Charles Scribner III      

art historian, author, editor, and lecturer

































In Loco Parentis: Letters from Home

Charles Scribner, Jr. (1921-1995)  


Editor's Note: In 1992 Charles Scribner III wrote an introduction to In the Web of Ideas: The Education of a Publisher, written by his father, Charles Scribner, Jr. [portrait above, by  Everett Raymond Kinstler]  The book and its introduction weave back and forth across the intellectual lives of several generations of Scribners and, at the familiar level of well-intended advice from parent to child, may evoke a response in the minds (and hearts and pits-of-the-stomach) of many alumni of St. Paul's. The essay that follows is a modified form of the introduction by Charles Scribner III.


This past summer I spent several pleasant days at work sorting family and publishing files bound for the Scribner Archives at the Princeton University Library. I suppose it was this task as much as any latent nostalgia that prompted me to clean out my own storage boxes of letters and press clippings and other memorabilia. In the process I stumbled upon a small treasure: a bundle of letters from my father to me at boarding school a generation ago. His aim in these letters—beyond relaying family news and entertaining morsels for adolescent consumption—was to entice his student/son into his web of scholarly interests; at the same time he sought to steer him away from the less benign webs in which young students are occasionally apt to get caught. His prevailing tone, of humorous concern, was struck at the close of his very first letter: "Keep reading on your own! Nothing will help you more scholastically in the long run. And do please remember that you read other books last summer than the 007 James Bond series."

No sooner had my father received my schedule of classes at St. Paul's —where he had preceded me three decades earlier, as his father had him (ours is a repetitive family)—than he wrote to reassure me about its implications: "I studied your schedule with the greatest interest, and it didn't seem too bad! Saturday morning looked pretty filled up, but perhaps you can do some of that homework before Friday night. Of course I really don't know how much homework they give you. Every now and then I dream that I am back in school or college as a student, and despite my protests that I have graduated it never seems to make much impression. Sometimes it all seems much harder the second time around, as I am sure I would find it now. And in my dreams I never seem to be able to get my homework done—particularly when it comes to something really major like a senior thesis at college. They say that people who have nightmares like this really did very well and were conscientious when they were students. But do not let the prospect of future bad dreams discourage you! It's all part of the price you have to pay for making an extra effort, but it's really worth it, despite the ancient Greek motto: meden agan." (To my puzzled query, he subsequently supplied a free translation: "Don't overdo it.")

He had already persuaded me to sign up for ancient Greek, in addition to Latin, my first year at the school: his deep love of the classic languages is one of the golden threads of his web of ideas, as the reader will discover. My first Greek assignment—learning the new alphabet—was tearful. But I soon recovered; he rushed to bolster my decision to stick with it: "I am glad that you do not find Greek quite as impossible as it seemed at first appearance. It is the most beautiful language, and the things you will read in Greek were the models for the literature of later periods. You will never be sorry you took Greek, I promise you." By the end of the school year, I was fully sold on Greek. But in picking courses for the next (IV Form) year, I had planned to drop Latin—without his prior consultation—and this almost created an international crisis: "As for dropping Latin next year," he wrote, "I think it is a good plan if and only if  you will be picking it up again in your V Form year. I really think it would be a mistake to have gone this far with Latin only to drop it now, and if I ever expected you to do that, I never should have advised you to start Greek. Please let me know if it was your understanding with Mr. Hall [director of studies] and Mr. Greaves [group master] to drop Latin only temporarily, that is, for the next year. If that is your plan, I'll be glad to stay out of the discussion. Otherwise I really should like to find out more about the program you are mapping out. Needless to say I am very keen about Greek, and again feel it would be a great mistake not to carry on with that, too. Also you should have a taste of a good science course before you get to college. But it would be very unwise for you to drop Latin for good at this point. Please write your father a reassuring letter about this or call him as he is most disconcerted!"

Two weeks passed. "Not having heard any more about the schedule of courses for the IV and V Forms, I telephoned Mr. Hall to register my doubts as to the wisdom of dropping Latin for good at this point. As you will remember, you and I went up to St. Paul's to discuss these questions with Mr. Clark [academic vice rector], and I really would never have ventured to get you to take up Greek if I had thought it would be at the price of dropping Latin. He agreed, and I am certain that Mr. Stuckey (head of the classics department) would agree with me about that, although possibly you could get away with skipping a year of Latin. I don't know about that. In any case I judge that you really do appreciate the fascination and beauty of the Greek language. The literature is probably the greatest treasure of our civilization, and I know that you will always be grateful for getting to know it in its own tongue." His prediction was on the mark: I was to continue reading Greek for the remaining three years of school and the first two years of Princeton, before being seduced for good by art history.

My father's letters reveal, as well, his love of classical music, which he pursued via the phonograph—"his chosen instrument," I called it. He constantly wrote of new records he had purchased and was most supportive of my piano studies, which I had earlier intended to lead to a professional career. "I think you are wise not to bite off more than you can chew. After your studies, music is virtually an obligation in the light of the years you put into it and your own ability. You'll never really have an opportunity to master the piano later if you don't do so now. And once you have mastered it, you'll be able to keep up a repertory all your life —adding new pieces from time to time." Once again, on the mark. Though my career was never to be at the keyboard, I still find myself there, after hours.

