Icon of the Life of the Mind

"Why can't one speak truth sometimes, and call C.E.N. publicly and without apology the infernal old sinner and sham that he is," wrote William...

"Why can't one speak truth sometimes, and call C.E.N. publicly and without apology the infernal old sinner and sham that he is," wrote William James to Alice James in 1888. Because the once iconic, now forgotten, Charles Eliot Norton, A.B. 1846, LL.D. '87, "was the most influential progenitor of the humanities in American education and scholarship," writes James Turner '68, Ph.D. '75, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, in his biography The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton (Johns Hopkins, $45). He was also, specifically, the first professor of the history of art in the United States. Here's how he ran his Harvard classroom:


browser-nortonIn 1897-98, 451 undergraduates --close to a third of the student body--packed Fine Arts 3. Their professor lured them with easy grades and a riveting show; and by no means all students took him seriously, especially in his last years of teaching. A graduate of 1892 told of returning several years later and watching a "line of students during a class hour descending the fire escape from the second story of Massachusetts Hall." Asking for an explanation, he heard "That's Norton's course." The alumnus could only shake his head; in his years Norton's "fiery denunciations of the vulgarity and corruption of modern society" had riveted the attention even of the most philistine clubmen. This oft-told tale was in fact grossly exaggerated: a less admiring piece of the Norton mythology. One suspects that Norton knew full well of occasional escapes and cared only that they not become routine.

For to attract students within culture's circle of light mattered far more than to discipline them under its severer glare. Norton had inherited...[his father's] feeble voice and perforce learned the tricks with which a lecturer overcame the handicap; his "exquisite precision" of bearing and speech exaggerated itself in the classroom, becoming a ripe subject for student satire but (for the same reason) drawing hundreds to see the spectacle. When he wanted to capture the horde's attention, his carefully "modulated voice dropped off to something above a pensive whisper"; and several hundred young barbarian ears strained for his words. Theatrical extravagance became his stock in trade. The opening of one lecture passed into legend: "Young gentlemen--and as I speak these words the realization comes over me that no one here has ever seen a gentleman." A half century later a student remembered how, even on a warm spring day, "animadversions so preposterous" pulled restless eyes away from the butterflies fluttering "in and out of open windows" and back to the lecturer....

To uncounted Harvard students this man proved decisive. One devotee of "the really important things of College life"--team sports, the glee club, amateur theatricals--recalled enrolling in Norton's course for the notoriously soft grade. A word Norton said or something in his manner "fascinated" the young man; "something clicked in the cavity where my mind was supposed to function, and gradually--not suddenly--but with steady and healthy progress I realized the joy of independent thinking." Emerson's grandson Edward Forbes registered in Norton's classes, fell under his sway, and found himself on a path that led to directing the Fogg Museum and helping largely to define the role of the university museum in the United States.... "It is hardly too much to say," testified another disciple, "that he brought to hundreds of our underdeveloped spirits a new universe."


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