Carved in Stone at the Post Office

Brian Burrell's The Words We Live By: The Creeds, Mottoes, Oaths, and Pledges That Have Shaped Our Nation (Free Press, $26) is an engaging omnium-gatherum…

Brian Burrell's The Words We Live By: The Creeds, Mottoes, Oaths, and Pledges That Have Shaped Our Nation (Free Press, $26) is an engaging omnium-gatherum of words to reckon with, ranging from the solemn creed of the Elvis Presley Impersonators Association to the inscription on the statue of the Minute Man in Concord, Massachusetts. Burrell pays due homage to Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard.

"Like very few men of his generation, Eliot's accomplishments still resonate in American life while drawing little attention to his name, which is how he would have wanted it," writes Burrell. "A public man in the most noble sense of the term, he had a vision not just for Harvard, but for American society as a whole, and he communicated this vision partly by example, and partly through his writings. Ironically, what would prove to be his most enduring legacy started out as nothing more than an interesting diversion, albeit one he took very seriously...

"Part of Eliot's duties as a college president involved writing introductory remarks for invited speakers and brief words of praise for honorary degree recipients. These compositions, much like ancient Greek epitaphs, constitute a demanding and precise literary genre, and Eliot excelled at it. He possessed a talent for writing simple yet effective words, and because of this reputation he was asked in 1877 to provide an appropriate inscription for a Civil War memorial being built on the Boston Common. So successful was this venture that other requests began to pour in, and Eliot found yet another educational outlet available to him."

One request came from William Kendall, A.B. 1876, a protégé of architect Charles McKim and the principal designer of the New York Post Office. As Burrell explains in an endnote, Kendall wrote Eliot and asked him to provide an inscription for the building. " 'The long inscription for the frieze over the colonnade we thought might be some general statement about the importance of the postal service in the progress of civilization.'...Eliot declined the offer, citing other obligations and pointing out that he had just completed the inscriptions for the Washington, D.C., post office."

Kendall decided to fashion an inscription himself. Inspiration struck while he was reading Herodotus, volume 4, book 8, verse 98, a passage that refers to Persian couriers. Writes Burrell, "As translated by A.D. Godley, it reads: 'It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day's journey, and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with due speed.'"

"Kendall was dissatisfied with all of the translations he could find," Burrell writes. "He went so far as to consult his former classics professor at Harvard, who suggested 'Nor snow, nor rain, day's heat, nor gloom hinders their speedily going on their appointed rounds.'

"In the end, Kendall wrote out his own translation. By some accounts, he was more thrilled with the inscription than with the design of the building itself."

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