A Moment in Time: Student Composition Book, 1870’s

Penmanship, Authorship, and the Certainty of Life By Dean Kritikos

Student Composition Book 1870'sThis blog post is brought to you by the digital age—an age which at least one author would like to think has its share of cons that come with its prose—and, therefore, you’re not reading neatly printed, double-justified lines on a soft, off-white page. Further, you’re certainly not reading the scrawled excuses for letters that come out of pens and pencils I use. This blog post is also brought to you by the 19th Century, however, by way of a book of hand-written “Compositions of [St. John’s College’s] Class of 1871-72.” This make-shift title, stylized in two highly ornate fonts—with the “of’s” in tiny scrolls—is somewhat misleading, firstly because St. John’s 1870 foundation makes a graduating class of ‘71 or ’72 unlikely. Secondly, several essays within it, composed by members of the college’s “Literary Association,” are dated as late as 1874. The book, which collects what may have been considered representative work of the school’s award-winning writers, is composed of a collaboratively written story, letters, and essays in series on miscellaneous topics—likely assignments—all of which immortalize the voices, but also the bodies, of some of St. John’s first students.

One of the most intriguing sections of the book is composed of three essays on “the (un)certainty of death,” by William Maguire, Thomas Ward, and Wilson Durack. Ward’s essay is dated February 7th, 1873, which suggests that all three essays may have been composed within the same (academic) year. These three authors held various positions on the St. John’s Literary Union from 1871-1873, and won various composition-related awards, according to the school’s annual bulletins. The papers are concerned with death, its circumstances and meaning(s), and, of course, our (un)certainty concerning these. “The Uncertainty of Death” and “Uncertainty of Death,” by Ward and Durack, both offer highly theological/religious responses to what was likely a prompt on death; both use similar language to say that (the Victorian singular) man cannot dispose of his time, unlike his other resources, since his time is lent him by the deity. While it is certain that man will die, that death “shall lay his clammy hand upon us” (Durack), it is uncertain when and how.

William Maguire’s essay, “The Certainty of Death,” takes a different approach to what was likely the same prompt to which Ward and Durack responded. While Maguire’s ideas are also theologically inflected—death is inevitable, after all, since “man brought this fate upon himself,” according to Catholic doctrine—he focuses on concrete evidence of (others’) death, rather than human uncertainty of its circumstances. Maguire, not completely differently from either Ward or Durack, defines death as “the irrevocable separation of soul and body.” Interestingly enough, however, he references relics of deceased peoples—“the works of their hands”—to talk about (the certainty of) their deaths. That is, although we “cannot see the sages themselves,” we can still see—with our eyes—the work their bodies produced. Death is certain, paradoxically, because of the artifacts the dead have left us. What’s also certain, though, through such artifacts, is the lives of the authors behind them. And what makes life certain is, indeed, the hands—the bodies—of these authors.

handwriting1_1

A sample of Ward’s handwriting, with Durack’s handwritten composition below it.

Artifacts such as St. John’s College’s early bulletins, which list the students enrolled for given years, point to the existence of a name—a word—at a given time. The penmanship of these students, however, points to the existence of a hand, a body, behind the voice of each essay. The highly ornate language of each author, complete with florid, subordinate-clause heavy sentences—almost always layered with three iterations of an idea—might translate into a word processor and/or an audio adapter without the conventional taxes of translation. Maguire’s long crosses on his t’s, Ward’s polished and picture-perfect penmanship, and Durack’s highly-pressured and heavily-slanted cursive, however, provide an exclusively embodied (visual)

Maguire's handwriting and signature.

Maguire’s handwriting and signature.

experience of an embodied artform—one that you’re not getting as you read this blog post. What you get of me, the artist, is a language that, with any luck, is distinguishable. You’re not reading something that’ll stand as a guarantor of my (embodied) existence some 150 years from now. The essays in the composition book, on the other hand, even when concerned with (un)certainty of or about death, point to the absolute certainty of the lives behind them—they immortalize the authors, in fact, in the curls and curves of their letters, even as the digital age comes closer and closer to exposing print culture to death’s “clammy hand.”

Dean is a senior English major with minors in Creative Writing and Phiolosophy at St. John’s University, where he works in the Writing Center as well as the Office of Sustainability. Dean has recently performed original poetry with The Epic 12 and The Inspired Word, and has upcoming shows with Poetry Teachers NYC and The LouderARTS Project in 2014.

This ledger filled with handwritten essays from some of the young men who attended the school during the early years of St. John’s (founded in 1870), is one of the earliest and most precious artifacts from the institution’s history. Several of the authors of the essays in the book were founding members of the school’s first student society the “St. John’s Literary Union.”  The society’s motto was Veritas Semper Vincit (truth always prevails).

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