Hous of Fame -- Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400)


And therfore Joves, thorgh hys grace,
Wol that I bere the to a place
Which that hight the Hous of Fame. . .
the sawgh I the half ygrave
With famous folkes names fele,
And her fames wide yblowe.
But wel unnethes koude I knowe
Any lettres for to rede
Her names by, for out of drede
They were almost of-thowed so
That the lettres oon or two
Was molte away of every name,
So unfamous was wox hir fame,
But men seyn, "What may ever laste?"

 

Old American Glee Club Song


Away way back in the ages dark,
Old man Noah built a sea-going ark,
Old man Noah had his nervous spells,
When he had to listen to the animals' yells.
But when anything was doing he was there with bells
He was a grand old sailor.
 
Old man Noah knew a thing or two
He made them all play ball.
Old man Noah knew a thing or two.
Because he knew a thing or two,
He thought he knew it all.
Some say he was an also ran
He was the original sailor man.
Old man Noah knew a thing or two
He was a grand old man.

 

PREFACE

 

What follows on these pages is not what I first intended.

 

On my retirement from New York to Mystic I visited one day the birthplace of Noah Webster in West Hartford, and there I discovered Noah Webster. Somehow I had managed for years to hold on to his Collegiate Dictionary that in 1933 had been required for freshman composition, and though it had been on my desk for several decades and I had used it as the word on words, I knew very little about Webster himself other than he had been with Samuel Johnson and James Murray of the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the ruling triumvirate of English lexicography. I also had the feeling that often comes with old idealized portraits: that Webster probably looked better on the frontispiece of the "Collegiate" than he had in real life. The man himself had disappeared behind his portrait and his name.

 

About four books after joining the Noah Webster Foundation, I learned that Noah Webster was one of the fathers of our country. Surely, I thought, he is still known and honored widely. And surely he is in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, in Bronx, New York, overlooking the Harlem River. I remembered the Hall dimly as one of those Sunday visiting places I had been hurried through as a boy and had led a child of my own through some fifty years ago.

 

I soon found that although Webster's dictionary was known and used throughout the world, most of his other contributions, which had been many, were not only unrecognized but virtually unknown. He was not in the Hall of Fame. He was beyond it. They had let him get away.

 

The second shock came when I went to Bobst Library of New York University, on Washington Square. For more than seventy years NYU had owned the Hall of Fame, and I hoped to find out there what happened to prevent Noah's election. the records of University officers pertinent to the Hall of Fame were -- few as they were -- just where I had expected to find them: in the University archives. The administrative records of the Hall of Fame officers and its executives had in the main disappeared, though a few leaves and copies of copies had drifted in from here and there.

 

Had I been inclined to write scholarly history of the Hall of Fame, I would have then and there been disabused. I could never hope to finish it. The definitive history of the Hall is yet to come. What I did find in my searching of stacks and poking about the Colonnade for several days was that the Hall of Fame, one of the most imposing of American monuments, had not long ago come close to monumental disaster.

 

This, then, is a personal view of how that happened. An informal talk, if you will, describing with random "snapshots", a dress parade of impressive individuals, in some disarray and out of step. In commenting on their line of march into the Hall "to live forevermore,"I pause a number of times to discuss the "also ran" status of Noah (see Old American Glee Club Song, above), and in the end compare his work against that of some of the chosen who walked past him into the shrine.

 

Some first-draft readers have said they could "do without so much of Noah" and that I have used more artifice than art to force together two related but separate themes. They are privileged to say so; I say they belong together. Noah Webster's name is the only one never to leave the precincts of the Hall of Fame once it arrived. Many of his deeds are fair touchstones for judging the performance of the remarkably fine people who founded and those who ran the Hall of Fame, and of both electors and elected. If from time to time I show an irreverence toward them, so be it. Like Webster, they too had their good days and bad days, their wise sayings and doings, and their eccentricities, even as you and I.

 

This theme of contraries is scarcely a new one in human affairs. It has been played with variations ever since Adam and Eve. One manifestation of it is seen in American attitudes toward famous persons. To those we admire we often ascribe virtues and talents they have not made conspicuous in action. And toward those we dislike we turn a blind eye to admirable qualities they have clearly demonstrated. Thereby we make hypocrisy respectable.

 

In this essay the theme is played again -- another version, another set of players. It was from Marguerite Yourcenar's reconstruction of Hadrian (A.D. 76-138), Emperor of Rome and one of the early progenitors of the Hall of Fame, that I formed the governing image of greatness as a sometime thing. Hadrian had hit upon the idea of a temple for all the gods. When he came into power, he built one in Rome on the site of the ruins of a Roman bath erected in 26 B.C. by Agrippa, a gift to the Roman people. Only the porch of the bath was left standing intact. To it Hadrian attached a building of his own choice.

 

According to Yourcenar in her fictional biography Memoirs of Hadrian, the emperor himself revised the architectural plans by "going back to the fabled times of Rome and to the round temple of ancient Etruria" and designing a circular structure. This was capped by a dome with an opening at top center through which smoke could escape as once long ago from men's homes.

 

The primitive rotunda, attached to the classical Greek porch, set the so-called Pantheon design. Hadrian's Pantheon, still standing in Rome, created a model for many a public structure for the next nineteen centuries. Two variations of it are the Gould Library, around which the Hall of Fame was built, and the Low Library of Columbia University.

 

Hadrian was one of the men of old to tell us, through Yourcenar, that great men were not consistently great. Clearsighted Tiberius was harsh; Claudius learned and weak; Vespasian thrifty when not miserly. Hadrian himself is made out to be "very" and "almost wise." And we do not forget that among the ancient Hebrews:

 

There was never a man like Solomon

Not since the world began.

But Solomon talked to butterflies

As a man would talk to a man.

 

Or that great Webster was sometimes wrong and sometimes ridiculous, perpetually popping up to gain attention.

 

And if here we take turns laughing at, deploring and applauding the events at the Hall of Fame, we will in the end, I trust, conclude that in part in spite of but in larger part because of those who made it great, the Hall of Fame is a work of "noble character" which deserves better treatment than it got . . .

 

And that for all his being sometimes long on prediction and short on prescience we will come to know its founder, Henry Mitchell MacCracken, as an educator of large accomplishment and viceregal presence. Years after his death he was twice nominated for membership in his own Hall, and twice turned down without a vote. The Columbia Encyclopedia had in one edition changed his name to "Chancellor John J. MacCracken." O Columbia!

 

Thus ever the finger of fame described for us so beautifully and all unwittingly by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, himself a beloved resident in the Colonnade.

 

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime

And departing leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

 

 

 

Other Matters and Introduction