Project Canterbury

Impressions and Opinions: An Autobiography
By J.G.H. Barry, D.D.
Rector Emeritus, Church of S. Mary the Virgin, New York.

New York: E.S. Gorham, 1931.

Chapter V. How I Escaped Being Educated

I was a very imaginative child and occupied myself largely with creations of my own imagination. There was visible from our sitting-room window, far up on the hillside, a little white house. In this house I lodged a family of my imagination whose members I named and with whose comings and goings I was familiar. Day after day I sat by the window and told of the fortunes of my friends. Very wisely grandmother and mother did nothing to check this play of the imagination, but were quite sympathetic and encouraging. They listened with ready interest and asked questions and quite entered into the spirit of my story. I have sometimes wondered why this early impulse did not continue and make me a novelist, the creator of "best sellers." It seems to me strange that with this early start I should never have developed the faculty of dramatic creation.

I did not go to school till I was ten years old. My grandmother presided over my early education. I hardly remember learning to read; all I can remember is being taught my letters and taking my first reading lessons from an old leather-bound copy of the New Testament and Psalms which was my grandmother's manual of religion. Grandmother read to me a good deal, curiously, I do not think that she ever read me the New Testament story. In fact, my early reading was quite the opposite of religious. I recall distinctly a series of thin volumes bound in red by Jacob Abbott, of which I can now recall but one title--The Great Elm--which was all about a family of children who had a playhouse built in a big tree. That appealed to me enormously. Later, my cousin Charlie and I used to spend hours in a large tree where we had rigged up a sort of platform for a house. These books were read and re-read to me to the complete boredom, I should fancy, of grandmother and mother. There were other books by the same author, but of less interest to me. I revolted utterly from the doings of a certain Rollo who was the hero of another series of volumes; I could not away with him, I cannot at this writing remember why.

When I could read to myself there was abundant intellectual food at hand. There were two large volumes of someone's Natural History, a complete account of all the beasts and birds of the earth accompanied by their authentic portraits. Fortunately for me, evolution was not yet, and I was not afflicted with pictures of my remote ancestors imagined from a small bone or a tooth and passed off on the unoffending child as "scientific fact"! The birds and beasts I looked at in the volumes of Natural History existed and fascinated me. For several years I constantly poured over these till I knew all these birds and animals, and should have recognised any of them in a day's walk if I had met them. Indeed, I somewhat idealised them so that their imagined perfections exceeded their actuality. I remember that my first sight of a live elephant was something of a shock--it hardly came up to the romantic creature that I was accustomed to associate it with. I think that therein is one reason why I have always been disinclined to travel. I have feared the shock of actuality in contrast with the dream. Macaulay, on his first visit to Rome, tells us that he reached the hotel and disposed of his baggage and rushed off to Saint Peter's. "I was disappointed in the façade," he tells us, and adds, "but I should have been if it had been the façade of Paradise." Why then shatter the dream?

The circle of my reading gradually widened. As grandmother died when I was twelve years old, it must have been quite early in life that I fell in with the Dime Novel. I do not now understand how it could have been, but it must have been thus early because I remember grandmother's partnership in this so commonly condemned literary exercise. But I am certain that however and wherever obtained, grandmother and I, alike and together, enjoyed the perusal of members of the series known to fame as "Beadle's Dime Novels." I have read much in condemnation of these books and I feel obliged, as one who has got much joy from them, to testify in their favor. What may have been the course of development of that type of literature later I do not know; it may have greatly degenerated. Those that I read while, naturally, not an exalted form of pure literature, were quite harmless adventure stories with the swift movement and the lack of encumbering detail which appeals to a boy. They were not any different from, say, Masefield's "Sard Marker" in their impossible packing of impossible adventures into a short space of time. On the other hand, Scott's novels, while they contained the requisite amount of movement and adventure, so clogged movement with interpretation, that they were quite impossible to my youth. Nor can I remember that the dime novel of my experience was other than highly moral: I do not recall any sex element in them. There was certainly a female of some sort but she was there, not as in herself important, but she existed in order that she might be captured by pirates or savages or bandits and rescued by the hero. In any case grandmother and I enjoyed them and disregarded certain hesitating criticisms of mother's.

