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John Bascom

from Wisconsin Authors and Their Works   1918
by Charles Rounds

Bascom Hall

John Bascom, who will always be known to Wisconsin school people as "President" Bascom, was born at Genoa, New York, May 1, 1827, and died at Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1912. He was a graduate of Williams College with the class of '49, and held many degrees, both scholarly and honorary, from that and other institutions of learning. He was professor of rhetoric at Williams College from 1855 to 1874, and was president of the University of Wisconsin from 1874 to 1887. He is the author of some thirty or forty books, and he tells us at one point in his biography that these books have cost him in money a good round sum more than he has ever received from their publication, but that, notwithstanding that fact, he is glad to have written them and is only sorry that he could not have been of more service to his fellow men.

His writings cannot, in general, be called attractive to the ordinary reader. His style is rather too heavy and learned. At the same time it cannot be denied that his books do possess a certain charm for the scholarly person. There is a commendable dignity and poise about them. His tastes were eminently scholarly, and he seems to be rather out of sympathy with the more active and buoyant life of today. Boys and girls in our schools, however, will find his chapter on recreations, from which this brief extract is taken, interesting--partly because it will show how different his tastes were from theirs.

Young John Bascom



Reprinted by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London.

Older John Bascom

Mountains owe their first and simplest power to their magnitude--their magnitude upward, which most of all impresses us. A more important feature is their combination and grouping. Hills that hardly attain the elevation of mountains, as in the Lake country of England, may, by variety of outline, centers of strength, and lines of retreat, produce all the minor impressions of bold scenery. A third source of power is the diversity of life which accompanies them, its uplift and large presentation. The crowning force of the mountains is their fellowship with the air. Their summits are points of transfiguration. It is here that a sweet, dreamy feeling of victory over the world pervades us, a feeling that, without separating us from it, puts it under our feet, and leaves it floating in softened form and color in that highest, remotest sense, vision; but carries it quite away from all nearer senses and immediate uses. There are a liberty of feeling and a spiritual tone begotten at once of the freedom and of the purity of the place.

It is a great aid to recreation to have a somewhat extended knowledge of some branch of natural science, and so a growing interest in it. Such a pursuit helps to impart that definiteness of aim which is necessary to give point even to the pleasures of the mind, and relieves us from taking up such amusements as fishing and hunting, which are at war with the peace and beauty of nature and which appeal to much lower sentiments. That a destruction of the most sensitive and expressive objects in the world should go hand in hand with our enjoyment of that world is a betrayal of brutal impulses amid rational insights; a presence of Satan among the sons of God. I have found botany to fulfill this purpose of definition admirably. I have only regretted that I have not made my knowledge more ample and exact. Yet the mind must be somewhat easy-going in its recreations.

Two fine arts blend with and grow out of a love of nature, landscape gardening and architecture. No one art unites strong sensuous and intellectual impressions more distinctly than architecture. In the interior of a grand cathedral, wit and workmanship, the subtility of the mind and the cunning of the hand are at their boldest, if not at their highest expression. Fine architecture in fitting surroundings is the most visible and emphatic example of concord between nature and man. The enjoyment of it is as intense, and as easily renewed, as is that of nature itself.

True recreation does not so much recreate as create the mind. While it brings again to an edge the tools of labor, it puts labor itself in a new, a larger, and a better relation to the world. We are apt to think of recreation as something indulged in for the sake of labor; it is quite as just to look upon labor as something undergone for the sake of recreation, for a better grasp of the emotional world to which we belong. Systematic recreation is no small part of life as giving illumination and insight to its toil. Neither is well save in the full reflection of the other.

Fortunately more men find relief in social relaxation than in rustication. I have owed my habitual preference for the solitude of nature in part to a weariness that grew more weary among men. Men make a demand that it requires more vivacity to meet, while nature steals in restfully at every sense, giving all and asking nothing. Nature is the more divine, the more creative, the more recreative.

Society brings ready refreshment to those who love it, and have strength to bear it, but it leaves the temper of thought much as it finds it--saving ever that higher intercourse, which most of all things vocalizes for us the mind of God.

"John Bascom." Wisconsin Authors and Their Works. Madison: The Parker Educational Company, 1918. 286-288.
From the GLS Department of Special Collections reference room: PS 283 W6 R6 1918.