None of Isaiah Ross’s students went unmotivated for more than 30 seconds. “He scared us pissless,” was the way one young alumnus of Barton Country Day put it to me.”He even frightened me into learning the subjunctive of indirect discourse.” His tone was reproachful, as though Mr. Ross were still alive and brandishing his pointer at him every morning.
I told him, a little condescendingly, that 20 years earlier than he I had had a similar experience with verb prefixes that required the dative.”Ad, ante, con, in, inter, ob . . .” I began.
He gave me a haggard look. “Post, prae, pro, sub, and super,” he said, “and sometimes . . .sometimes. . .”
“And sometimes circum,” I completed tremulously.
But neither of us could explain what it was we had feared. There was the little green book, with its ink-fuzzed squares, in which Isaiah Ross, with a flourish of his double-ended pencil, marked one’s “merits” (blue) or one’s “demerits” (red). Looming at the end of every academic vista, there were the College Board Examinations and the possibility—appalling in the pre-dropout era—of failure and ejection into un-collegian outer darkness. But normally Mr. Ross (even across the gulf of half a century, I can’t quite bring myself to call him Isaiah tout court) did not stoop to invoke the sanctions of the commonplace world that lay outside his classroom.
No, it was something else, impalpable but terribly real, that welled up into his every gesture: a certain frown that wrinkled his high, balding forehead when one jumped a caesura; a long-suffering glance at Ingres’s “Reading from Homer,” affixed above the blackboard, as he waited with mock patience for an answer; an agitated ruffling of his pompadour if one misconstrued a gerundive. And then there was the long pointer, with its white rubber tip, the scepter of excommunication and the staff of support, bending perilously in moments of pedagogic frustration. The fledglings who trembled at their one-armed desks in Room 21 could hardly be expected to understand that they were in the presence of the Platonic Ideal; but they knew that failure, however minor, was shameful.
Looking back over the decades that narrow away in my inverted telescope, I find it miraculous that one man could have deployed for nearly 50 years an enthusiasm so unflagging in the defense and illumination of a language so wildly fluctuating in the academic scale of values. Nothing could shake his confidence in the virtues of Horace and Virgil for the polishing of crude minds; and he remained faithful to Baker and Inglis’s Latin Composition (I still see that beige cover with its menacing block print) as the prime therapy for sagging syntax. Apparently he left as deep a mark on the languid cynics of the 1950’s as he did on innocents such as I, who sat under him—I use the phrase advisedly, for I see now that he was in every sense a grand maltre— during the coming of age that followed the First World War. Roman Virtus carried him through 14 years of retirement, and when he died in 1968 at the age of 81, a chorus of alumni joined in recognizing him as one of the last American practitioners of the classic prep-school disciplines.
Quite unexpectedly my own memoir, published in the school magazine, evoked a letter from Mr. Ross’s younger brother (he was 78), in which he fixed the beginning of Isaiah’s career at the dawn of the century. At the age of twelve, in the kitchen of a New Hampshire farmhouse, he had astonished his parents and brothers one morning by diagramming on the side of the black iron stove an overpowering sentence from Gibbon.”Isaiah showed us that every part of that sentence—it was something about the Empress Theodora—fitted exactly with some other part. He had discovered that Gibbon’s syntax, like that of Cicero, was jointed like a Roman aqueduct. And he wouldn’t let us go until we had shared his excitement. I guess at that moment he decided that teaching was the real right thing. And as you know, nothing but the best would ever do; he didn’t need to raise his voice to make you sure of that,”
“Nothing but the best.” Mr. Ross’s brother was right. And naturally he had no way of knowing that on one occasion, Isaiah, under the stress of dyspepsia, did raise his voice. His isolated outburst gave me my only glimpse into the depths of his soul; it haunts me to this day, like Henry James’s nightmare flight through the Galerie d’Apollon. And it had the same effect on me: it awoke me to the reality of the past. Odd that the duodenal ulcer of an obscure Latin master should have brought a gangling adolescent to a great divide — but there it was. In the tame and even tenor of the Barton School, one felt that the earth had trembled.