Other books thought more appropriate to a youngster came in time, notably a series concerned with one Frank, beginning with his life in the woods (in which I was vastly interested) and continuing through his adventures in the Civil War (in which I was not interested at all). Then came, most fascinating of all, the works of Captain Mayne Reid. What a joy they were and how many times I re-read them! Captain Mayne Reid will always hold a grateful place in my memory. His works carried me all over the world in pursuit of game of all sorts. They greatly increased my knowledge of natural history and geography; in fact, I think they brought my knowledge of these subjects to its highest point and that I have added little since. After one has roamed over the plains and climbed the Himalaya mountains and killed lions in Africa with Captain Reid's heroes, one has exhausted the possible thrills in these adventures and has no need of a lesser reality.

Thus my real education was progressing. In the meantime I had become a school boy--this tragedy taking place at the age of ten, as I have already said. The village school house was a red brick building of two rooms which we knew as the Little School and the Big School, these adjectives having reference to the size of the scholars not to that of the building. The Little School was always presided over by a woman. In the Big School there was a man teacher in the winter, at least. There was no real grading and the courses and the teaching were very elementary in character. I think I was in the Little School a year and then advanced to the Big School. I already knew how to read when I entered, I did not then nor have I since learned how to spell--that is, to spell as dictionaries spell. The imposition of uniformity in spelling has always seemed to me a gratuitous impertinence of relatively modern imposition. Our ancestors showed a certain independence and quality of imagination even in the spelling of their own names. I was instructed in geography and stood very well in that subject, which I think was due, not to the teaching of the school, but to my familiarity with Captain Reid. Unfortunately the map has been greatly modified since that time, and I am hopelessly ignorant at present. I succeeded in getting through some arithmetic--and that is about all there was to school--for which I am devoutly thankful. I escaped the modern process of standardisation the observation of which in its early stages led Jowett to say: "Education is the burial of a great mind." What would it have been to an ordinary mind like my own!

There was a fairly strict discipline observed and offenders were properly thrashed; I remember only one mild whipping myself, for what, I do not recall. I played truant a good deal, much preferring in pleasant weather the fields and the woods to the stupidity of the school house. As I set no great value on truthfulness, I usually "got away with it," as the boys now say. In fact, my immoral education at the hands of my schoolmates progressed more rapidly than my intellectual at the hands of my instructors. I cannot imagine a more moral-less set of young scamps than gathered in that school, nor was there the slightest effort made by anyone concerned to better our condition.

But, as I say, I am very thankful to have been spared any more education at the expense of the public. I feel that my intellectual salvation has resulted from the minimum of education I received which left me free of my time and able to pursue my own ideals of culture. The abject slavery to which the modern child is subjected through the formative stages of his life is, no doubt, the best the state can do; and perhaps the resultant standardised product is the best that can be made of the material. I confess that the system seems to me far from ideal and its continually increasing encroachment on the life of American children disastrous. All individual initiative seems likely to perish. Boys and girls who have the possibility of intelligent ideals of a high order are ruthlessly crushed into uniformity by the machine. It is, I suppose, inevitable that under our system of the cultivation of mass-products the individual shall be sacrificed. But the pity of it! It was bad enough when the child's studies were in this way controlled; but the awful thing is that the whole life is now being placed at the mercy of ignorant educational theorists. The other day as I went by a high school in a small town I saw a group of great hulking boys being trained in athletics by an old maid! I offered renewed thanks to God to have been born far enough back in time to have at least escaped that degradation; that it was, at least, permitted me to play as I would and in such times and in such manners as impulse suggested. It is rather odd that those who most advocate "freedom" and "self-expression" and "personal liberty" should be the very ones who are doing all that they can to defeat their own ideals. We at least were capable of "self-expression," though it took forms I should not now approve.

