters --advice built on some of my own mistakes. And if this counsel finds expression in clichés, it can do no harm to reiterate the obvious. In reaching administrative decisions, it is very important to weigh all the evidence. Newton D. Baker once remarked that "the outstanding mark of an education is the ability of a person to hold his judgment in suspense on unsettled questions." Too often in the course of a debate over which I was presiding I expressed an opinion before all the testimony was presented and even impulsively announced my verdict before hearing the other side of the case.
Furthermore a headmaster must respect the views of others, especially of his associates on the faculty. He should never resent the disagreement of a teacher, if it is honestly voiced. As time went on, I deliberately resolved not to become irritated even when an instructor was straining for a wise-crack or seeking the academic limelight. It is easy for a headmaster, dressed in his authority, to become, almost without knowing it, pompous, dogmatic, and even tyrannical.
Again, any member of the staff who delivers a good speech or writes a forceful article deserves a note of applause. For some reason the members of the Andover faculty were chary in recognizing achievement by one of their own number. These omissions I attempted to rectify. I learned also that teachers, like other people, blossom under commendation, appreciate a casual compliment, and even enjoy having their birthdays remembered.
If a nasty job, like reproving a master or censuring a student, is on the docket, do it without hesitation. Some of my headmaster friends have told me that planned procrastination often automatically solved their problems, but this delay always seemed to me to be characteristic of a weak executive. I am sure that it is better to end each afternoon with all one's duties performed; and I will add, with some relevance, that prompt decision avoids many unnecessary catastrophes.
Through a crowded day it is essential to save energy by distinguishing quickly between what is vital and what is trivial, what is immediate and what can be postponed. A moral or ethical issue, for example, is far more important than a simple question of manners. Minor matters of discipline should be left to the discretion of the housemaster or the instructor, and never brought to the attention of the head. The administrator who has not learned how to delegate power is creating plenty of trouble for himself. It is his function to frame policies, not to wear himself out with details.
When once a question has been settled, worry must be left behind. Too many headmasters waste time by brooding over mistakes. The head should do his best to assemble the evidence, weigh it in his mind, and reach a just conclusion. Having done all this, he should proceed to the next problem. The congenital or chronic worrier will never be happy in the headmaster's office.
I wish that I could boast that I always practiced what I am here preaching. Some of what became my creed I learned gradually, as a consequence of bitter experience. Confronted with unexpected emergencies, I often lost my temper or had a rise in blood pressure. But the fact that we do not always keep the Great Commandments does not lessen their significance as a guide to conduct. And a headmaster as much as anybody should have a philosophy by which his decisions may be tested.
I CANNOT remember the time when I could not read; and everywhere I have gone, books have been around me. Thus it is hard for me to imagine a life spent without them. My private library at Andover contained twelve thousand volumes, most of them marked up. My taste is eclectic. I enjoy detective stories and still have a large collection of them stored on shelves in the basement. I read poetry, although my taste is old-fashioned and I prefer Tennyson to Auden and Swinburne to Robinson Jeffers. I like the novels of Dickens and George Eliot and Galsworthy and Somerset Maugham. But above all I like history and biography, literature that deals with real people.
With friends I have often speculated as to what books could be selected for a bedside shelf to furnish the maximum of variety and satisfaction. I should prefer, of course, to include the Dictionary of American Biography, Beveridge's Marshall, Sandburg's Lincoln, Churchill's magnificent volumes on both world wars, and all the novels of Thomas Hardy. But these take up space, and we were thinking in terms of single volumes. In preparation for a possible catastrophe I drew up a list of books I should like to have within easy reach while convalescing from, let us say, bronchial pneumonia or bursitis. It was a sincere choice, conservative but reflecting what I should like to turn to after enjoying a postbreakfast bout with solitaire. Here it is:
The English Bible (authorized version, of course)
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Students' Cambridge Edition)
The World Almanac (to settle factual arguments)
Who's Who in America (the biographer's treasure house)
Boswell's Johnson (for casual turning of pages)
Wordsworth's Poems (some as stimulants, some as sedatives)
The Complete Jane Austen (just because I like it)
The Oxford Book of English Verse (prescribed for memorization)
The Education of Henry Adams (to evoke a personality)
Alice in Wonderland (even though we know it by heart)
The Complete Sherlock Holmes (1323 pages of delight)
Gosse's Father and Son (one of the best in autobiography)
Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga (reproduction of another age)
The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (to set one thinking)
Wells's The Outline of History (for ready reference)
Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (for sheer fun --- and more!)