The rise of the Barton Country Day School (“Cares for the boy all day”) belongs to the same era as the advent of Isaiah Ross, although at this distance he seems to me the more venerable of the two. In 1915 the first families of Minneapolis—the princes of flour milling and lumber yards and farm mortgages; the earls of Lake Superior, who ravaged the sub-soil unchecked, in their search for iron ore—decided that without severing the umbilical cord as the British did, they wanted their sons and daughters to have a decent preparation for the ultimate pilgrimage to the universities of the Ivy League. The egalitarianism of pioneer days had faded into second-generation snobbery: our parents were convinced that a schoolmaster from Yale or a schoolmistress from Vassar could set a better tone than the harried and underpaid worthies of the public schools. They were attracted also by the concept of the country day school: here was a chance to remove their children from the contamination (as they saw it) of the city high schools, with their unbuttoned curricula and their promiscuous hurly-burly. (There was the standard joke about the old maid who had discovered that at public schools boys and girls actually matriculated together.)
As the circle of affluence widened, the school stirred and put forth new shoots. The curriculum grew to include the full twelve years of secondary education. Dr. Barton, a gentle and slightly weary scholar, retired to Boston; he was succeeded by a more “go-getting” headmaster, Dr. Elson, a brisk problem-solver from Yale, irreproachably low-church and adept at buttering up the trustees and extorting memorial windows. The upper grades (or “rooms,” as our parents persisted in calling them) moved from a modest shingled house on Pleasant Avenue to a machicolated pink brick castle of vaguely Tudor inspiration twelve miles beyond the city limits.
Barton was generously endowed. Its tone, like that of its feminine counterpart, the Collegiate School (in the co-educational rage of the sixties the two schools merged), remained “exclusive.” Even in the Great Depression, trustees and faculty were unabashedly elitist—”persnickety” was my father’s phrase—in sorting out the hopefuls who applied for admission. As late as 1932, the 16 members of my class who stepped forward in rented caps and gowns to receive their sheepskins were nearly all WASPs of impeccable antecedents. As hostages to progressivism, there were one “Scandahoovian” Lutheran, one Jew, and two Catholics. Only one of the Catholics was Irish, and his Hibernian taint was mitigated not by lace curtains but by athletic glory: “Fizzy” Fitzgerald was a hockey champion of statewide renown. There were no black students and no applicants.”Nor like to be,” my Uncle George, a senior trustee, told me firmly. He and Dr. Elson considered that the four exotics already constituted a daring dosage.
The atmosphere of the final quadrennium at Barton is consecrated in the school anthem. This was the joint production of Lincoln Talcott of the English Department, another senior luminary, and young Donald Laser, who taught European history with an anti-European bias, played the chapel organ, and dazzled the secretaries in Dr. Elson’s office with his pencil-line mustache:
“High above the rolling country, far from noise and smoke, Strong and clean her noble towers in their wood of oak. Barton, Barton, sing her praises, keep her honor bright; Pass the torch to those that follow with an undimmed light.”
As a graduate of Cornell, Isaiah Ross lost no time in pointing out that the collaborators had plagiarized “Cayoga’s Waters”—perceptibly in the lyric, grossly in the music.
“And your syntax,” he told Mr. Talcott gleefully, “is wobbly. That undimmed light—are we passing it or following with it? In Latin you have to be more careful when you play around with hysteron proteron.”
These strictures touched off a dispute that smoldered for years; English and History lined up against Latin and Romance Languages (which in fact consisted entirely of French). There Isaiah found a backer in Edouard Bosanquet (“Bosco”), another perfectionist, who had come to Minnesota through chance contacts in the Lafayette Escadrille. Bosco wore a walrus mustache as unkempt as Laser’s was slick, and he suspected his colleague, quite justly, of poisoning young minds against the Bourbon Monarchy. In general, he nourished a faint contempt for Anglo-Saxon sentimentalism.” “Strong and clean”—qu’est-ce que .ça fait que les tours soient propres?” he once asked me rhetorically.”Moi, je préfère le bruit et la fumée, vous savez.”