One of the Scribner authors my father worked closely with was the great South African novelist Alan Paton. I suppose it was a mixture of pride and pragmatism that prompted me to choose Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country as the subject of my first English term paper. My father wrote that he had sent my preliminary ideas about the novel to Paton, who was then under virtual house arrest in his native land, "as I felt sure that he would enjoy reading your reaction," he explained. (You may imagine the 14--year-old's delight.) "I believe that your book report will be a very good one, particularly if you include references to Tales from a Troubled Land. It might interest you to know that I thought up that particular title. It seemed to me that 'Troubled Land' made a nice echo of 'Beloved Country'." A few weeks later he reported back on my paper—before I felt safe to submit it. Having declared that it "would pass in a college freshman course," he got down to basics: "One note to be careful about —your spelling falters occasionally. Be sure to check words like 'tragic' in the dictionary. Alan Paton told me that your typewriter must be a very old one since it spelled 'excellent' as 'excellant' and 'miracle' as 'miricle.' But he was very pleased by what you said about his book. I'll show you his letter."

My father's literary horizons extended well beyond Scribner's roster of authors. The summer before, he had assigned me a fifty-dollar reading list of English and American classics: I got paid on completion—a hefty sum for a jobless teenager in 1965! Once at school, I got a new list—the best books I've ever read— with an occasional comment from the paternal professor: "I am delighted you liked the Chekhov stories. I was a VI Former at St. Paul's when I read these first, and I still remember the impression they made on me. I thought they were beautifully written. There are so many other wonderful collections of short stories for you to become familiar with—e.g., Tolstoy, de Maupassant, Joyce, Hemingway—that I can't wait to have you start on the next $50 or $75 list! I am also anxious to read your own story." (It was, predictably, ersatz Chekhov, about a desperately lonely boy at a St. Petersburg prep school. Published in the Horae Scholasticae, it panicked Mr. Greaves, my housemaster, until I reassured him that the story reflected only my reading, not my life.) By my second year, I had immersed myself in dramatics. My first major role, Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, evoked a fatherly insight: "I reread Julius Caesar and was surprised to find Cassius a far more sympathetic character than I remembered him. I imagine the 'lean and hungry look' has struck and prejudiced readers. The introduction to your Pelican edition of the play was especially interesting in this respect since it showed how frustrated Cassius must have been to have every practical suggestion brushed aside by the starry-eyed Brutus! Did you find that difficult to convey?" In fact, I was mildly disturbed by how easily I identified with the cynical Cassius: I couldn't fault him. But now I wonder about my father's sympathy over Cassius's frustrated practicality. "Starry-eyed" sons are equally prone to brushing off sound advice. Perhaps, I reluctantly conclude in hindsight, he was able to identify from paternal experience.

In any case, he proceeded to prescribe a program of study for a series of prize scholarship exams I was scheduled to take, with special emphasis on how to survive Caesar's Gallic Wars. I'll spare you these details (three single-spaced pages) worthy of the Roman general himself. But his campaign to capture the Shakespeare prize is worth quoting in full: "I know all of this may be time consuming, but it could help you very much, and there's nothing more nightmarish or frightening than to step into an exam unprepared. That was my own experience since I did absolutely no preparatory work at all and still remember the miserable experience of trying to answer questions on things I had completely forgotten. As a matter of fact I was too dumb to find out what we would be examined on, and in those days no one took the initiative in briefing you beforehand. The boy who won did find out in advance and cleaned up! When it came to the Whipple Medal in Shakespeare (it was Much Ado About Nothing that year), I got tricky myself and adopted the following strategy which only took a day or so: 1) reading something about the play and Shakespeare's sources and models; 2) reading the play itself three times to get the plot and structure and characters clearly in mind; 3) memorizing about a dozen passages from various parts of the play—some as short as one line, some five or ten lines. By sprinkling these throughout my answers I was able to convey the impression that I knew the entire play by heart! How could I lose--especially since I compared the alteration of sad and happy sections of the play with the 3rd movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony! Naturally this particular plan may not be possible with the exams you will be taking, but what I want to emphasize is the effectiveness of having a 'strategy,' so to speak. It gives you a marvelous feeling of confidence, too, which is half the battle."

I didn't win, but there is no question that I had the best coach available.

One of my stumbling blocks was solid geometry. Math and science are two primary passions—indeed, professional avocations—of my father, then as now. He wasted no time in trying to get me over the hurdle: "I wish I could help you on the geometry originals. As you point out, a lot of this is confidence, and it is possible to defeat yourself if you become too anxious. Often there is some simple trick or clue to a solution. Sometimes it is seeing a familiar theorem in an unusual setting...." After much about angles, arcs, diagrams, and hypotenuses, he dropped this pearl of wisdom: "In other words, do something; even if what you start to do may not be exactly right, it may put you on the track of a solution. Be sure that all the data you have in the hypothesis are brought into play. If everything in the hypothesis isn't capitalized on, it means you aren't focusing on the particular situation involved. They will almost never give you irrelevant data in the hypothesis. It might help you to work over a number of fairly difficult originals as a way of reviewing. Practice on them will build up your confidence and, like the London Times crossword puzzles, show you some of the tricky things that may arise! Hope I haven't confused you by all these suggestions. Usually the solution to an original is very simple and straightforward once you see the essential elements of the problem."