Barrie's Courage (to keep one's spirits up)
Osler's A Way of Life (tiny but tonical --- and my wife likes it!)
Cabot's What Men Live By (good advice at little cost)
Bishop Lawrence's Memories of a Happy Life (to sustain cheerfulness)
Robinson's The Mind in the Making (to stir the logical processes)
Buchan's Pilgrim's Way (picture of a very gallant gentleman)
Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World (the limits of human endurance)
Hardy's The Return of the Native (the novel at its best)
Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins (a great experiment in biography)
Churchill's A Roving Commission (for its adventurous youth)
The number of volumes above cited is exactly twenty-six, and the space covered is less than three feet. Furthermore most of them are easily procurable. I have left out translations from foreign languages, thus arbitrarily eliminating Plato, Dante, Cervantes, Montaigne, Goethe, and other favorites of mine among the classics. Metaphysics, economics, scientific romances, and abnormal psychology are all omitted as unsuitable for bedside diversion. I have even reluctantly passed over such favorites of mine as Mitchell's Amos Judd, Doyle's The Lost World, and Hilton's The Lost Horizon, together with many yarns about mysterious islands. What I have attempted to provide is a judicious balance of information and pleasure. I make no claim that the selection represents the "greatest books in the world." Rather it is like Theodore Roosevelt's Pigskin Library which he took with him into the interior of Africa---his personal idea of what he would like to have close at hand for his own edification and satisfaction.
Once I read a paper before the Examiner Club on the broad and popular subject of detective stories. The group seemed to like what I said, and afterwards several members requested me to prepare a list of twenty varied Whodunits for summer reading. Sir Herbert Ames actually read at Murray Bay every one of my suggestions and confessed later that he enjoyed gratifying what he had always secretly regarded as a low taste. Since this list was made out in the 1940's thousands of mysteries have been published, some of them first rate. Indeed the avalanche of detective literature has now become so overwhelming that it is difficult even for addicts to keep up with what is being published. The practice of the Boston Athenæum of allowing readers to comment on the quality of the volumes which they take out leads to some amusing results. You pick up a book with an alluring title and read in the back:
Clever and fascinating A.R.B.
Absolute tommyrot F.A.G.
This is very instructive, particularly if one can guess who "A.R.B." and "F.A.G." really are in Boston literary circles. Fortunately detective stories still appear which grip the attention and force one to sit far into the silent night while some new sleuth on Cape Cod or in Whitechapel chases down the criminal. The writers whom I fancy are definitely the Old Masters in their genre, but they can hold their own, me judice, with most of their more modern imitators who write so copiously, anonymously, and pseudonymously for the various crime clubs. The list is now modestly presented for inspection:
Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1841
Collins, The Moonstone, 1868
Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 1887
Rinehart, The Man in Lower Ten, 1909
Freeman, The Singing Bone, 1912
Bentley, Trent's Last Case, 1913
Fletcher, The Middle Temple Murder, 1918
Crofts, The Cask, 1920
Wallace, The Four Just Men, 1920
Milne, The Red House Mystery, 1922
Biggers, The House Without a Key, 1925
Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926
Van Dine, The Canary Murder Case, 1927
Queen, The Roman Hat Mystery, 1929
Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, 1930
Stout, Fer-de-Lance, 1934
Allingham, Flowers for the Judge, 1936
Innes, Lament for a Maker, 1938
Sayers, Busman's Honeymoon, 1937
Marsh, Death of a Peer, 1941
As I have said, my reading and writing have been chiefly in biography and history; but all scholars and schoolmasters have their cherished weaknesses, blanketed too often by their insistent daily routine. Mine include cornflowers, waffles, crimson neckties, mint juleps, wood smoke, and Chopin, but especially stories in the Scott-Stevenson-Anthony Hope-Rider Haggard-John Buchan tradition, dealing with lovely princesses in disguise, swordplay at dawn, meetings by moonlight, "hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach," and all the paraphernalia of romance. When I weary of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John T. Farrell, and John O'Hara, I can escape to the woodland glades where neuroticism and degeneracy are unknown, and revel in plots which are unbelievable and heroes who never harden into reality. This is merely to say that, like all incurable romanticists, I cannot resist
Old, unhappy, far-off things
And battles long ago.