What neither authors nor detractors seemed to realize was that the anthem, like the school itself, was a hangover of the universe of Tennyson. That rolling country, those bright torches, the clean towers that fiasco found so objectionable— unquestionably they came from chez Alfred. And the exhortation could have dropped as naturally from the lips of Rugby’s Doctor Arnold as from the fountain pen of Mr. Talcott.
The interior of our castle, although highly functional and comfortably heated, also bore traces of Victorian medievalism. There were pointed arches in the gymnasium and mul-Honed windows in the refectory. The walls of the library were covered with Arthurian frescoes in the style of Puvis de Chavannes. The classrooms contained the regulation portraits of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Hawthorne in their most respectable and sheep-like phases; but they were over-shadowed by gigantic, sepia reproductions of Edwin Austin Abbey in ponderous frames: knights of the grail or vigil-keeping squires, who belonged to the prep-school “age group.” In those noble towers, with their smell of soap and floorwax, there was no place for Guinevere or the Lady of Shalott.
Faithfully every morning, in autumn haze or flying snow, we sons of Barton, clutching at disordered books and papers (briefcases were bad form) and wiping the egg smears from our lips, embarked in the long yellow trolleys of the Twin City Rapid Transit. Wearily every evening, we reembarked for the city, our muscles aching from the exertions of field and diamond, our stomachs filled with hot cocoa and saltines, or heads spinning with quadratic equations and the laws of Newton (how could we know they had already been repealed by a wild-haired German who would presently appear at Princeton?), our pulses quickened by the campaigns of the Civil War, the rough and tumble of Shakespeare and Moliere, and—transcendent for me—the grandeur of Virgil, glimpsed in flashes through the rhetorical clouds that floated around the brow of Isaiah Ross.
Years later, when my turn came to visit the school as an out-lander from New England, I was surprised to learn from Edouard Bosanquet that Isaiah’s debut at Barton had not been auspicious.
“By the time you were a senior,” Bosco explained, “it was quite different. He could hold himself in reserve for the Horatian and Virgilian phases and leave the underlings to prepare the ground. He was like an archbishop in a parish church, and the later boys were expected to surrender the chalice at the big moments,”
“I don’t see Dr. Elson surrendering any chalices.”
“Elson was no good at languages, so in the end he had to yield too. But in the beginning he resisted. He talked a lot about the lost digamma and kept Isaiah busy with Caesar, where he couldn’t deploy his Mystique, and Isaiah was painfully shy.”
“Isaiah Ross was shy?”
“Oh, in his for interieur he had all the confidence in the world. But, as we say in France, he did not exteriorize himself very well. At least not at the beginning.”
Bosco then told me, with a chuckle, that initially Isaiah had been intimidated by Dr. Elson’s white mane and tweedy elegance and by the flossy manners of his wife. Thinking to expose the newcomer to the best traditions of Minneapolis, Mrs. Elson telephoned to ask him to Thanksgiving dinner. But the overture miscarried,
“I am already engaged,” Isaiah told her a bit shrilly. At moments of distress his voice always ascended several registers.
Mrs. Elson murmered soothingly that he must make it another time; she would call him again.
But the suavity of Horace was no match for Isaiah’s panic before the omnivorous hospitality of the Midwest.”I’m afraid the situation is the same for Christmas,” he said. There was a pause, “And that goes for New Year’s too,” he added,
Isaiah Ross never married. He conducted flirtations, closely watched by students and faculty, with opposite numbers on the staff of the Collegiate School. Unlike Don Laser, whose Ford had been seen parked near haunts of vice on La Salle Avenue, Isaiah was no candidate for debauchery. He would have cut an incongruous figure in Minneapolis speakeasies, where the wine was anything but Falernian. And the ladies of Collegiate were as spinsterly and perfectionist as he.
