The Whitney Memorial Meeting
Daniel Coit Gilman, edited by Charles Rockwell Lanman
Concluding Address

Boston: Ginn and Company, pages 57–63



Of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.

AND now there is but one note more to be uttered in this assembly,—a word of friendship, which must be free from exaggeration, or it will not suit the character of Professor Whitney,—which must be warm and glowing, or it will not suit ourselves.

This tribute of affection and gratitude comes from one who was a friend of Whitney for more than forty years,—for a time an intimate friend,—who knew how he entered the various phases of sorrow and of joy in early, middle, and later life; who used to meet him daily in the household, upon long walks, in the college faculty, in hours of quiet study, or in the presence of learned men, where even in his youth, among the foremost, Whitney stood the first. It is a pleasure to have dwelt within the influence of an intellect so strong, a moral nature so pure, and a life so full of fruit. Can we discover the secret of such a character?

From what others have already said, it is clear that Professor Whitney, whose lineage and environment were of the best, was born with rare endowments, and that he grew to manhood in the school of Duty, "Stern Daughter of the Voice of God." But this is not all. In the training of his head, his heart, his hands,—his Will was not neglected. It was strengthened by precept and habit. As life advanced, in face of labors, difficulties, interruptions, and discouragements,—in face of honors and applause, that Will grew stronger and more victorious. It conquered the love of ease, of money, of praise; it conquered selfishness; and finally, a supreme victory, it conquered the pain of enforced seclusion, of bodily weakness, and prolonged ill-health. It only yielded to that conqueror whose voice all men obey.

Whitney was always modest, sometimes diffident, yet never timid, never shrinking from the duties that were thrown upon him. For the place of a presiding officer, or of an extemporaneous speaker, or even of an academic lecturer, he had no predilection. When he came to the front, it was to bring an offering well prepared. He never sought greetings in the market-place nor high seats in the synagogue. Notoriety gave him no pleasure. Recognition was doubtless grateful to him, but it was never sought. He did not try to surpass another in fame or rank; he did not even try to surpass himself. The quiet assurance that what he produced was true and fresh and of importance, gave him the tone of authority in every company where his voice was heard; but he never exacted tribute, nor sought precedence. Honors fell upon him. In early life they were stimulating, in later days rewarding; but their value was never impaired by the regret that they had been solicited. He talked but little of that which he had written or accomplished, and still less of the laurels he had won, content that his papers should naturally find their way among scholars and be received at their true value.

Many distinguished men belonged to the Oriental Society when Whitney began to take part in its proceedings. Robinson was there, in the renown of his Biblical researches, and Gibbs, the accurate Hebraist; Woolsey, with his early distinction as a teacher of Greek literature, and his later distinction as a student of all the phases of human progress; Beck, the accomplished Latinist, and Felton, the true Hellenist; Abbot, with his remarkable memory and more remarkable acumen as a textual critic; and Hadley, sensible, versatile, erudite, and acute. Of those still living, I will name but two,—Day, who suggested to our friend (as Professor Seymour has informed us) the study of Comparative Philology; and Salisbury, who guided Whitney in his incipient study of Sanskrit and then founded the professorship which enabled him to pursue through life his Oriental researches. Among them all, Whitney would have said, indeed, he did say, that Hadley was "America's best and soundest philologist;" and Hadley, we may be sure, would have handed the palm to Whitney.

A certain consciousness of dignity—one might call it self-appreciation—he maintained, but without display, without haughtiness, without detraction, or, to employ a positive phrase, with a just and discriminating recognition of the worth of others. He had no patience with pretence. Real contributions to knowledge, however small, and endeavors for the promotion of science, however inadequate, he welcomed and encouraged. The youngest scholar, if he was earnest, true, intelligent, and careful, might be sure of help and counsel; but the oldest who was careless or erratic would not escape criticism.

He showed in an unusual degree the love of nature. Long walks were his recreation. The fresh air, the bright skies, the woodlands, the hills, the mountains, the procession of wild flowers, the frozen lakes, the open sea, instructed and inspired him. If he saw a bird, he could imitate its notes; if he heard its voice, he could name the singer. Devoted by choice and by profession to literary pursuits, to the study of the speech and the history of mankind, he maintained a lively interest in the progress of physical science. More than once, for example, he took a part in important geological surveys. It is even more noteworthy that when the Sheffield Scientific School at New Haven, a department of Yale College, was an infant, he watched over its cradle, surpassed in devotion by only one of his colleagues, still engaged in that work. His instructions in French and German were there given for some twenty years. In the organization and development of this new department in an old university, his counsels were wise and constant; while others were in doubt or opposition, he was ready from the first to support openly and heartily the introduction of modern methods and of modern subjects in the courses of a liberal education.