and the melodic songs which
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
All through these early years at Andover I was writing ---but certainly not romances. Editorials for the Phillips Bulletin, book reviews for the Boston Transcript, kept me out of mischief. The preparation of An Old New England School,-published in 1917, had taught me much about the use of source material and about methods of research and organization. My duties as English teacher, editor of the Bulletin, and alumni secretary had to come first --- by daylight. Consequently I formed habits then which long controlled my working hours. Often I would be up and dressed at five o'clock in the morning, drink a glass of orange juice, and settle down at my desk for two hours of uninterrupted labor.
My heart attack in the autumn of 1918, which forced me into meditation, led me to take stock of my career thus far and to realize that what I wished most to do was to be an author---not of plays or poetry or novels, for which I was unfitted --- but of biography. Furthermore I had been so near death that I wanted to get busy before my allotted time was up. The problem was to find a fresh subject. What could I write about that would interest other people as well as myself?
Good fortune provided me with my initial opportunity. In my first wife's family the tribal god was Caleb Cushing, the Essex County orator, statesman, and diplomat, who had died in 1879, after a long and varied public career. All I knew about him was that he was a highly controversial figure who had been satirized by James Russell Lowell in the Bigelow Papers as "Gineral C." His extensive correspondence with most of the leading men of his time had been packed in wooden boxes which had been stored away for more than half a century in locked rooms on the Newburyport wharves. Mr. Lawrence B. Cushing, my wife's uncle and the legal custodian of the papers, had refused every investigator access to them, on the principle that he did not wish to be bothered.
The more I thought of that historical treasure trove gathering dust on the dock the more intrepid I grew. Finally I bearded the old gentleman in his lair and burst out, "Uncle Lawrence, I want to write the life of Uncle Caleb." "Well, why in hell don't you?" was the reply. "Because nobody will let me see the papers without your permission!" This startled him somewhat, and he growled, "Jack, you take those damned papers wherever you want to --- only don't let me know anything about it." I interpreted this as a "free hand," and soon I was spending all my spare moments sorting out and reading the yellowed documents, learning much about the obscure areas of American history, and planning a full-length biography. During my summer vacation at Dublin, New Hampshire, I could devote ten or twelve hours a day to the project, and within a year it took shape in a manuscript which covered several hundred pages. When my friend, S. Spencer Scott, of Harcourt, Brace, read it, he promptly wished to publish the book. It appeared in the autumn of 1923, in two volumes, and was reviewed favorably. By this time I was sure that it was my destiny to be a political biographer.
In this project I had the full co-operation of my wife's aunt, Miss Margaret Woodbridge Cushing, who is in her ninety-eighth year and still living in the family home on High Street in Newburyport. Even as a nonagenarian her eye is not dimmed nor her natural strength abated. She reads all the latest books and magazines without glasses, carries on a wide correspondence with her family, and maintains an active interest in politics. Her consistent and numerous kindnesses to me, I can never forget. She is a very great and gracious lady.
While I was convalescing from an illness in 1924, I plotted out a schoolboy story, which was later published by Lothrop, Lee & Stoddard in 1925, under the title All for Andover. As I read it now, it seems a stilted and oversentimentalized performance, but it was successful enough so that the publishers insisted on my writing a sequel, The Andover Way (1926), and I even ventured further with a boy's story, Peter Had Courage (1927), based on my childhood memories of Waterville. I am not precisely ashamed of these fictional indiscretions, but I knew that my talents --- such as they were --- lay along other lines. The three books have long been out of print, but I frequently receive letters even now asking where they may be obtained.
One evening in 1926 the doorbell rang and a young man entered who announced himself as Earl Balch, of Minton, Balch & Company. He shortly got down to business by asking whether I would be interested in doing a book in a series of biographies of unusual Americans. He mentioned several names, but the most appealing of them to me was Rufus Choate, another Essex County leader. When the arrangements had been virtually completed, he suddenly asked, "How much of an advance would you like?" Such a question had never been put to me before, and in my embarrassment I stammered something quite incoherent. Through a mental haze I heard his voice ask, "Would a thousand be enough?" And then he went to the desk in the corner and wrote out a check to me for $1000! It seemed at the moment like the easiest money I had ever made, but many months of research went by before my Rufus Choate, the Wizard of the Law, appeared in 1928. The final correction of proof came, I recall, in the very midst of Andover's Sesquicentennial celebration, and often I was up long before dawn, checking and rechecking references.