He later had second thoughts about my fascination with the London Times puzzles, to which I had become addicted with the aid of our drama coach, James Greaves. (The New York Times' is kid's stuff; if you are feeling masochistic, try the English version.) "Please don't leave one of these puzzles around" came the note accompanying a small triumph. "I said to myself that I'd just fill in one word, but a day later I'd done the whole thing. Very hard: 13 down I got by remembering a verse from Coleridge's 'Xanadu.' 9 across I read years ago by H. G. Wells. Etc. Etc. I hereby retire from the Times Crossword Puzzle!"

He must have quietly despaired when I told him that I really didn't believe for a moment Galileo's law of gravity (any fool knows that big heavy things fall faster than small light ones, right?); but for the sake of passing the physical science course I would pretend to accept that law. Besides, I was preoccupied with my upcoming performance as Shakespeare's cavalier King Richard II. Once more unto the breach, Father charged with pen in hand: "Sorry you have so much trouble in accepting 16th-century science. Of course, when one deals with objects falling in an atmosphere, they are all subject to resistance or forces of air friction, and obviously a bullet falls faster than a feather. But the laws of uniform acceleration abstract from atmospheric conditions and assume a perfect vacuum. In a vacuum is there any reason to think that a cannonball (for example), which can be thought of as a kind of gluing together of tiny pellets, should fall faster than any one pellet composing it? In an atmosphere the forces act on the surface of a falling object, and since the volume and therefore mass of an object varies with the cube of a linear dimension while its surface area varies with the square, the smaller an object is made, the more it is responsive to air resistance. That's why dust floats! But your natural insincerity obviously enables you to take positions contrary to what you believe to be the case. A wonderful attribute for an actor and apparently useful in the study of physical science."

He later reinforced his concern with a book— The Double Helix —on the exciting adventure culminating in the discovery of the DNA molecule. "It will only take an hour or so. I want you to have a picture of the beautiful and imaginative side of science as well as the lively, amusing personalities of some of the great creative scientists. It is also filled with English lore!" (He knew that would hook me.) His own "science gene" evidently skipped a generation. I was never at home in the lab. Once I hooked up my Bunsen burner hose to the water faucet and then panicked at the gush of "liquid gas" that shot up to the ceiling and threatened to extinguish us all—or so I feared. "Ey-uh, Scribner, did you try to light it?" chuckled the chemistry teacher, Mr. Gillespie.

As a Princeton freshman, I tried once again and took a course aptly nicknamed "Physics for Poets." Someone once said that taking physics at Princeton was like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. I was nonetheless inspired by the history of science as the history of progressively beautiful—that is, clearer, simpler, more economic—explanations of the confusing, cluttered natural world around us. Exams were another matter. I recall one question about gravity (once again!) in particular: why can dogs and cats jump three or four times their height whereas human athletes can at best jump their own height? Pressed for time, I could only answer: "Dogs and cats are amazing animals." (Unlike her son, my paternal grandmother, a lifelong animal lover, considered it a fine answer.) Yet my appreciation of science as a fine art finally dawned. Years later, it proved invaluable in "solving" a problem of art history involving the original configuration of a Rubens tapestry cycle. When asked by art students, "What was the most important art course you took?" I reply, "Physics." It was worth the struggle.

I trust that, by now, the next question—"Who was your most influential teacher?" —has already been answered.

It has been said that not every teacher is (himself or herself) a parent, but every parent is first a teacher. I've had the best. Originally I did not intend to share so much of my tutelage. But I cannot help hoping that those wise—and witty—words of the master will take root in the next generation. Grandchildren often listen better than children. There are grounds for hope. Not long ago, my fifth grade son Charlie wrote a school paper entitled "My Grandfather's Influence," which I feel compelled to reprint in full:

When I was younger, I would sometimes go to my grandparents' house for a visit. Sometimes, while my grandmother was out, my grandfather, who was deeply into science, would listen to science tapes for a very long time in his study. At the time, I was more interested in television than most other things. Just to be nice, I would usually sit in the study with him and listen to the tapes. While drowning in my own boredom, as if the study was a torture room and the tapes were the torturers, I would hardly listen, and even if I did, I didn't try to understand at such a young age. One day, my grandfather started talking to me about it, and I actually found it quite intriguing. I started to listen to the tapes with him as well as doing experiments. I became interested in Polywater, which was a fluke theory from the 70's by Russian scientists that said that the world water supply would be contaminated. My grandfather and I started to debate different ideas also. Now that lam older, I can relate to what is on the tapes more. Because of the many times talking to my grandfather, it has influenced my love of science greatly, making it one of my most favorite subjects, in and out of school.

I am reminded of that wonderful insight of Henry Adams, who wrote that a teacher may never know the extent of his influence. "A teacher," Adams concluded, "affects eternity."


--Charles Scribner III