In my time, Isaiah shared an apartment with another bachelor, the town’s leading distributor of hearing aids. His forte was cooking rather than classics, and their cohabitation caused discreet smiles among our elders. In those days bedroom doors were kept firmly shut, and I see no point in consigning Isaiah to any special niche among consenting adults. The awe, and finally the affection, with which his students regarded him was untainted by any arrière-pensée that I recall. We found him formidable in class. We were even impressed on the tennis court; with long practice, he had developed a serve known as the “Ross tornado”—a terrific wind-up, with one foot pawing the air momentarily, like a charger, and then an all-out smash that put the ball just where white powder would fly from the forward line. And basically, his attitude toward us was like that of Lyautey toward the Moroccans: “he burned to be of service.” If he added to his mission the same “parcelle d’amour” that the Marshal reserved for his, it would be gratuitous to attach a clinical label to it.
My own encounter with what Bosco called Isaiah’s for interieur arose, as I have said, from a digestive aberration. In my senior year, Mr. Ross suffered from an incipient ulcer. As Virgil (which, unlike the other Latin poets, was a College Board subject and therefore compulsory) came just before lunch, Isaiah used to burp, discreetly but not inaudibly, as he unrolled the soft and solemn hexameters of the Aeneid. In addition to making him rather cross with the less adept catechumens, his affliction introduced startling variations into the prosody of Virgil: it lent unexpected realism to the caprices of Aeolus, God of the Winds; it livened up the woebegone greetings of Dido:
“Hand ignara— oop—mali, miseris succurrere—-oop— disco.”
In the sterner passages these gastric caesurae were admittedly less felicitous:
Timeo Danaos— oop—et dona ferentes.”
With the timeless cruelty of youth, we used to pencil the score on the edges of our desks, sitting bolt upright as we strained our ears for the next innovative burst. Had we been old enough to realize the misery that caused Mr. Ross’s unaccustomed sharpness, we might have been less obsessed with the sorrows that accrued to our weaker Latinists. But in the end his sarcasms produced a Gladiators’ Revolt.
The Bete noire— but he was not alone—was Fizzy Fitzgerald, the blue-eyed alien I have mentioned already. Fizzy’s prowess on the hockey rink did not carry over into the arena of Latin. He might shoot a hundred goals during the winter, but Isaiah Ross was not disarmed so long as he failed to distinguish the ablative of agency from the ablative of specification, On his side, Fizzy resented his humiliation at the hands of the Protestants; it was not his own choice, after all, that had brought him to suffer in partibus infidelium. His golden hair and Irish charm and the aura of athletic heroism did the rest: we all agreed that Papists and Protestants should join for once in defense of fair play.
At first we tried, like small birds besieged by a hawk, to organize a community defense. On the outgoing trolley car, knots of collaborators would cluster around me for guidance: I may have been a bust on the baseball diamond, but my supremacy in exegesis was unquestionable. Together we would go over the texts of the day and prepare what was in effect a collective crib. While this enhanced the performance of the strong, it did little to protect the weak. Mr. Ross’s practiced ear quickly tuned in on false quantities: unerringly he picked out the feebler of the flock, for whom he reserved the toughest morsels. And then he would swoop down in wrath, like Juno tormenting her rivals. Once again, Fizzy and the others would flutter and flounder in the outbursts of his scorn.
Finally I was chosen—unwisely as it turned out—to serve as spokesman for a Grand Remonstrance. The responsibility appalled me; still I rather relished my transformation from a mousy dean of Latinists into a hefty Spartacus, who would bring justice to the helots of Barton Country Day. At 16 I was a promising student but more than a shade priggish; like Clarence Day, I was credulous to the point where I might just as well have been stupid. My inexperience couldn’t foresee the reaction of Isaiah Ross: all I anticipated was anger, but anger followed by repentance.
So I bided my time in dread, waiting for clear-cut aggression that would justify my démarche. It wasn’t long in coming: despite careful coaching, Fizzy stumbled one morning over the passive periphrastic and fell flat.
“Monstrum horrendum,” said Isaiah in the clipped accents of despair, “is not “enormous horror” for heaven’s sake! Now tell us, Fitzgerald, what part of speech is monstrum?”
“Noun, I guess,” said Fizzy sullenly.
“You guess right. And what is horrendum, please?”
Fizzy’s glance flickered desperately in my direction. I could only clench my hands under my book and pray.”Genitive, I guess,” he faltered.