The time had now arrived, so I thought, for the major project at which I had been for some time aiming --- a fulllength biography of Daniel Webster, for which my Cushing and Choate, covering the same broad period, had furnished me with a background of knowledge. The trustees, presumably as a reward for my exhausting labor for the sesquicentennial celebration, generously offered me a year off on full pay, and for the first time in my life I could plan ahead to devote myself for several consecutive months entirely to writing. I had my own alcove on the fifth floor of the Boston Athenæum, overlooking the Granary Burying Ground, and there I dug in, as so many would-be authors had done before me. My wife and I during two summers at Dublin, New Hampshire, covered on foot and by motor almost every inch of ground in the area at the foot of Mount Kearsarge where Webster was born and brought up. We visited Dartmouth College and Fryeburg and Boscawen and Marshfield and the other spots in New England with which he was associated. We spent several weeks in Washington, getting acquainted with the Supreme Court Room and the old Senate Chamber and examining source material in the Library of Congress. For two months we were in Charleston, tracking Webster on a journey which he made to the South: Our wanderings carried us to out-of-the-way places and strange people, but it was all fascinating. When the book finally appeared from the Atlantic Monthly Press in the late autumn of 1930, it had a very favorable reception; and it is still, I believe, regarded as the authoritative volume on Webster. In the following June I was awarded honorary degrees from Columbia and Dartmouth.
In December 1945, just before my second marriage, Dr. and Mrs. J. Howard Means gave us a dinner at the Somerset Club. There with the famous Daniel Webster silver on the table and the sideboard, Marian Means presented me with the watch given by Daniel Webster on his deathbed, in October 1852, to her grandfather, Dr. John Jeffries, who was the statesman's personal physician. Some of the small parts of the mechanism were broken, and it had not run for many a year; but I had it reconditioned by an expert watchmaker and now wear it on very special occasions. It keeps perfect time, and is a tangible link with the great orator who died almost exactly a century ago.
Before I had completed the Webster, I had been asked by Dodd, Mead to write a life of Carl Schurz in its series of American Political Leaders. This I regarded in a sense as an act of filial piety, and I dedicated the book to my grandfather, Jacob Fuess, and his fellow revolutionists of 1848. This volume of more than 400 pages was started in January 1931, and I typed the last revised page on December 1 of the same year, throughout that period carrying on my routine work as a teacher. I have never done a job under greater pressure or with more satisfaction.
In 1932 I was commissioned by the magazine Current History to write articles on the three leading presidential candidates ---Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Norman Thomas. The article on Mr. Roosevelt, after I had interviewed him at Albany in early July, was written on the Mauretania while I was on my way to England and cabled back in time for the August issue. Most of what I said was inaccurate, but at the end I remarked:
But Republicans will do well not to underestimate their adversary. He is no docile weakling or political nonentity. He will, I am sure, be a far stronger candidate than Cox, Davis, or Smith. He is a tireless campaigner, full of aggressiveness, and he knows the language of the common people, the people who, after all, cast a large majority of the votes. Finally, one must remember that he is a Roosevelt, and that the Roosevelts have a genius for doing the unexpected.
I am willing to base my reputation as a prophet on this one paragraph!