I, at least, escaped the machine; and this fact gave me time and opportunity to pursue my true education. This went on along the lines of miscellaneous reading. There was one treasure in our library which helped a good deal--a bound set of "Harper's Monthly," the first twenty-six volumes. These I went over again and again for the sake of the pictures and browsing about for interesting titbits. My reading let up somewhat after I left school; the out-of-door life I have described and the necessity of doing a certain amount of work checked my reading a bit, but still it went on. Soon it began to change its object. Naturally, one would think, it would have gone on into the extended world of fiction; but fiction appealed less and less. I find, as I look back over the reading that I had already done, that I was less interested in stories than in natural history. It was life in contact with nature, the story of the woods and mountains, of the animals and the birds, that had fascinated me. I had not yet got to the human interests, and therefore the more advanced fiction which it would seem natural that I should have gone on to, did not, in fact, call me. Rather, certain things repelled me. Unfortunately, we had no store of fairy tales which would have been my natural introduction to what I may call human fiction--the story of the human soul. When I was very young someone read me, or started to, the Arabian Nights; but the story of the Forty Thieves so frightened me that the reading was given up--and I have never read the Arabian Nights to this day. Scott, as I said, was too cumbersome to attract me, though I read one or two of the novels, notably the Pirate and Ivanhoe. Though I loved history that sort of history did not appeal. We had an edition of Dickens with the original illustrations--but these illustrations repelled me and it was years later before I read any of Dickens!

Therefore I turned to history and perforce to the history books that our library contained. Among other books I found there a calf-bound edition of Alison's History of Europe in I do not know how many volumes. Of all the deadly dull books that have been written, I fancy these would stand at the head of the list. Yet I read these volumes with intense interest, not even skipping long notes on the corn laws. When I had finished I had a pretty good notion of the Napoleonic wars, and could repeat the list of Napoleon's marshals. It was very fine training, much superior to any I got in school. I followed this piece of mental discipline with one less trying. We had the lives of the Queens of England by Miss Strickland in six volumes. When I had finished these I was well up in knowledge of English history.

This was the turning point, for it had become imperative that I should make some decision as to the future. The decision was eventually in favor of Holy Orders, at least tentatively--why, I will try to tell in the next chapter. That decision being made, the question of education and college came up. I am rather surprised now at the courage with which it was faced: I do not suppose that either mother or I realised what was involved. At the age of eighteen I had never so much as seen a Greek or Latin book and knew nothing of mathematics save some elementary arithmetic. There was no financial possibility of going to school to prepare for college, and no further education to be had in Middle Haddam. This seemed a hopeless situation. My chief confidence that I was called of God to the priesthood rests on the fact that obstacles that seemed insuperable were overcome.

That winter I got the village school teacher to begin my preparation by tutoring me in mathematics. During this year Fr. Taylor, who, as I have mentioned, was living in our house, began to tutor me in the classics. Father and mother were now in Middletown for the winter, leaving me in the house with Fr. Taylor. I got my own breakfast and lunches and took my dinner at my aunt's. I was not a very enthusiastic scholar. I quite wonder that I made any progress in the classics. It is hardly worth while to go into any detail as to my college preparation. The following winters I was in Middletown and was tutored off and on as much as I could afford; but in fact I had to do most of the work myself. This continued till the spring of 1880 when I went up for examination at Wesleyan University. It was the first examination I had ever taken and I had not the slightest notion as to what it would be like.