“Genitive, you guess!” cried Isaiah. “My dear sir, you guessed wrong. It’s a gerundive, a gerundive.’A monster to be feared.’ “He turned wearily toward the rest of us.”What is the construction, gentlemen?” Isaiah Ross always called us “gentlemen,” never “boys” or “fellows” like Dr. Elson.
I maintained the silence of solidarity, but the traitor behind me blurted out “passive periphrastic.” This was greeted by subdued groans.
“The passive periphrastic,” said Isaiah in mock sorrow. “Our old, old friend. And you passed him right by. Don’t you remember ‘delenda est Carthago’?”
“No, sir,” said Fizzy.
Mr. Ross braced his hands behind him against the trough of the blackboard, in which he had carefully deposited the pointer. His brow wrinkled like the brow of Laocoön.”I think Virgil is not your specialty.”
“Oh no, sir,” panted Fizzy, his cheeks flaming.
“Nor Latin. Nor grammar. Nor poetry. “De gustibus non est disputandum,”“
“Another periphrastic. But I won’t translate. Any hockey star should understand that one. Your classmates will be glad to explain.”
There was a sharp, collective intake of breath. My hour had come, my duty was clear.
When the bell rang, I stayed in my seat. The others filed out, glancing back at me in pity and terror, but not without Rochefoucauldian relish for my predicament. Mr. Ross looked at me curiously but not unkindly. I pulled up my socks (literally) and rose in my place.
“Sir,” I began hoarsely, “we don’t . . . we don’t think it’s fair,”
“Fair? What do you mean? What isn’t fair?”
“Well, to pick on Fizzy and the others.”
“Pick on them?” His voice rose several keys, “I pick on nobody, I pick on mistakes, no matter who makes them.”
“But for some of us it’s always much tougher.”
I still see myself standing there in my salt-and-pepper knickerbockers and belted jacket, my fingers twisting, my bangs clinging damply to my forehead, my pink ears growing pinker. I really hadn’t much to say, but my fear of consequences kept me babbling on, like one of Dostoevsky’s compulsive buffoons, At length my allocution—the memory of it makes my toes curl—trailed off in a plea for indulgence and restraint, “If only you’d be more careful, sir, how you talk to Fizzy,” I implored.
Mr. Ross raked at his pompadour for several seconds. “Had you really expected,” he said softly, “that I would let blunders of that sort pass in my classes? That I wouldn’t say a word?”
I said I didn’t think the passive periphrastic was all that important.
“Mistakes have to be corrected,” he told me, “and with a knife sometimes, not a smile. That’s what teachers are for,”
Clearly he was flabbergasted but not in the way I had expected. Vexation with my impertinence had turned to distress at my weak-kneed humanitarianism. Knowing that I shared his passion for Virgil and that I had even responded to the urbanity of Catullus (he had lent me the Odes to try outside of class), he had come to nurture a certain tenderness for me. Perhaps at Harvard I would do credit to the school and to him. Perhaps something of the grandeur that was Rome would stick to my ribs for good. And now here I was, his prize acolyte, defending the duffers and telling him prissily to watch his language. Obviously, the infusion of Roman iron had proven too feeble.
The ball seemed to be in my court. “Maybe you could go a little easier on everyone,” I ventured, pushing back my bangs.”Like in baseball. I’m lousy at baseball, but Jonesy— Mr. Jones—doesn’t get sore at me. Not too sore anyway,”
“Baseball!” said Isaiah, as though I had mentioned something faintly obscene.”And hockey! But that’s not what we’re talking about, Not at all.”
“I know that, sir. It’s just that I. . . ,”
“No, no.” Isaiah flapped his hands impatiently. “And I’m not sore at Fitzgerald personally. He’s a fine boy. I’m sure it’s not easy for him at Barton. And no one can touch him on the hockey rink, But in Latin class, he needs to hear me crack the whip.”
Knives and whips! I must have looked shocked, because Isaiah added, with a smile, “I’m perhaps falling into catachresis, Let’s say that Fitzgerald needs the referee’s whistle. And so do the others. All of you really. Because if I were to let Fitzgerald’s mistakes slip by, the rest of you wouldn’t have any benchmarks either. Anyway,” he said wickedly, “just think how the Jesuits would handle him.”