In view of my ventures into political biography I ought, perhaps, to say a word about my own political position. As an average American citizen, my political philosophy is based on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with their emphasis on the freedom and the rights of the individual. With this pattern in mind, I have been resentful first against fascism and then against communism, which seem to me both to lead directly to totalitarianism. Beginning as a mild Hamiltonian, I have moved steadily in the direction of Thomas Jefferson, but I have gone through at least three periods of hero worship followed by disillusionment. In college, I thought that Theodore Roosevelt symbolized the dawn of a new idealistic era, until his egotism and personal ambition revealed his feet of clay. Then came Woodrow Wilson, who had the magnetism of the inspired crusader, especially when he evolved his concept of a League of Nations. The hour arrived when I perceived that his inability to compromise, as Lincoln would have done, did his countrymen a disservice --- although to this day his seems the most forward-looking mind of my generation. For Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Hundred Days I had an immense respect, particularly because we were taking in one giant stride what might otherwise have demanded a century of political maneuvering. But I did not like many features of the New Deal, which threatened private enterprise, and it was not until 1940, when the full fervor of his internationalism became apparent, that I resumed my admiration. Although most of my presidential votes have been Republican --- perhaps because I live in Massachusetts --- I suppose that I am, strictly speaking, a "mugwump." Of the welfare state as now conceived I am both suspicious and fearful. All this is, of course, not important except in so far as it explains my day-by-day state of mind.
Meanwhile my friends at the Atlantic Monthly Press had been committing me to a new venture a biography of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, which would, they suggested, round out admirably the series of political leaders which already included Cushing, Choate, Webster, and Schurz. Members of the Lodge family were exceedingly kind in granting me permission to examine the large mass of unpublished letters and documents on deposit in the Massachusetts Historical Society. But as I studied Lodge's career and motives, and looked over his vitriolic private comments on his contemporaries, I could not view him sympathetically. I had no desire to repay the kindnesses of the Lodge family by producing what would necessarily have to be a critical biography. A Boston historian familiar with the facts once suggested that I might call my book "The Mean Little Cuss." At any rate, when the opportunity of writing the life of Calvin Coolidge presented itself very unexpectedly in 1933, I was apparently in the anomalous position of dealing simultaneously with two Bay State Republicans who never got along well together. A choice had to be made, and without any reluctance I abandoned my life of Lodge --- then about one-quarter completed---and turned to a figure whom I could respect. Later Karl Schriftgiesser, in his book, The Gentleman from Massachusetts, dealt very thoroughly with Lodge --- more frankly than I, under the circumstances, could possibly have done.
Once underway, I enjoyed writing the biography of Calvin Coolidge. Under no pressure from family or publishers, I could move leisurely from chapter to chapter, accepting the enterprise as a diversion from the less alluring duties of the headmastership. Furthermore, as I read his utterances, I liked Coolidge more and more as a person; and while I was not in accord with some of his political philosophy, I found him more enlightened in purpose and action than the apostles of the New Deal had conceived him to be. The biography was published in 1940, by the Atlantic Monthly Press, under the title, Calvin Coolidge, the Man from Vermont. It appeared shortly after William Allen White's A Puritan in Babylon, the Story of Calvin Coolidge (1938), with which it was naturally contrasted and compared. Mr. White and I, however, were attempting to do different things, and the two books, in my judgment, do not contradict but rather complement one another.
Robert M. Washburn, then a clever but caustic and indiscreet columnist on the Boston Transcript, habitually referred to Calvin Coolidge as "Count Citron" and to Frank W. Stearns as "Lord Lingerie"; and he had some legitimate fun at my expense during the period when I was apparently trying to write the lives of two very different statesmen at the same time. When I definitely turned towards Coolidge, with the approval of my publishers, he did everything within his power to assist me with stories and personal reminiscences.
Amherst men constitute one huge family in which the younger members are treated by the older ones like brothers and everybody knows everybody else by his first name. The first time I ever saw Mr. Coolidge --- who was ten years ahead of me at college --- was in 1915; when as Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth he was the principal speaker at a dinner in his honor at the Copley Plaza Hotel. More than a thousand alumni were present at the largest gathering Amherst had ever had; and Mrs. Coolidge had come down from Northampton, as the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Frank W. Stearns, to hear her husband speak for the first time. Indeed he did not even know that she was seated in the gallery. Towards the close of his address, which dealt chiefly with business but ended on an idealistic note, Coolidge quoted a familiar quatrain from Josiah G. Holland's "Gradatim":
Heaven is not reached at a single bound,
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth to the vaulted skies,
And we mount to its summit round by round.
On paper it is impossible to reproduce the extraordinary nasal tones in which he recited these lines. I can only say that "mount" from his lips became something like "mauount" and "round" was reproduced as "rauound," as if it had four syllables. The effect on me was irresistibly ludicrous; and Mrs. Coolidge has since told me that she almost choked with laughter.
