Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On the Burning of Harvard Hall

Guest post by Pete L'Official. Prompt: 1,000 words on the burning of Harvard Hall.

3 February 1764.

Oh, Father!

Never in his few and humble days has your son and servant been more happy to possess the least among his brethren! You, Father, in your eminent wisdom and bottomless faith, have laboured to instill within this mind and body, the least (aged) among your sons, a certain rigor of spirit and a nigh-heroic asceticism, and it is today, among days, on which I must write in commemoration of your parsonical parsimony.

For it was at your sage insistence that I not only make my way at the College, as have my brothers before me, but to do so with the utmost monastic economy. Fond were you in my youth of the quip, "One ought be gaunt of frame yet not frugal of faith." So often you preached, from your Scarborough pulpit, "Slenderness of pocket and possession breeds no sparing piousness."  And of course, I would be remiss in omitting your favoured parcel of counsel: "Lean and lanky ought be the spirit, rangy and rawboned ought be the soul, meager and modest ought be the purse: in scarcity do we find Salvation." Many, many were your ministerial witticisms! I took copious notes.

You see, Father, on this day and for nearly a fortnight, Harvard-Hall, as our fine and goodly President Holyoke has so described in his own letter published just Yesterday in the Massachusetts Gazette, "the only one of our ancient buildings which still remained and the repository of our most valuable treasures," is burned to the ground. Stay your concern for my Self and the health and humour of my classmates, for the 24th day of January was a time of vacation, and none – neither student nor tutor – were compromised in their person by that evening's flames. Whether it be true as President Holyoke has said that this catastrophe was birthed in a Beam under the Hearth in the great Library, where a fire had been kept for the use of the General Court of Boston is a fact whose validity pales in comparison to the enormity of the loss of Knowledge contained in those 5000 volumes reduced to ash.

But more to the pointe: Father, rejoice and be glad that your loyal son and servant lost naught but his bedstead and cord, a looking glass, and but a third of a barrel of Cyder in the grand conflagration. "What luck!" say some. Nonsense! I, as might you, respond: Such thrift! Such constraint! Such gloriously spare devotion! I can hear your agreement from here.

The evidence of my own steely, unostentatious Virtue, learned of course from your Word and by your Deed, and as represented in the paucity of goods lost by me to the flames, is surely – by your own keen ecclesiastical Logic, Father – of an inversely proportional relation to what must be the scant virtue of my brethren who have lost so much to the fire.

Page upon page of catalogues are currently being filled by the many accounts of my College peers of their losses. You, Father, would scarcely believe the Extravagance of some of my schoolmates. Young Joseph Willard's personal library seems to have been quite well-stocked: lost to it were such volumes as "Bailey's Dictionary," "Hill's Lexicon," "Edwards on the Affections," and doubled "latin Ditto[s]," amongst many others. Yet Young Willard was also quite the clothes hound! Pray tell, what vow of poverty could allow for "Two pair of Wosted Stockings," or a "Banyand" more commonly found in the far-off lands of India? And what need could but one man have for "Six Chairs" and "Thirty Glass Bottles"? And what of the well-appointed room of my good fellow Nicholas Pike (of whose father, the Rev. James Pike of Somersworth, New Hampshire, perhaps you know) who is now without a half dozen Chairs, "Chiney & Earthen Ware," a "Case of Knives and Forks," a "Chest & 2 Double Locks, 2 Tables," and a "Grid Iron, Chafendish, & Snuffers," all of which were among the least of his losses. Quite comfortable, seemed Young Pike's existence, yet what Self-Respeckting young minister should allow himself the seductive play of Chocolate upon the tongue -- and a pound of that sweet, candy Temptress, hoarded, no less!

And God Save the Barnard Brothers! Two of each thing was rightly the province of Noah – and surely to Noah alone! Should not two brothers be able to share one copy of "Clark's Introduction to making Latin?" Such wastefulness there is in keeping "2 Bibles," "2 Greek Testaments," "2 Greek Grammars," "2 Cole's Dictionaries," "2 Virgils," "2 Tulleys," "2 Hebrew Psalters"...indeed, the list goes anon and on. In this student's humble opinion, their personal collection could rival that of the destroyed Hall itself! And what gall to expect even partial repayment on an incomplete cord of wood? A clever and righteous man might ask these brothers-of-plenty to make restitution for providing the hungry fire with even more fuel! And Father, lest I go too far, Manners and Modesty halt me from speculating at the provenance and propriety at this fine Institution of the listed 4 books of a "Gentleman's Magazine." Our prayers, be with them!

These are but a few of the accounts that we plan to submit to the House of Representatives so that the "sufferers" -- as we have so called ourselves -- of this fire may be paid restitution. Yet it is not without a heavy heart that I must now consider why Providence has seen fit to wound my brethren in this way. Is it that your warning words have come to fruition? That my fellow students' acquisitive nature had damned the College to fast retribution from Our Higher Power? This certainly seems in evidence and you will have been proven right, not for the last time. Yet why, if relative to my fellow brothers-in-faith, I was most virtuous by remaining the least possessive, was I not spared any loss whatsoever? Or am I merely asking too much of Our Lord, and indeed have already been spared enough? And what say you of Satan in this matter, or more generally? Alas, there are too many questions. Father, it is for these reasons why I now seek your counsel.

Your faithful son and servant,
John Tompson.

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