Our conversation was taking directions undreamed of by my classmates, Or by me: I could see the rocks of disloyalty looming ahead. I wanted to cut and run. But I was becoming hypnotized. So I stood riveted to the floor of Room 21 while Isaiah Ross, who had recovered his balance—and with it, a certain afflatus—explained to me what the classics really meant.
Long after conjugations and declensions had faded from my memory and nothing but tag ends of poetry remained in my mental impedimenta (neuter plural, second), I was to hark back to that moment. I got then my first inkling that Latin carried with it an alluvium far more precious than the language itself: the sense of contact with eternal civic and martial virtues; the touchstones of Virgilian splendor, of Horatian amenity, that would condition all later judgments of poetry; the wonders of the mythological world, whose magic was already fading into exoticism; the mastery of a condensed and articulated syntax that made the intricacies of modern language (including one’s own) pale into insignificance.
Am I sentimentalizing? Maybe. I know that many of my contemporaries fiercely reject dead languages; they see them as straitjackets rather than free-flowing tunics. And they are repelled by the bitter perfume of classical wisdom. All I can say is that Isaiah Ross managed to turn my eyes toward the span of an entire civilization, whose somber finale gave me in later days a vantage point: from there, as he had told me, I could view and even project, however imperfectly, my own unfinished era.
“At least I hope it won’t be finished,” he wound up. “That depends on all of you. With Greece and Rome, it really is finished. We know the end of the story. It’s all over—washed up, wiped out—and that’s what makes it so useful for us. All of it.” He burped softly and looked at his watch.”Even the passive periphrastic.”
I stood for a minute, breathing a bit heavily, and then he stepped down from the desk platform.”Don’t worry too much about your classmates’ tender toes,” he said.”They’ll live. They’ll live to do imitations of me.” As we moved toward the door, he swiveled around toward me.”Do you know Blake at all? I don’t suppose Lincoln Talcott has given you “The Proverbs of Hell”?”
I shook my head.
” “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Remember that the next time you think I’m getting tough. There’s just one other thing.”
“Don’t ever forget, my dear John, to save a little wrath for yourself.”
At the sound of my first name, I blushed again. But with a difference: I was old enough to realize that I was being suborned and still young enough to enjoy it.
“We’re late for lunch,” Mr. Ross said crisply. At the door he grasped my elbow.”Tomorrow I want to talk to you about the elective for the second term, There will be only four of you. This year I think we might cut out the Ovid—I really find the Metamorphoses are rather old hat—and that will leave more time for Catullus. We might even try a bit of Lucretius”—he lowered his voice conspiratorially—”if Dr, Elson’s religious principles will permit.”
I told him that it sounded great.
In the refectory curious eyes turned toward the latecomers. Forks paused in mid-course as we took our places at the Senior table under the disapproving stare of Dr. Elson, Fizzy raised his golden eyebrows at me from across the crockery. I had a moment of panic, with butterflies in the stomach, as on the night of the school play,
“After lunch,” I whispered, spearing a sausage from the platter,
I didn’t eat much. My head whirled with visions of past and future, of duffers trailing clouds of glory, of novices to whom we must pass the undimmed light, I saw that my report to the class would have to be heavily censored. I had delivered the message; the days to come would tell the tale,
One awkward question: what if Mr. Ross remained unmoved by our protest? If his rampages broke out again, young Spartacus would be in a fine pickle with the other gladiators.
At the far end of the table, the President of the Student Council, who always sat on Isaiah’s right, was angling for his attention. Isaiah nodded a little absently and then craned down to listen, the fingers of his left hand playing with bread crumbs on the shiny table.. In his right hand, he held a large glass of milk, from which he took careful sips. Gradually the furrows cleared from his forehead; the domed brow was again serene.
At one moment he looked up, and his eyes met mine. He would never have permitted himself a wink; there wasn’t even a ghost of a smile. But there had been a contact. The tigers of wrath were leashed. They weren’t dead, though; and as they had ended by making us accomplices, I didn’t think that either of us would let the other down.