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Humanist and Statesman

ISSUE:  Spring 1944

Connecticut Yankee: An Autobiography. By Wilbur L. Cross. Yale University Press. $5.00.

From schoolhouse to state-house would fairly well summarize in a phrase the career of Wilbur Lucius Cross as told in his autobiography. When at the age of fourteen he was given the choice between visiting, in September, 1876, the big Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia or entering the new classical school to be opened that month near his native Connecticut village, he chose “without hesitation the school as against the Corliss engine and all the other mechanical marvels of the great exposition.” This, he thinks, was the Great Decision of his youth, for it started him toward Yale and the scholar’s life which, as all the learned world knows, he followed with ardor and distinction for over forty years. Between the little red schoolhouse of his childhood and the gilded dome of the capitol at Hartford more than fifty years were to intervene. They were busy years: the country boy fitfully clerking in the local store and listening to political talk by rural philosophers seated on cracker barrels and nail kegs; later, studying at college and at graduate school for the doctorate, teaching in high schools and then at Yale University as Professor of English, and finally becoming Dean of the Graduate School; along with these professional activities he was editing a great magazine, writing a book on the English novel and notable biographies of Fielding and Sterne (from the latter’s “Tristram Shandy” he got the sobriquet of “Uncle Toby”) besides editing many English classics. All these varied experiences are enlivened in the telling by many anecdotes which only a sagacious, observant, and very human Connecticut Yankee with a long memory could recall.

Political discussion, to which in childhood he had listened with avidity, continued to be of interest to the university professor and dean. The informal “House of Commons” debates at the village store were the early forerunners for Mr. Cross of the more philosophic discussions by himself and a few congenial intellectuals of the Graduates Club at Yale. He was an ardent Democrat, once a comparatively rare bird in Connecticut, and often regaled a group of fellow Democrats, ironically named “The Sunday School Class,” with speeches burlesquing Republican campaign orators, especially their candidate for the Presidency in 1920. In 1930 Dean Cross retired from his academic posts, presumably to the meditations and mild literary diversions of an ancient sage. But certain friends, unwilling to see the Dean pass into a state of innocuous desuetude, were grooming him for the State’s highest office. The State Democratic convention nominated him for the Governorship, and so the Yale scholar actively entered politics.

Transition from study to chair of state seems to have been easy for Dean Cross. Did the scholar and litterateur, after doffing his academic robe and donning the toga, ever murmur reflectively with Prospero, “My library was dukedom large enough”? If he did, there is no hint of any such nostalgic sentiment in the lively record of his eight-year consulship. One gets the impression that Governor Cross, very much at home in the public forum, was having a bully time running the State of Connecticut. There was plenty to do and enough opposition (aptly characterized by the victim as “The Art of Hamstringing a Governor”) to make the doing somewhat exciting. Partisan prejudice, ultra conservatism, specious pleas for economy, and traditional inertia sometimes blocked the way of the new chief of state. He often glanced at a framed motto on his desk, Mark Twain’s advice to the young: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.” He was once feelingly amused by the remark of a visitor that a man in the Governor’s situation reminded him of “a celluloid rabbit chased through hell by a pack of asbestos hounds.” Timidity, however, was assuredly not a gubernatorial trait, for the Governor was bold in speaking his mind and in acting on conviction; and he had a native shrewdness which tempered his idealism and allied him with that other Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But the modern one insisted first on finding out just what was going on at court. The many social and industrial reforms proposed and in the main achieved by the new administration, an intimate knowledge of conditions in the state, and personal acquaintance with a large number of his constituents made Governor Cross a popular and an unusually efficient executive.

The autobiography is a richly varied volume of reminiscence and opinion, profusely illustrated with pictures of the Cross family and with cartoons of the campaigning and reigning executive. Few lives have been as worth recording as that of this humanist and statesman. His astonishing versatility, his commonsense, his racy humor make his life-story a memorable American human document. To the historian Governor Cross’s account of the chief events of his four administrations to which he has devoted the last half of his book, will prove valuable source material, particularly interesting of course to the people of Connecticut, whether they agree or disagree with their late chief of state. To the cultured general reader the autobiographer’s clear and strong, at times poetic, style will be a delight, such for instance as that of his now famous Thanksgiving proclamation: “The colors of autumn stream down the wind, scarlet in sumac and maple, spun gold in the birches, a splendor of smoldering fire in the oaks, and the last leaves flutter away.” It is a colorful valediction of one who served well in cloister and public forum and who has, besides, the aesthetic sensibility of an interpreter of literature.


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