Notes from my Knapsack 8-28-14
You could look it up, sort of
For my summertime narrative about inscriptions "Carved in Stone" around Granville, we've worked along College St. to read and consider the sources and meanings of the four large carved quotations found two on each of two pedestrian gateways built in 1904.
These have long been attributed to President Emory Hunt of Denison University, but even that is somewhat unclear, as have been the original authors; some print resources over the last decades have referred to them incorrectly, or even the words I talked about in the last column credited to the prolific writer "Anonymous."
But it was a Jean de La Bruyere in his collection of personal essays called "The Characters, or Manners of the Present Age," who made that observation about languages, in French originally.
Now, I do not speak or read French, but it was purely through the use of internet search engines that I was able to track down this relatively obscure quote. Although, to be perfectly fair, they're all somewhat obscure, today and even one hundred and ten years ago. That relative obscurity had me digging, back in 2007, as to where these phrases came from. There's no original document in the Denison Archives, explaining how or why these were selected, just a hint years later that Dr. Hunt picked them, a well-read and erudite man.
With all due respect for the fellow, it just seemed to me that there had to be some other origin for this set of citations than "a smart guy sat down, asked himself what four epigrams would be edifying for students, and pulled each of these out of his head as the perfect phrase to impress upon pedestrians." Could have happened that way, and if so, I may never prove it, but I wanted to keep looking.
Well, I can't prove exactly how they were picked, but my second series of researches has me pretty sure I've got a good idea where they came from. Since 2007, even more books have been optically scanned and are accessible online, often with search options. I had a leading suspect for a while, a volume entitled "Suggestive Opening Exercises for Schools" of 1889. To be candid, I'm a little sorry I can't tell you more about this delightfully named work…maybe another day!
That book had two of our gateway quotes and a nearly identical third. So I searched on.
You need to know that optical scanning and indexing is wonderful, but like any automated process, it has gaps. There was a book, scanned online, which had three of our four, and other citations of de La Bruyere listed, but not our "languages" quote. So I spent five bucks and ordered a copy of "Cyclopaedia of Practical Quotations" in the 1884 edition.
When it came in the mail, I quickly found my first two Denison quotes, on pg. 225 of this 900 page doorstop, both the Longfellow snippet & Crabbe verses, edited verbatim. Also identical, on pg. 226, our de La Bruyere, whose name had not been scanned clearly and so was not found in my browser indexed search. Then…the Franklin quote? Pg. 232. So on eight pages of a 900 page volume, all four quotes presented exactly as reproduced in stone on College St. are found just a flick or two of the finger from one another.
Perhaps Dr. Hunt was rushed (he was president, after all), or it may have been some other solemn functionary whose intentions were good, but whose time even in 1904 was pressed. Whoever, however, it seems beyond doubt that someone tasked with selecting these four formidable assertions for the ages reached up, picked this book off a shelf, maybe had one in mind (the Longfellow, I'd guess), and from finding that one picked the next three that fit.
Of such contingency are many great and lasting decisions made.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you find pithy inspiration at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.