The Whitney Memorial Meeting/Address V
|←Address IV|| The Whitney Memorial Meeting (1897)
|Boston: Ginn and Company pages 43-45|
By PROFESSOR J. IRVING MANATT,
Of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.
AT this hour, and after these comprehensive and sympathetic studies, I venture but a word about the Master's personality.
Of his wide and deep learning, his multifarious and fruitful labors, the world is well aware; it cannot know so well the power he was for guidance and inspiration to his immediate disciples. Other men there were, as learned and as prolific, who kindled no altar-fire, who set no torch-runners on the way. Among them may have been more brilliant men; but often their own torches went out before their day was done. In the quiet study under the New Haven elms the altarfire burned brightly to the last, and the torches kindled there have lighted other altar-fires throughout the land.
The secret of this enduring influence is to be sought in Whitney's individuality; it is a secret of character. His was, indeed, an opportunity; he came in the fulness of time to find a new world waiting to be won for a new science; but the opportunity opened alike to all his generation. He alone measured up to it and mastered it. He laid his hand upon it, and it became achievement.
This he did through his absolute devotion, his singleness of purpose. He never sought his own; he never spared or coddled himself. If any man ever forgot himself in the service of Science, it was Whitney. To him Truth was the one goal; and he pursued it with a simplicity and sincerity rarely realized even in a religious consecration. It was this that made his work so genuine. His feet were always planted on solid ground, even when his thought touched the stars.
He found two philologies,—one afloat in clouds, the other chained in her cave. More than any other man of his time, he had the mind to precipitate the one and to deliver the other. The cave-dweller he headed toward the light, and he undergirded airy speculation with ponderable substance. Of all men, he it was who made ours an historical science, rooted in reality.
The lesson of his life is sincerity. To us who knew him, he stands for absolute intellectual integrity. To seek the truth and speak the truth was a necessity of his constitution. He never thought of lions in the way, but it was just as well for lions to get out of the way. He never roared, but on occasion there was that in his still, small voice to make the pretender tremble. This impression of sternness sometimes made by his righteous judgments may justify a more intimate word.
To one pupil, at least,—and one as little deserving as any,—he was the incarnation of benignity. How well I remember my first call upon him just four and twenty years ago,—the first great man I had ever met, and to this day the greatest man I have ever known. I came to him with my burden of provincial bashfulness and awe; but how soon the feeling vanished in his kindly human presence! He gave the impression of as real a diffidence as my own; and from that moment, through more than three years of study with him,—much of the time alone with him alone,—his patience, kindness, generosity never failed. It went beyond all official obligations and courtesies; it concerned itself not only with the student, but with the man, and became a sort of providence, which kept on opening ways and smoothing paths for me as long as he lived. If this were merely an individual experience, I should speak of it with yet greater hesitation; but I believe it is typical. While we were with him, he was the masterfid yet sympathetic teacher, magnifying that office in our eyes with a supreme fidelity; and ever since, he has followed us with his beneficence and his affection.
Northampton bred many great preachers, but hardly another son whose life made more potently for righteousness; and at the last, in the serene beauty of his age, Heaven seemed to have set its halo on his head. Had the angel gone about New Haven in those days seeking a fit subject for the aureole, he could hardly have singled out any other than William Dwight Whitney.
- This address was unwritten and not reported; but is here reproduced in spirit and substance.