Sunday, April 18, 2010

"All that is required in studying them is patience," or, On youthful enthusiasm

We had an old college friend in town this weekend, which made me take particular note of two descriptions of college life that I encountered in my reading the past few days. First, there's the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Peter De Vries' Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (1983), who, fearing that his bad study habits are about to prevent him from reaching high school, offers a prematurely wistful riff on what he'll therefore ultimately miss by not going to college:
Lights blooming at dusk along the Quad. Girls with convertibles. The glee club singing "Brown October Ale." Swallowed oysters retracted on the end of a string by potential fraternity brothers. Limburger set by wits on dormitory radiators.
Then I came across a reminder--not dissimilar to what one gets from accounts of Lord Rochester's "growing debauched" as a twelve-year-old at Oxford in the seventeenth century--that even De Vries' midcentury vision of gentle college prankery is a step up from earlier days, as displayed in this description by Robert D. Richardson of early nineteenth-century Harvard:
The three Rs at Harvard during Thoreau's time were rote learning, regimentation, and rowdyism. Boys commonly entered college at fifteen, sometimes younger. Dress, hours, and attendance were all prescribed. Meals were in commons, and the food was said--as all college food is always said--to have been dreadful. Breakfast consisted of hot coffee, hot rolls, and butter. Supper was tea, cold rolls "of the consistency of wool," and no butter. The midday meal was the only one that was plentiful, and students sometimes affixed a piece of the noon meat to the underside of the table, with a fork, in order to have meat for supper. . . The habits of the students were rough; throwing food at meals was nothing compared to the habitual destruction of property, which was not confined to breaking up furniture. Public rooms in inhabited buildings were blown up with gunpowder "every year," according to some accounts. . . . Many [dorm] rooms had a cannonball, useful when hot as a foot warmer, when cold to roll down the stairs in the middle of the night.
Our college lives were . . . um, a bit different from both those accounts, not even really partaking in the contemporary versions of those ignoble pastimes. Nary a keg stand have I done.

Instead, my college days were marked, at their best, by a realization that sprung pleasantly upon me in my first days as a student, as I was starting to discern potential friends in the mass of my contemporaries: here, and here, and here again, were people who were openly enthusiastic! These people, the ones to whom I found myself drawn (and with many of whom I am still close eighteen years later), were excited about things--art, books, movies, sports, ideas--and weren't the slightest bit ashamed to reveal that excitement. Coming hard on the heels of high school, with itsde riguer poses of disenchantment and disdain, that fervor was tonic. Its unabashedly nerdy charms carried me through my English degree, and they continue to underlie nearly everything I do today, from my writing here and other places to my baseball fandom to my fumblings at the piano.

In his biography of Thoreau*, Richardson uses a line from Madame de Stael to describe Thoreau's intellectual eagerness as a young man:
Thought is nothing without enthusiasm.
It's appropriate that Thoreau was one of the people who set me off on this train of thought, for enthusiasm--as seen in his unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the natural world--is one of his most endearing qualities. I'll close this post with a demonstration, from his journal entry for this day, April 18th, 1857:
Frogs are strange creatures. One would describe them as peculiarly wary and timid, another as equally bold and imperturbable. All that is required in studying them is patience. You will sometimes walk a long way along a ditch and hear twenty or more leap in one after another before you, and see where they rippled the water, without getting sight of one of them. You sit down on the brink and wait patiently for his reappearance. After a quarter of an hour or more he is sure to rise to the surface and put out his nose quietly without making a ripple, eying you steadily. At length he becomes as curious about you as you can be about him. He suddenly hops straight toward you, pausing within a foot, and takes a near and leisurely view of you. Perchance you may now scratch its nose with your finger and examine it to your heart's content, for it is become as imperturbable as it was shy before. You conquer them by superior patience and immovableness; not by quickness, but by slowness; not by heat, but by coldness.
To which the wonderful new edition of Thoreau's journals from NYRB Classics appends this note:
A Concord farmer's perspective: "Why one morning I went out in my field across there to the river, and there, beside that little old mud pond, was standing Da-a-vid Henry, and he wasn't doin' nothin' but just standin' there--lookin' at that pond, and when I came back at noon, there he was standin' with his hands behind him just lookin' down into that pond, and after dinner when I come back again if there wasn't Da-a-vid standin' there just like as if he had been there all day, gazin' down into that pond, and I stopped and looked at him and I says, 'Da-a-vid Henry, what air you a'doin'?' And he didn't turn his head and he didn't look at me. He kept on lookin' down at that pond, and he said, as if he was thinkin' about the stars in the heavens, 'Mr. Murray, I'm a-studyin'--the habits--of the bullfrog!' And there that darned fool had been standin'--the livelong day--a-studyin'--the habits--of the bull-frog!" (Quoted in Mrs. Daniel Chester French, Memories of a Sculptor's Wife, 1928)
The outside world may frequently be bemused by such unfettered enthusiasm, but we of the not-so-secret society of nerds and scholars, oh, we understand!


  1. What, you don't remember all those times we played "Brown October Ale" on WNUR?

  2. What a great post! Thank you.

  3. I gave a reading from Thoreau's JOURNAL (which I edited) on April 18, at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and picked anniversary entries to read. It turns out his April 18ths and thereabouts were inspired! Check out 4/18/52, 4/17/54, 4/17/56, 4/18/58, and 4/17 to 4/24/59.

    Glad you got a kick out of it too. Cheers, Damion

  4. Jim,
    And to think I forgot to mention trains as an object of enthusiasm! Mea culpa!

    That sounds like a really fun reading--and, yes, I have been greatly enjoying the book, and have been raving about it to anyone who will stand still, including over at the Quarterly Conversation's blog, the Constant Conversation. It's renewed my admiration for Thoreau and made my reading year.