Friday, December 29, 2017

`Until Men Cease Reading Good Writing'

My friend Melissa Kean, the centennial historian at Rice University, has posted a delightful letter written by Edgar Odell Lovett (1871-1957), the first president of Rice and a man whose substantial personal library I have frequently explored. One no longer expects university presidents (or faculty members) to be well-read and broadly learned, but Lovett, a mathematician by training (he chaired the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy at Princeton before coming to Rice), frequently ordered volumes of fiction, essays, criticism and poetry -- belles lettres, as such books used to be known – from dealers in London and New York City. His library – thousands of books – has been integrated into the circulating collection of the university’s Fondren Library, and I am its frequent beneficiary.

Lovett’s Christmas letter is addressed to the Rice students of 1945-46. The war had ended just months earlier and it was Lovett’s final year as president. His good humor, charm and optimism is utterly convincing. (Presidential letters at Rice now read as though written by a committee of algorithms.) Lovett is a cheerful realist. He respects the students:

“The peace in our souls at this Christmastide is at the poignant cost of vacant chairs at the table and empty seats in the church. It was to secure the survival and spread of civilization that those heroes entered the war. Despite their sacrifice, our victories, and the laying down of arms, we have still to win their high objectives in the peace.”

Lovett suggests the students read A Christmas Carol, hardly a novel idea, and a poem by Robert Bridges, “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913.” Bridges became Poet Laureate that year, not long before the start of World War I. The Latin epigraph, “Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis,” is from the hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo”: “on earth peace to men of good will.” Lovett’s comment on Bridge’s poem makes for presciently unhappy reading:

“It is a lyric of Christmas in England and the Nativity, altogether lovely in thought, structure, and feeling. It will be read until men cease reading good writing.”

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