Web Exclusives: Rally 'Round the Cannon -- Princeton history
by Gregg Lange '70
May 14, 2008:
greatest hits of 1837
Viewing Princeton's past through a student's pen
By Gregg Lange '70
The year 1837 was a while back, even for me. There
were 26 United States. Morse patented the telegraph. Mount Holyoke,
now the oldest women's college in the country, was founded. Chicago
was incorporated. James Butler Hickok was born; you know him as
Wild Bill – well, I did anyway. The 18-year-old Queen Victoria
ascended the throne. Her, I didn't know.
On the other hand, my buddies Milton, Confucius,
Homer, Cicero, Burke – these were old favorites of college
students even in 1837. That's comforting to know and important to
realize, and it's a very generous lesson offered us through the
industry and astounding penmanship of Samuel Humes Porter of the
Great Class of 1837.
Porter, consistent with many of his peers in the
age of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, kept a copybook, a
small journal of those pearls of wisdom he chose to inspire him
in the future. His edition covers his three years at Princeton –
he was admitted as a sophomore in 1834 – and contains precisely
99 quotations from authors then living and dead.
A mesmerizing artifact apart from its content, the
book is a dainty (about 3 by 6 inches) volume of 32 leaves of gilt-edged
paper, slightly yellowed now but supple. It's bound in brown embossed
leather, the damaged spine of which has been painstakingly repaired
by the magical restoration gurus at Firestone. The precise inscriptions
are penned in lettering little larger than a 12-point font –
the size of this sentence; the Latin quotations are in Latin, the
Greek in Greek, and there is not a single, even slight, ink correction
among the 99 nuggets. Tiny decorative figures and swirls abound.
This was a work of planning, precision, and discipline.
The inscribed title of the volume is "Selections
by Samuel Humes Porter" (Detroit & Princeton 1834-35-36-37).
The choices of wisdom, almost none as long as a page, include Byron's
that precisely captures the essence of the journal:
"In reading authors, when you find bright
passages that strike your mind, and which, perhaps, you may have
reason to think on at another season, be not contented with the
sight but take them down in black and white. Such a respect is
wisely shown, as makes another's sense one's own."
Milton reminds Porter that
"The mind is its own place, and in itself
can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."
Porter is impressed with the ethical argument that
"The doing evil to avoid an evil cannot
but very oddly misattributes to Schiller that thought
of Coleridge, one of his favorite authors. Porter's choice of Homer
is, alas, as Greek to me as it was to Homer.
This is the earliest Princeton student copybook in
the archives by almost 20 years and is a rare treasure to us for
a depressingly mundane reason: The Nassau Hall fire of 1855 incinerated
most historical traces of the preexisting college. The faculty minutes
were saved; perhaps the dean had them in his library for reading
at sherry parties. The trustees' minutes survived, too; I like to
imagine them safely stowed under the bar at the Nass. Beyond those,
only fragmentary hints at academic life survive. So the copybook
implies course syllabi and student programs of study barely glimpsed
anywhere else. It's a scarce window on Princeton's past, handblown
by such as Pope, Gibbon, and Montaigne.
This view was enabled by those quixotic folks from
pBay, the Princetoniana Committee's online memorabilia vultures.
Spotting an eBay (thanks, Meg!) posting of the copybook in mid-December
by an antiquarian bookseller, the group formed an ad hoc Gang of
Eight (historical allusion being their métier), comprising
Sev Onyshkevych '83, Steven Brown '77, pBay leader Dave Cleaves
'78, Scott Clemons '90, Donald Farren '58, Cynthia Penney '83, Jonathan
Sapan '04, and Frank Sloat '55. Battling the online auction Forces
of Darkness (think Luke Skywalker fighting the emperor), they emerged
victorious, and the archives was presented with their gift –
and Porter's, of course.
His last senior-year entry in the copybook was clearly
intended to be so; 10 blank pages follow. A caution from Locke,
it speaks to us as immediately as if it were from Miss Manners:
"Affectation in any part of our carriage
is lighting up a candle to our defects, and never fails to make
us be taken notice of, either as wanting sense or wanting sincerity."
Samuel Humes Porter 1837 got a master's at Princeton
in 1840 – studying what, we have no idea. He returned to Michigan,
became a lawyer, and in 1845 was a disbursing agent of a trust for
the Chickasaw tribe in accordance with its treaty with the United
States. His accounting records undoubtedly were flawless. He died
in 1874. I have no clue how we even know that; it's handwritten
on an index card in his archives file.
This small copybook with its 99 entries is in essence
his legacy and his soul. We all could do much worse.
Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the
Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee
volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.