In the meantime what I shall always consider my true education had been resumed with vigor--vigor that I have no doubt interfered with my college preparation. I had become fascinated with history. I had no guide and my resources were limited; but I managed to keep supplied with books. I had now practically withdrawn from all my associates and saw almost nothing of the boys and girls of my own age. My winters were spent in Middletown and my summers in Middle Haddam, where I worked in the garden and about the house generally. In Middletown all the time I could spare from the tutor was spent in reading history--most of my afternoons were spent in the public library. I read Gibbon and Hume and Motley and Froude and Macaulay. I read an awful history of the Reformation by D'Aubigne. It must have been a little later when I was in college that I read the long church histories of Milman and Robert-. son. I strayed but little out of the region of history and that little was in the direction of biography. I read almost no fiction in these years. All I remember to have read are the novels of Bulwer-Lytton.

I was already laying the foundations of my library and each new book was a renewal of a delightful experience. When sometime later I read Charles Lamb's account of his adventures in book-collecting I could appreciate just what were his feelings. To have a very limited amount of money and to have to spend some time in making up one's mind just which of several possible purchases shall be made, and then to make one's choice and carry home one's prize--there can be no joy in life beyond that. To take a book and go, not waiting for it to be delivered! And even when money became more plentiful and I could buy all the books I could read, the joy paled very little. And there was the added pleasure that one had one's own books and could dispense with the library service. I want to read my own books: it is nearly forty years now since I took a book from a library. To have a book to read when one wants it--that is the joy; and to see the book come even today there is a distinct thrill in opening a package of books from England or France and hastily running over the contents to see just what has come. I have often read of the thrill that authors experience when they handle the first copy of their first work. I experienced no such thrill then; the actually accomplished work seemed commonplace. My joy has been, not the joy of the producer, but the joy of the possessor: not the collector, I have never aspired to own rare books. My joy has been in the possession of a book that I could read and call my own. That joy began quite early in my life.

I can see now as I sit here writing, a mahogany combination desk and book-case where my first treasures were set out. I see a boy of seventeen standing before it and gloating over the six volumes of the just arrived set of Gibbon. How I went through those volumes, notes and all, my only regret being that I was not able to translate the Greek and Latin notes. Volumes were added as the years went on. One of the earliest acquisitions was a set of Motley's Histories, the money for which was earned by making macrame lace for a mantle hanging. I had no guide at all in what to buy, and was led from purchase to purchase by the notes and references in the books I read. The consequence was the wasting of time and money in buying books such as Hume and D'Au-bigne. My first movement toward pure literature came, I think, through the reading of literary weeklies such as the Athanaeum and the Saturday Review. In this direction I broke ground by buying the volumes of the first series of the English Men of Letters as they came out. I have always been faithful to these and now (1926) am buying the new series that has just started.

While my mother could not help with advice in the matter of reading, she always helped with sympathy, and even when I was a young boy never objected to my spending endless time on books. She herself read enormously, as I have said. When I was still in the dime novel stage, I slept in a room adjoining hers and when the light was out in one room the light from the other was visible under the door. Mother and I went to bed at an early hour and read in bed. When mother became tired and put out her light, I was very likely at a thrilling point in the adventure of the hero I was following. My light became visible to mother, and the order came to put it out. This seemed to me purely arbitrary and unjust. Why should I have to abandon my hero in grave danger just because mother was tired of reading?

Grandmother and mother did the reading aloud when I was a small boy. There was a period after grandmother's death during which the habit lapsed; but it was resumed in the period with which I am now concerned; that is, was resumed with myself as reader. I read aloud to father and mother an hour or so every evening after dinner. I never read a novel, as this seemed waste of time, but always solid books--history or biography. We got through a great many volumes in this way in the few years the practice continued.

