Francis Boott by William James

Story type: Essay


How often does it happen here in New England that we come away from a funeral with a feeling that the service has been insufficient. If it be purely ritual, the individuality of the departed friend seems to play too small a part in it. If the minister conducts it in his own fashion, it is apt to be too thin and monotonous, and if he were not an intimate friend, too remote and official. We miss direct discourse of simple human affection about the person, which we find so often in those lay speeches at the grave of which in France they set us nowadays so many good examples. In the case of the friend whose memory brings us together on the present occasion, it was easy to organize this supplementary service. Not everyone leaves musical compositions of his own to fill the hour with. And if we may believe that spirits can know aught of what transpires in the world which they have forsaken, it must please us all to think how dear old Francis Boott’s shade must now be touched at seeing in the Chapel of this university to which his feelings clung so loyally, his music and his life at last become the subjects of cordial and admiring recognition and commemorated by so many of his neighbors. I can imagine nothing at any rate of which the foreknowledge could have given him deeper satisfaction. Shy and sensitive, craving praise as every normal human being craves it, yet getting little, he had, I think, a certain consciousness of living in the shadow. I greatly doubt whether his daydreams ever went so far as to let him imagine a service like this. Such a cordial and spontaneous outgoing towards him on our part would surprise as much as it would delight him.

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His life was private in the strongest sense of the term. His contributions to literature were all anonymous, book-reviews chiefly, or letters and paragraphs in the New York Nation on musical or literary topics. Good as was their quality, and witty as was their form,–his only independent volume was an almost incredibly witty little book of charades in verse–they were too slight in bulk for commemoration; and it was only as a musical composer that he touched on any really public function. With so many of his compositions sounding in your ears, it would be out of place, even were I qualified, to attempt to characterize Mr. Boott’s musical genius. Let it speak for itself. I prefer to speak of the man and friend whom we knew and whom so many of us loved so dearly.

One of the usual classifications of men is into those of expansive and those of conservative temper. The word conservative commonly suggests a dose of religious and political prejudice, and a fondness for traditional opinions. Mr. Boott was a liberal in politics and theology; and all his opinions were self-made, and as often as not at variance with every tradition. Yet in a wider sense he was profoundly conservative.

He respected bounds of ordinance, and emphasized the fact of limits. He knew well his own limits. The knowledge of them was in fact one of the things he lived by. To judge of abstract philosophy, of sculpture and painting, of certain lines of literary art, he admitted, was not of his competency. But within the sphere where he thought he had a right to judge, he parted his likes from his dislikes and preserved his preferences with a pathetic steadfastness. He was faithful in age to the lights that lit his youth, and obeyed at eve the voice obeyed at prime, with a consistency most unusual. Elsewhere the opinions of others might perplex him, but he laughed and let them live. Within his own appropriated sphere he was too scrupulous a lover of the truth not to essay to correct them, when he thought them erroneous. A certain appearance comes in here of a self-contradictory character, for Mr. Boott was primarily modest and sensitive, and all his interests and pre-occupations were with life’s refinements and delicacies. Yet one’s mind always pictured him as a rugged sort of person, opposing successful resistance to all influences that might seek to change his habits either of feeling or of action. His admirable health, his sober life, his regular walk twice a day, whatever might be the weather, his invariable evenness of mood and opinion, so that, when you once knew his range, he never disappointed you–all this was at variance with popular notions of the artistic temperament. He was indeed, a man of reason, no romancer, sentimentalist or dreamer, in spite of the fact that his main interests were with the muses. He was exact and accurate; affectionate, indeed, and sociable, but neither gregarious nor demonstrative; and such words as “honest,” “sturdy,” “faithful,” are the adjectives first to rise when one thinks of him. A friend said to me soon after his death: “I seem still to see Mr. Boott, with his two feet planted on the ground, and his cane in front of him, making of himself a sort of tripod of honesty and veracity.”

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Old age changes men in different ways. Some it softens; some it hardens; some it degenerates; some it alters. Our old friend Boott was identical in spiritual essence all his life, and the effect of his growing old was not to alter, but only to make the same man mellower, more tolerant, more lovable. Sadder he was, I think, for his life had grown pretty lonely; but he was a stoic and he never complained either of losses or of years, and that contagious laugh of his at any and every pretext for laughter rang as free and true upon his deathbed as at any previous time of his existence.

Born in 1813, he had lived through three generations, and seen enormous social and public changes. When a carpenter has a surface to measure, he slides his rule along it, and over all its peculiarities. I sometimes think of Boott as such a standard rule against which the changing fashions of humanity of the last century might come to measurement. A character as healthy and definite as his, of whatsoever type it be, need only remain entirely true to itself for a sufficient number of years, while the outer conditions change, to grow into something like a common measure. Compared with its repose and permanent fitness to continue, the changes of the generations seem ephemeral and accidental. It remains the standard, the rule, the term of comparison. Mr. Boott’s younger friends must often have felt in his presence how much more vitally near they were than they had supposed to the old Boston long before the war, to the older Harvard, to the older Rome and Florence. To grow old after his manner is of itself to grow important.

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I said that Mr. Boott was not demonstrative or sentimental. Tender-hearted he was and faithful as few men are, in friendship. He made new friends, and dear ones, in the very last years of his life, and it is good to think of him as having had that consolation. The will in which he surprised so many persons by remembering them–“one of the only purely beautiful wills I have ever read,” said a lawyer,–showed how much he cared at heart for many of us to whom he had rarely made express professions of affection.

Good-by, then, old friend. We shall nevermore meet the upright figure, the blue eye, the hearty laugh, upon these Cambridge streets. But in that wider world of being of which this little Cambridge world of ours forms so infinitesimal a part, we may be sure that all our spirits and their missions here will continue in some way to be represented, and that ancient human loves will never lose their own.

[1] An address delivered at the Memorial Service to Francis Boott in the Harvard Chapel, Sunday, May 8, 1904. Printed in 38 Harvard Monthly, 125.

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