Later I formed a slight acquaintance with Coolidge when he was governor and President, and I talked with him, of course, at the Andover Sesquicentennial. While I was gathering material on Lodge, I saw Mr. Coolidge --- then in retirement---at Plymouth, Vermont, and found him most generously communicative, not at all the Sphinx of the legends. On my last visit with him in the summer of 1932, he remarked, "Mr. Fuess, you tell the truth about Mr. Lodge. That's what he would want, and that's what he's entitled to." On this occasion, when I suggested that I might like to write his biography, he replied laconically, "Better wait till I'm dead!" and turned the subject.
In preparing the Coolidge I naturally leaned greatly on Frank W. Stearns. On Sunday afternoons he would motor out from Boston or Swampscott to Andover, sit down in my study, and smoke a fat Havana cigar right through the paper band, oblivious to the pungent odor which quickly permeated the house. A man of simple habits and ideas, he had reached some startling conclusions regarding American history. He once said to me very seriously, "Mr. Fuess, the more you study American affairs the more you will be convinced that the greatest President we have ever had, leaving out Washington and Lincoln, was Benjamin Harrison." Mr. Stearns was slow-moving, physically lethargic, but very shrewd in practical affairs. His regard for Calvin Coolidge stopped only a little short of complete idolatry; and he often paused as he reminisced to say, "I can't be trusted in what I say about Mr. Coolidge. I admired him too much."
Mrs. Coolidge, a very gracious lady, gave me an absolutely free hand with the biography, turning over all her papers and letters and making no restrictions. The only request that she ever made of me was that I would not publish the size of her husband's estate. She did not wish to be made the victim of countless begging letters.
Of the many Coolidge stories which have made the rounds the best, in my judgment, dealt with the occasion when in the executive offices in the White House a group of journalists with time hanging heavy on their hands were talking about great orators, while the President was sitting in his revolving chair, gazing out the window and outwardly oblivious to what was being said. One of the newspapermen continued, "I heard Jim Watson last week out in Indiana speaking to his constituents. He was just magnificent. He ended up, 'And now, my fellow citizens, I have told you the facts, and you can vote for me or go to Hell!' Everybody laughed, and then Mr. Coolidge, swinging around, remarked in his dry tones, "It was a difficult alternative!"
In the 1920's I began writing short biographical sketches for the Dictionary of American Biography, then edited by Professor Allan Johnson, and over several years produced fifty-six articles on various figures, major and minor, in American history. Many of them were connected with Andover and Essex County, but the list also included Justin S. Morill, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry L. Dawes, Henry Knox, Rufus King, and others who had a wider range. The research required was often extensive, and the pay was ridiculously low. I can recall once spending all my spare time for two weeks on an article for which I was paid twelve dollars. But I did acquire a considerable fund of miscellaneous knowledge which was to be useful later, and I learned the importance of accuracy, fairness, and sound judgment in estimating a man's significance for his contemporaries and for posterity. I made other contributions to the field in articles published in the Atlantic --- one on "The Biographer and His Victims" in the issue for January 1932, and another on "Debunkery and Biography," in March 1933, the month when I became acting headmaster. In September 1941, I had published, also in the Atlantic, a character sketch of Henry L. Stimson. From then until my retirement as headmaster in 1948 I was too much occupied with war and education to undertake any further experiments with biography.
Circumstances have forced me into a kind of "vest-pocket" biography --- the writing of commemorative inscriptions for tablets dedicated to my deceased friends. At this form of condensed appreciation President Charles W. Eliot was a master, and I tried to study, understand, and follow something of his technique. The summary of a useful life in a few words obviously should not be attempted in haste. In avoiding the reiteration of the obvious it is easy to miss the truth. At any rate the walls of the Cochran Chapel at Andover are lined with plaques for which I am responsible. One has to be very careful about words which take shape in bronze.
