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HOME > Short Stories > Notes on Novelists > AN AMERICAN ART-SCHOLAR: CHARLES ELIOT NORTON 1908
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 I gladly embrace the occasion to devote a few words to the honoured memory of my distinguished friend the late Charles Eliot Norton, who, dying at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the 21st of October last, after having reached his eightieth year, had long occupied—and with an originality of spirit and a beneficence of effect all his own—the chair of the History of the Fine Arts at Harvard University, as well as, in the view of the American world surrounding that seat of influence, the position of one of the most accomplished of scholars and most efficient of citizens. This commemorative page may not disclaim the personal tone, for I can speak of Charles Norton but in the light of an affection which began long years ago, even though my part in our relation had to be, for some time, markedly that of a junior; of which tie I was to remain ever after, despite long stretches of material separation, a conscious and grateful beneficiary. I can speak of him therefore as I happened myself to see and know him—with interest and sympathy acting, for considerable periods together, across distances and superficial differences, yet with the sense of his extremely individual character and career suffering no abatement, and indeed with my impression of the fine consistency and exemplary value of these things clear as never before.  
I find this impression go back for its origin very far—to one autumn day when, an extremely immature aspirant to the rare laurel of the critic, I went out from Boston to Cambridge to offer him a contribution to the old, if I should not rather say the then middle-aged, “North American Review,” of which he had recently undertaken the editorship. I already knew him a little, enough to have met casual kindness at his hands; but my vision of his active presence and function, in the community that had happily produced and that was long to enjoy him, found itself, I think, completely constituted at that hour, with scarce an essential touch to be afterwards added. He largely developed and expanded as time went on; certain more or less local reserves and conservatisms fell away from him; but his temper and attitude, all his own from the first, were to give a singular unity to his life. This intensity of perception on his young visitor’s part may perhaps have sprung a little from the fact that he accepted on the spot, as the visitor still romantically remembers, a certain very first awkward essay in criticism, and was to publish it in his forthcoming number; but I little doubt whether even had he refused it the grace of the whole occasion would have lost anything to my excited view, and feel sure that the interest in particular would have gained had he charmingly put before me (as he would have been sure to do) the ground of his discrimination. For his eminent character as a “representative of culture” announced itself exactly in proportion as one’s general sense of the medium in which it was to be exerted was strong; and I seem verily to recall that even in the comparative tenderness of that season I had grasped the idea of the precious, the quite far-reaching part such an exemplar might play. Charles Norton’s distinction and value—this was still some years before his professorate had taken form—showed early and above all the note and the advantage that they were to be virtues of American application, and were to draw their life from the signal American opportunity; to that degree that the detailed record of his influence would be really one of the most interesting of American social documents, and that his good work is best lighted by a due acquaintance with the conditions of the life about him, indispensable for a founded recognition of it. It is not too much to say that the representative of culture—always in the high and special sense in which he practised that faith—had before him in the United States of those days a great and arduous mission, requiring plentiful courage as well as plentiful knowledge, endless good humour as well as assured taste.
What comes back to me then from the early day I have glanced at is exactly that prompt sense of the clustered evidence of my friend’s perfect adaptation to the civilising mission, and not least to the needfully dauntless and unperturbed side of it. His so pleasant old hereditary home, with its ample acres and numerous spoils—at a time when acres merely marginal and, so to speak, atmospheric, as well as spoils at all felicitously gathered, were rare in the United States—seemed to minister to the general assurance, constituting as they did such a picture of life as one vaguely supposed recognisable, right and left, in an old society, or, otherwise expressed, in that “Europe” which was always, roundabout one, the fond alternative of the cultivated imagination, but of which the possible American copy ever seemed far to seek. To put it in a nutshell, the pilgrimage to the Shady Hill of those years had, among the “spoils,” among pictures and books, drawings and medals, memories and relics and anecdotes, things of a remote but charming reference, very much the effect of a sudden rise into a finer and clearer air and of a stopgap against one’s own coveted renewal of the more direct experience. If I allude to a particular, to a personal yearning appreciation of those matters, it is with the justified conviction—this justification having been all along abundantly perceptible—that appreciation of the general sort only waited to be called for, though to be called for with due authority. It was the sign of our host, on the attaching spot, and almost the principal one, that he spoke, all round and with the highest emphasis, as under the warrant of authority, and that at a time when, as to the main matter of his claim and his discourse, scarce anyone pretended to it, he carried himself valiantly under that banner. The main matter of his discourse offered itself just simply as the matter of civilisation—the particular civilisation that a young roaring and money-getting democracy, inevitably but almost exclusively occupied with “business success,” most needed to have brought home to it. The New England air in especial was no natural conductor of any appeal to an esthetic aim, but the interest of Professor Norton’s general work, to say nothing of the interest of his character for a closer view, is exactly that the whole fruitful enterprise was to prove intimately a New England adventure; illustrating thus at the same time and once more the innate capacity of New England for leavening the great American mass on the finer issues.
To have grown up as the accomplished man at large was in itself at that time to have felt, and even in some degree to have suffered, this hand of differentiation; the only accomplished men of the exhibited New England Society had been the ministers, the heads of the congregations—whom, however, one docks of little of their credit in saying that their accomplishments and their earnestness had been almost wholly in the moral order. The advantage of that connection was indeed what Norton was fundamentally to have enjoyed in his descent, both on his father’s and his mother’s side (pre-eminently on the latter, the historic stock of the Eliots) from a long line of those stalwart pastoral worthies who had notably formed the aristocracy of Massachusetts. It was largely, no doubt, to this heritage of character and conscience that he owed the strong and special strain of confidence with which he addressed himself to the business of perfect candour toward his fellow-citizens—his pupils in particular; they, to whom this candour was to become in the long run the rarest and raciest and most endearing of “treats,” being but his fellow-citizens in the making. This view of an urgent duty would have been a comparatively slight thing, moreover, without the special preoccupations, without the love of the high humanities and curiosities and urbanities in themselves, without the conception of science and the ingrained studious cast of mind, which had been also an affair of heredity with him and had opened his eyes betimes to educative values and standards other than most of those he saw flourish near at hand. He would defer to dilettantism as little as to vulgarity, and if he ultimately embraced the fine ideal of taking up the work that lay close to him at home, and of irrigating the immediate arid tracts and desert spaces, it was not from ignorance of the temptation to wander and linger where the streams already flowed and the soil had already borne an abiding fruit.
He had come to Italy and to England early in life; he had repeated his visits to these countries with infinite relish and as often as possible—though never, as a good New Englander, without certain firm and, where they had to be, invidious discriminations; he was attached to them by a hundred intellectual and social ties; but he had been from the first incapable of doubting that the best activity and the liveliest interest lay where it always, given certain conditions, lies in America—in a measure of response to intellectual and esthethic “missionary” labour more traceable and appreciable, more distinguishably attested and registered, more directly and artlessly grateful, in a word, than in the thicker elemental mixture of Europe. On the whole side of taste and association his choice was thus betimes for conscious exile and for a considerably, though doubtless not altogether irremediably, deprived state; but it was at the same time for a freedom of exhortation and a play of ironic comment less re............
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