. . . Fall 1996
n September 22, 1902, Emily Wolcott could not believe her good fortune. The room she had found at 331 East Jefferson Street in Ann Arbor had an alcove window that looked out upon "a garden of vines and flowers," fruit trees, a grape trellis and "a picket fence covered with morning glories and nasturtiums," she wrote to her mother and her sisters, Kate and Clara, as she contributed to their weekly round-robin of letters.
Emily, enrolling in the Literature, Science, and the Arts, had been accustomed to such beauty in rural Tallmadge, Ohio, where she had grown up, and at Mount Holyoke College, where she had studied, but after 10 years as a high school teacher in Baltimore and in Akron, Ohio, she had not expected to find such charm in Ann Arbor.
After arranging for her room at $1.50 a week and supper at $3.50 a week at a nearby boarding house, Emily "walked about 50 miles" the next day, mostly in the rain, buying books and "tracking down professors" with whom she wished to study. "Blessed be short skirts and a landlady who starts a furnace fire on a cool damp day," she wrote that evening as rain poured steadily down. "It rains all the time here," she noted a week later.
Far more momentous for Emily than Ann Arbor weather was her encounter with such scholars as Fred Newton Scott in English and Robert Mark Wenley in philosophy. Interested in literature and the humanities in general, she had planned to include French in her schedule. But Professor Scott would have none of that. "German by all means," he advised, after she asked him which language went best with the study of English. He volunteered no explanation and Emily, confused, appealed the next day to Professor Wenley.
Since she knew neither French nor German, Wenley reasoned, it would take her two years of "grind and toil" to master either one. The choice, he explained, would finally depend upon her "taste" in English. If she decided to study the age of Pope, she would need to be proficient in French so she could read Voltaire and Racine; but if she preferred to specialize in more modern English literature, she must know German, for its literature had influenced all English poets "from Coleridge down." Emily reluctantly chose German, convinced that "these two knew best." Besides, she had no intention of spending the rest of her life specializing in "such old has-beens as Pope."
Emily scheduled four courses: "The Development of Modern Society" with Wenley; the very popular "General History of Europe from the 4th to the 13th Century," offered by Earle W. Dow at 8 a.m. to a class of about 400; "Chaucer and His Age," taught in a very warm room by a professor whom she identified only as being "old and thin"; and first-year German with Warren W. Florer who, she was told, was excellent but also "very ugly, sarcastic and hateful, and a great poker player." He did have an occasional smile, Emily discovered, and eyes "like little black-headed pins." After a few class meetings she decided, "I like him all right."
The "great Mr. Dow" and "the dignified and scholarly" Wenley impressed her profoundly. Professor Dow, she wrote on November 11, "is balm to my soul after all the years I have lost hearing people talk in teachers' meetings, and school principals, and public speakers in general. I almost weep for joy every time I sit down before Mr. Dow. He knows his subject perfectly, expresses himself very clearly and never wastes a minute. Think of such a privilege three times a week! And Wenley was even "grander just imagine listening for an hour and not hearing a single flat or poor or unnecessary thing!"
On Sunday afternoon, September 28, President James B. Angell addressed the new students. "He is a great man, sure enough," Emily wrote her family. "His features are all large, he is bald, gray-haired, has red shiny cheeks and the most twinkling blue eyes when he smiles. His face is smooth except for a fringe of gray whiskers around his chin." Music from Handel's "Messiah" preceded and followed his address.
mily Wolcott was 36 years old in 1902, but curious and young enough in heart to be a good observer of student activities. On Friday night (October 3) she attended the freshman-sophomore “rush” (or “Black Friday,” as Charles A. Sink ’04 remembered it in our Our Michigan, 1966), enjoying it “very much more” than if she had learned about it second-hand from “some article about Traditions in American Colleges.” Hatless, under an electric light on campus, the two classes milled eerily about, occasionally charging one another, with freshmen being forced to climb trees and stay aloft until they were persuaded to “yell for the other class or make a speech or sing a song.”