He had a sensitive ear, as well as a discerning eye. This interested him in phonetics, and enabled him to become an exact and discriminating reproducer of the sounds of his own and of foreign tongues. The aptitudes which made him love the music of the woods and groves led him to take part in the music of the household, the church, and the concert-room. His appreciation of simple melodies heightened his enjoyment of the master-pieces of great composers, whose Oratorios and Symphonies were to him like familiar poems. The oftener he heard them, the greater his pleasure.

To those who knew him at a distance, and perhaps through his writings only, he sometimes seemed severe. He was certainly as fearless in the expression of his criticism as he was just in his standards. He disliked—it is not too strong to say that he hated—to see what he believed to be the truth covered up, or distorted, or neglected. In such a mood, he was not conscious how strong some of the expressions which he employed (lamenting, perhaps, their inadequacy), would appear to those who were used to genial criticism, and afraid of athletic discussions. But, in truth, our friend was as kind as he was just. He harbored no personal resentments; and I am sure that in all the controversies of a scientific character in which he was engaged, earnestness for the presentation of the truth was his impelling force. The effort to be conciliatory in tone, when he was censorious in fact, is often obvious in his published criticisms.

The amount of work accomplished by Professor Whitney in the class-room of undergraduates, in the guidance of advanced students, in the editing of Sanskrit texts, in the writing of papers for the Oriental and Philological societies, in contributions to current periodicals, in the collection of material for the St. Petersburg Lexicon, in the preparation of school-books, in the revision of Webster's Dictionary, and long afterwards in the editorial supervision of the Century Dictionary, in the delivery of lectures at Boston, Washington, Baltimore, and elsewhere,—all this work, performed without hurry, and for the most part without nervous irritation or undue fatigue, seemed to be the consequence, not so much of unusual facility, as of extraordinary industry, and still more extraordinary economy in the direction of his intellectual resources. All his efforts told. They were not often wasted upon the trivial. Hence the permanence of their value.

I shall not attempt to say, in this public place, what he was as a son, a brother, a husband, a father. The bereavement of his family is too recent and too sacred for us to dwell upon. But I may say what he was as neighbor, colleague, citizen, friend. In these relations he was exemplary. He participated in discussions of educational methods, and in plans for the enlargement and advancement of university courses. The duties of a patriot in the upholding of good government were never slighted. He was outspoken in his comments upon public affairs. He lent a hand to the promotion of the general welfare. He took an open though not an active part in politics. Among those who lived near him, he was sympathetic in trouble; in perplexities he was wise. In the welfare and preferment of his pupils, associates, and correspondents he was always interested.

The essential honesty of his nature is, after all, its crowning excellence. This underlies the accuracy of his knowledge, the certainty of his judgments, the fearless utterance of his opinions. Truth, with him, was an intellectual as well as a moral virtue. Vagueness of expression, uncertainty of that which might be definitely known, neglect of the proper sources of information, the saying more or less than was strictly true in order "to serve a purpose," were faults to which he was not exposed. Integrity ruled his life.

The biographer of Isaac Casaubon said of him: "The scholar is greater than his books. The result of his labors is not so many thousand pages, but himself." So we say of our friend, "The result of his labors is not so many thousand pages, but himself,"—an example, a guide, an inspiration to the younger scholars of this country who now and henceforward proclaim him Master.

For many years I have seen but little of Professor Whitney. Our homes have been far apart, and our vacations have not brought us together. He has recently been kept away from the meetings of the American Oriental Society, which owes to him so much of its reputation. But the impressions of his personality I find as strong as if it were but yesterday when I watched with admiration, and when I saw many others watch, admire, and emulate, his virtues. Love of nature, a vigorous and disciplined will, simplicity, industry, self-forgetfulness, loving-kindness, integrity, reverence,—these are the characteristics which, in spite of the reserve of a recluse, are now recognized as his by a generation of scholars, who delight to say "we were friends and pupils of William Dwight Whitney."