A Connecticut Yankee at Yale, by Wilbur L. Cross

“College was for me a great adventure. Much is being said and written in these days on the difficulties many students have in making the transition from school to college. As for myself, I was aware of no difficulties. True, the college routine and environment were new and strange to me. They were, however, but the background of an unknown adventure, the conditions of which must be met if I were to succeed. I questioned nothing. I took it for granted that God was in his heaven and that all was right with the college world…

Professor Arthur M. Wheeler’s general history courses, which I attended, took a wide sweep through Tudor England and through Europe of the nineteenth century, with a background of French history just before and during the French Revolution. His lecture on the battle of Waterloo, which he first gave in the classroom, was famous. He repeated it on compulsion every year to the whole body of Yale students in Carll’s Opera House across Chapel Street where we had all seen Booth in the role of Hamlet and Brutus. Ever afterwards he had no other name on the college campus than ‘Waterloo Wheeler’…

Though I neglected no subject of study in favor of another, my mind by Junior year was moving more and more towards English literature as the center of my interests. My English compositions and more formal disquisitions were well received and I entered the competition for the coveted Junior Exhibition Prize in composition with a eulogy on Charles Sumner. I lost out in the contest but came in second. Go into literature seemed to be the categorical imperative. I was particularly fortunate, when I was making my decision, to have as my guide Professor Henry A. Beers, who was rightly regarded as ‘the most literary man’ on the Yale faculty. A graduate of Yale in the Class of 1869, he had returned to Yale as a tutor in 1871 after trying out and giving up the study of the law. The year before I entered college he had been promoted to a professorship in English literature at the age of thirty-two. I distinctly remember my first sight of him in Freshman year as we used to pass each other on the campus. He looked like a boy, perhaps a member of the Senior class, who had come from some strange country. He dressed like no one else at Yale. He wore a conspicuous checked coat and trousers, a tight fit, a low-crowned derby hat, and shoes of patent leather, I think, with pointed toes. He walked straight ahead at a good gait, looking neither to the right nor to the left. I did not then know that he was so nearsighted that he had to watch his steps.

This smartly dressed young man in conjunction with Professor Lounsbury, over in the Sheffield Scientific School, had revolutionized the study of English at Yale and elsewhere. Hitherto in the study of English stress had been placed upon grammar as in Latin and Greek. Such verse or prose as was assigned for study was read aloud by students in the classroom, who one after another were asked to name the part of speech of this or that word or to ‘construe’ this or that sentence. This minute study of grammar Professor Beers scrapped. In place of it he substituted a manual on the history of the English language which Professor Lounsbury had recently published.

He was saturated with literature. He lived among the great English writers as if they were his familiar friends. He read with ease French and German. Nor had he lost his knowledge of Greek and Latin. Greek literature was for him ‘the light of morning’ which ushered in all the literatures of the modern world. All this was evident in the courses of study I took with him. He wrote beautiful verse and prose, serious and humorous. Though he had not yet come into his own with The Ways of Yale and A Suburban Pastoral and Other Tales, which belong to the next decade, he had already begun his studies for the History of the English Romantic Movement, parts of which he incorporated in lectures which I attended.

One of my courses with him was on the English dramatists contemporary with Shakespeare. Whatever the play, whether by Ben Jonson or by Beaumont and Fletcher, or by someone else, the first thing lie expected of us was that we should have an intimate knowledge of it from beginning to end. Then came the discussion of the play in parts and as a whole. There was never any talk about plot as something apart from the characters which could be represented in the formal German manner by a curve showing the beginning of the action, the climax, and the end. With him characters were the thing. By their emotions and consequent behavior in crucial circumstances plot is determined. By them one’s knowledge of human nature is broadened. And by them only is a play or a novel remembered.

As an aid in the interpretation of dramatic characters, I had but to walk over to Carll’s Opera House, where in one season or another I might see the great contemporary actors: Booth and Barrett, Irving and Terry, Modjeska or Bernhardt, or Joe Jefferson (a favorite of the students). It may have been in New York that I first saw the elder Salvini in the role of Othello. Was it then or later that Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas came to town? I thank God that the visual age was in the far distance when novels and plays were to be washed out with pictures on a screen.

In another course with Professor Beers we ran along down the stream of verse and miscellaneous prose, apart from fiction, of the nineteenth century. Of the poems we read he often recited passages from memory, sometimes not quite accurately, for he had the habit of throwing in here and there a word of his own in place of the original, perhaps because he preferred his own word to another’s rather than because of any lapse of memory.”
-Excerpt courtesy of Archive.org, Public Library of India, Yale University Press, New Haven, “Connecticut Yankee, An Autobiography,” by Wilbur L. Cross, 1943 (top) “Known affectionately to thousands as Uncle Toby, Wilbur L. Cross has finally written that autobiography he has threatened to publish for years. It will be offered to the public by the Yale University Press on October 15.” Image courtesy of Newspapers.com, The Hartford Courant, Sunday, October 10, 1943

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s