Like everybody who enjoys putting words together, I experimented from time to time with verses, although with indifferent results, particularly when I foolishly tried to be serious. At my summer home in Dublin the climax of the season was the Horse Show, with the dinner its principal feature. It was very decorative, with the riders in their pink coats and the ladies gorgeously gowned. Beginning in 1933 I was asked for several successive years to prepare a "poem" for the occasion; and thus, so to speak, "to order," I produced certain rhymes --- on horses, on riders, even on dogs and sailboats. Then the war came along and the quaint custom had to be abandoned, much to my relief. The verses composed for the Horse Show in 1933 were printed later in House Beautiful and quoted extensively in the newspapers. If I repeat them here, it is not because of egotism but merely to demonstrate what a prosaic mind can accomplish as a tour de force:
I've been asked to speak for horses --- and if I had my way,
I'd voice their equine feelings by crying out "Neigh! Neigh!"
But I am sure if I expect to keep my equinenimity,
This verse of mine must rise to heights of erudite sublimity.
It's tough for one who doesn't know a fetlock from a mane,
Or beeves from epizootic, or a spavin from a rein,
To think of all the quadrupeds for whom he ought to speak:
Bucephalus, who whinnied in a kind of nasal Greek;
The wooden horse Ulysses built to break the walls of Troy;
And Pegasus and Centaur ---half pony and half boy;
The horse of Johnny Gilpin, of credit and renown;
The one King Richard called for when his fortunes tumbled down;
The horses of Apollo on their progress through the sky;
And that strange beast, the Unicorn, with fierce and fiery eye;
The nag that carried Paul Revere upon his midnight ride;
The mare that dashed from Ghent to Aix, and then just up and died;
The ass that Balaam owned --- also the vengeful mule
Belonging to the Pope, who turned and kicked his master's fool;
The off horse and the cock horse, whatever they may be;
The pedigreed Arabian, and the jade of low degree;
The horse that grew horse feathers, and the mare that built a nest;
The morgan horse, the calico, the skeebald, and the rest;
The horse that bore Godiva in all her naked pride;
The magic steed of Persia which through the air could glide;
The dummy horse of Coolidge, the wild horse of the plain;
The steady-going Dobbin that the girls drove down the lane;
The sea horse and the saw-horse, and Absalom's grey mare,
Who left her master hanging from an oak tree by the hair;
Just think of every gelding, of chestnut, roan, and grey,
And all the gallant stallions that ever munched on hay;
"B.G.'s," "G.M.'s," "R.S.'s," from home and foreign stud,
The horse that won a ribbon and the horse that was a "dud."
The mustangs, percherons, and colts, the hunters and the idle,
Are represented here by me, who never held a bridle.
There are many I've omitted, but perhaps you'll let that pass --
I've spoken for the horses, but I fear I'm just an Ass.
Words may be spoken as well as typed and carved, and I have done my full share as a speaker. Even at Andover much talking had to be undertaken, and as time went on my schedule was enlarged. Dixon Ryan Fox, President of Union College, used to tell a story which, he said, might well apply to college and school heads. After having been away on a speaking tour for some weeks, he returned to Schenectady late one evening and stopped at a night lunch cart for a cup of coffee before going home. As he looked in the window, he saw a large lithograph of himself as chairman of the local Community Chest, and opposite his mouth were the words, "Open Day and Night!" Very few headmasters will miss the somewhat grim implications of this story.
Although I had done some debating and public speaking in Amherst, I was busy during the years which followed with study and received no invitations to address audiences. After I had settled in Andover, however, the situation changed. When my first invitation came to lecture at the local November Club before an audience chiefly of women, I was much excited. Fresh as I was from my study of Byron and the English Romantic Poets, I had selected as my subject, "Edward John Trelawny --- the Friend of Keats and Shelley." I thought in advance that my paper was impressively profound and thorough, but I certainly got off to a bad start when the presiding officer, a lady as much embarrassed as I was, introduced me as talking on "Trelawny --- the Friend of Sheets and Kelly!" My debut in the intellectual circles of Andover thus began to the accompaniment of shouts of laughter, especially from some of my rowdy colleagues on the Phillips faculty who had assembled in the rear of the hall.