On Saturday, October 25, Emily went to the great football game against Ohio State at Ferry Field and wrote home about it:
Of course the game was wonderfully interesting, [The players] look like great fat stuffed dolls, their suits are all dirty and tough looking, and their hair like thick mops flopping around or blowing in the wind. Some of them wear leather helmets, with great round plates down over their ears, and fierce beaks coming down the middle of the helmet to protect their noses. Some of the helmets have slits up and down through which their hair stands out in tufts. Some are bareheaded-—it depends on what part they have in the game.
When the two sides stand opposite each other waiting for the man to kick [the ball], they are perfectly motionless, each in his appointed place, some standing, some stooping, some on one knee, ready to spring, [and] they look like a collection of bronzes in an art gallery; then in another instant they are galloping like a herd of buffalo...When [they first fell in] heaps, I was quite alarmed to see one of “our” men lying flat on his back, his great chunky legs stiff and straight, his arms sprawling out heavily on the ground, and the Michigan doctor running across the field to him, with his surgical case in his hand and long blue and yellow ribbons streaming from his button hole.
I expressed my concern, but the girl next to me said, “Oh he’s only got wind on his stomach or else he’s out of breath. They’ll pump him up all right, likely as not he’s doing it just to get time.”
In a scrimmage that happened right in front of me, one boy—the bottom one—made up a horrible face as he went down. When they all had got off from him, he was carried off, and we were sure his leg was broken; but presently (his place having been taken by a substitute and the game going on just as ever), we saw them walking him up and down, the doctor on one side, and the little mascot—a 6-year-old boy dressed just like the players—walking lovingly on the other and looking up into his face. One man was put out of the game for slugging . . . being “unnecessarily rough”—they have very strict rules about that. The score was 83 to 0 in favor of Michigan.
Emily had come to agree with the student view that German instructor Warren Florer was scornful and quick-tempered. He had usually rebuked her with a, “Good gracious!”, but one November day he told her to “use your brains.” “That was childish of him,” she thought, for she was “one of the best in the class, and he knows it!”
Students met the eloquent historian Earle W. Dow face to face in the oral quiz that alternated every other week with a written examination given by teaching assistants:
He is a youngish man, very clear and inclined to be heartless; he loves to repeat your answer so as to show its absurdity, or assume that the innocent words which you threw in to fill up a sentence or break an embarrassing pause were intended for well-thought-out statements which you are ready to prove by examples drawn from anywhere between the 4th and 9th century. Some of the girls faint outright; the boys are braver, and talk all around Robin Hood’s barn for a few mistaken seconds, when Mr. Dow bows his head, squints his little bright slanting eyes and murmurs, “In so far as what you have said bears upon the question, I should say it would be hardly possible for you to support [your] position.”
Emily Wolcott did well in her German, Chaucer and history courses. Wenley’s philosophy course gave her problems, however. He assigned a long term paper upon the thesis: “every leader of men exists, not for what he can accomplish, but for what can be accomplished in him.” Students were to draw upon the “principles essential in the development of society” that he suggested in his lectures, read Carlyle, Emerson and more recent philosophy for insight, or even “look up the nonsense in the periodicals.”
“I really don’t know at all what he means,” Emily said early in November, but she was somewhat reassured when Wenley invited his students to consult him at his office or at his home.
Too busy in December to write her journal-like letters, Emily said nothing more about how the essay turned out. She was home in time for Christmas and spent over three weeks there, for her sister Kate was seriously ill in an Akron hospital. She was a week late in getting back to Ann Arbor but soon made up her work in history and German, and was busy with a second “thesis” for Professor Wenley “about the social individual in politics, history, science, literature or art.”
Edgar L. McCormick ’50 PhD of Kent, Ohio, wrote the warmly received reminiscence “Apprentice in English—1939” in our February 1992 issue. A professor emeritus of English at Kent State University, he states that he is “indebted to Elizabeth A. Yeargin of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, for calling my attention to Emily Wolcott’s letters; to Georgia Haugh of the U-M Clements Library, and to Karen L. Jania of the U-M Bentley Historical Library for their valuable assistance.” We will return to Emily Wolcott’s freshman year of almost a century ago in our spring issue.]
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