The time finally came when I had to try out my education so far as to face the entrance examination at Wesleyan University. It was necessary to choose Wes-leyan for financial reasons; we lived in Middletown in the winter and I could therefore go to college and live at home. In any case I had no college friends and one college was the same as another to me. If I had known anything about colleges or entrance examinations I should have hardly imagined that I could pass them. I was utterly untrained. I had picked up a smattering of the required subjects by my own efforts seconded by a miscellaneous collection of tutors, only one of whom was in the least interested or capable. I had never passed an examination in my life and had not the most remote notion of what was awaiting me. It was a case of the boldness of ignorance. However, I managed to get through with a considerable number of conditions, which in those happy days were permitted. I was told that if I worked these off in the course of the freshman year, I could go on. In reality I bluffed them off. Toward the end of the year I went to the instructors concerned, and presenting my standing so far, maintained that that was sufficient proof of my proficiency in the studies in which I had been conditioned. I pointed out that I had passed the examination in solid geometry with an honor standing, and that that was sufficient proof that I understood plane geometry. I put up the same plea in other departments--and was cleared of conditions. I am not going to spend much time in describing my college experiences. In the first place I had not the least interest in college. I had come there because it was necessary as a preparation for orders, if I should, indeed, decide to go on to orders; if not, as a preparation for something else. I was not interested in any of the things that interested my classmates. I lived out of college and saw very little of them, I joined no college society. I think I hold the record in some respects: I was in the chapel once and in the gymnasium once. I was excused from chapel as I lived away from college and in any case I was not a Methodist. Athletics simply bored me. I was interested in other things.

At the end of the first term I was able to estimate my position and determine my course. I found, of course, that I was unable to compete with men who had been through preparatory schools in the matter of language. I could translate more easily and more intelligently than they could, but class standing depended on knowledge of the details of Greek and Latin grammar that I did not possess and which I did not now care to attempt to acquire. I could get in twenty minutes or half an hour a lesson that they spent two hours on in the sense that I could translate intelligently; but no amount of time would enable me to answer the grammatical questions that they could. I found harder work in mathematics, which I utterly detested; but hard work enabled me to make a fair showing. At the end of the term I saw that I could not "lead the class" even if I aspired to do so; but that with a relatively small amount of work I could take a very respectable standing in it. Living out of college, I could command my time and with recitations in the morning I could by working through the afternoon get up my work for the next day. This left me my evenings to use as I would. I did my class work so thoroughly that I never had to sit up and cram for examinations. My evening I devoted to general reading along lines that appealed to me and which constituted my true education.

I did most of my college work on languages, as those seemed what I most would need, in that they would open to me the path that I wanted to follow. My reading had already given me a fair mastery of English, so much so that the first essay that I handed in, I was told by my professor, was "good enough to print," in the sense that the English was "good enough," not that the matter was. I did not make much headway in Greek; here, more than elsewhere, the imperfections of my preparation told, and I had no patience to master the intricacies of Greek grammar. I did much better in Latin and was very much interested in it. That is, I was interested in Latin literature. Unfortunately, nothing in either Greek or Latin course suggested that there was such a thing as literature--only grammar. I, however, spent a good deal of my spare time in reading Latin outside of class. Where we took three or four Satires of Juvenal, I read the whole set. I read all of Tacitus and all of Suetonius and the Augustan Histories; neither of the last two were required. We had selections from Horace and Catullus, and I was interested enough to read all of the works. The result was that I got a fair working knowledge of Latin, and enjoyed Latin literature; unfortunately other interests came in later and I did not keep up my reading.

I now regret very much that I did not devote some time to philosophy. I got only so far as an elementary course in logic and philosophy from which I got nothing. One thing which I did get from the instructor in this department I have always considered my most valuable acquisition in my whole course. We used a text-book in logic, and would be called on to recite in turn. One would go through what the books said with more or less success. At the end of the recitation the instructor was likely to ask: "What do you mean by that?" When first struck by this abrupt question I was quite innocent of meaning anything at all by what I had recited. I soon learned to fear that question, and to take pains to attach some meaning to what I said. I think I have lived in fear of that man all my subsequent life, and have diligently tried not to say anything or express any opinion which I was not prepared to explain and defend.

At the end of my junior year I concluded that I was not getting very much out of college and that I was getting too old to waste time. I had decided to study for orders now, and felt that I ought to be about it. I therefore left Wesleyan at the end of that year, and entered Berkeley the following fall.

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