Although I have done in my lifetime an inordinate amount of public speaking, I have never found it easy. Billy Phelps always maintained that talking had the same stimulating effect on him as a cocktail did for some of his friends, but I have not found it so. The preparation of a speech has been a careful, sometimes a painful, process; and when now and then I have been praised for my calmness of manner, I have been glad that my outward appearance did not betray the long hours of travail and trepidation before I ventured to my feet. So much has to be learned --- the modulation of the voice, the importance of the pause, the timely introduction of the relevant anecdote, the casual variety of tone and gesture, and the need for watching constantly the reactions of the audience and recognizing the first symptoms of fatigue. Experience taught me that I would do better on occasions of some significance to write out what I had to say, paying attention to lucidity of expression, vividness of phrase, and continuity of thought. Surely it is preferable to read a fairly good speech than to stumble through a bad one without notes. On the other hand, I discovered that if I could memorize a few key phrases and then talk without a manuscript, I was less likely to bore my audience. The best counsel I can give to novices is (1) to err always on the side of brevity; (2) to give your listeners the very best you have; and (3) to remember that an ounce of sincerity and simplicity is worth a pound of bombast.
Platform speaking is not so long-winded as it used to be in the days of Webster, Everett, and Phillips; and radio and television have introduced new elements into the art of beguiling the public. But the orator still has his place and his influence. Many of us have not forgotten the presidential campaign of 1936, when it was said that if Landon had made two more speeches, Roosevelt would have carried Canada. As I write, the country is seeking a leader with a voice, who can magnetize people with a phrase and make them both feel and think.
The man who does much public speaking is bound to have his disappointments. The reporter for the Herald will neglect all that you have worked out with sweat and tears and fasten on some inconsequential phrase. I once delivered in New York an address on which I had literally spent weeks. Very little attention was given to my basic ideas, but across the country in nearly every newspaper was printed my trivial story of the small boy who when asked to name two ancient sports, answered, "Antony and Cleopatra!"
When I became headmaster, I was invited to occupy the pulpit at many schools and colleges, among them Yale, Amherst, Brown, Mount Holyoke, Bowdoin, Exeter, Milton, Deerfield, Bradford, Abbot, Governor Dummer, Tabor, Girard (which was always exceptionally interesting), and Hebron. At Phillips Academy itself, as I have said earlier, I settled on three church talks a year one at the opening service of the fall term, one at Christmas, and one on Baccalaureate Sunday, and sometimes, after hours of preliminary mental and spiritual struggle, received the doubtful compliment that I was "improving." In the pulpit, however, I have never been able to escape the consciousness of my own inadequacies, and frankly I did not enjoy the responsibility of telling others how they should behave. Talks before educational associations belong, of course, in a different category, for here I was on familiar ground. After-dinner speaking is even more to my taste, for it leaves one free to express himself without any restrictions except those one chooses to impose upon himself, and the mood of the audience, comfortable after their food, is more responsive. Nor have I been unhappy with so-called "occasional addresses," at school or college anniversaries or the commemoration of special events. I find on the list of places where I have spoken such varied institutions as Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Colgate, Simmons, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, St. Paul's, Choate, Williston, Taft, Groton, St. Mark's, Middlesex, Hotchkiss, Trinity, Baldwin, Beaver, McCallie, Thetford, Hackley, Holderness, Rivers, and Monson, besides those already mentioned. For many years I have presided with pleasure at the commencement dinner at Governor Dummer Academy, and I still have similar standing engagements from year to year at other institutions.
Many of these speeches have been reprinted in newspapers and periodicals. If I were to record a few to which I devoted the maximum of concentration, I should mention an address on January 10, 1939, at the Harvard Club of Boston before the Governing Boards of Harvard College: "The Vanishing Yankee," given at the 35th anniversary dinner of the New England Society in the City of New York on December 19, 1940; "The Responsibility of the Independent School," delivered on November 27, 1942, before the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools; "Man and His Machines," a commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in April 1944; "Yankee Individualism," read before the National Council for Social Studies in 1947; an address at the Sesquicentennial of Deerfield Academy on May 21, 1949; and "As Others See You," delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society, May 17, 1950.
It is indeed difficult to weigh the potency of the spoken word. Some of Dr. Johnson's obiter dicta are, thanks to James Boswell, still quoted, with more appreciation of their humor (often unconscious) than of their dogmatism. I have listened to as many speeches as any man of my time and am aware how jejune, how interminable, and how solemn they can be. But public speaking is still an art, as practiced magnificently on the world stage by Winston Churchill. As used by such friends of mine as Lewis Perry, Robert Cutler, and J. Edgar Park, it can still delight the soul of man. For what I have in my humble way contributed to it, I am neither sorry nor ashamed.