"Great men," wrote John Jay Chapman, A.B. 1884, "are often the negation and opposite of their age. They give it the lie." He was writing in 1897 about Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the remark states the theme of his own life and its defect. Chapman is one of America's lost writers; indeed, he may be the best of them. On his particular subjects, literature and politics, he is unique, invaluable--and quite forgotten. [...]
Chapman's form was the literary essay: complex, artful compositions in which the author records the response of his own mind and heart to the work at hand, not as a scholar but as a reader. At his best, in essays on Shakespeare, Emerson, Whitman, or Browning, Chapman can seem to present these familiar authors for the first time, to renew and redirect our understanding of them.
He also wrote social criticism and history, in particular in his long 1913 essay on the abolitionist agitator William Lloyd Garrison--an extraordinary work of biography, a study of character and the force of history, a painful meditation on the depth and permanence of the tragedy visited on American society by slavery. In all, Chapman published nine collections of essays, as well as plays, poems, and translations of Dante, Sophocles, and Euripides.
He was never a large-selling author, but among educated readers of his time he had a considerable name. Today, however, his works are mostly out of print. Wilson and other biographers seem to relate this neglect to Chapman's disillusioned retirement from practical politics around 1900, and no doubt they are right to do so; certainly Chapman never sought fame. And as certainly, his highminded Emersonian individualism put him against the grain of his own age. But there are other factors. For all its aristocratic ease, Chapman's life was often dark and troubled. In a horrifying episode when he was a law student, he assaulted and beat a supposed rival in love and later, tormented by remorse, deliberately burned his left hand in a coal fire so badly it had to be amputated. All his life he was subject to breakdowns and bouts of apparently psychosomatic illness. During World War I, in which he lost a son, he became--quite against his character--a hysterical war-lover, and in the 1920s he took up the paranoid cause of crank anti-Catholicism. These late obsessions must have discredited him, especially among the skeptical younger generation, and contributed to his being dismissed and ultimately almost forgotten.
That he should be lost, however, is our misfortune. Any writer must be known by his best work and not by his blindnesses--and Chapman, with his gift for renewing the classics and his lucid, uncompromising view of our history and political life, can only appear today as an author of whom we stand in need.
When I was asked to make this address I wondered what I had to say to you boys who are graduating. And I think I have one thing to say. If you wish to be useful, never take a course that will silence you. Refuse to learn anything that implies collusion, whether it be a clerkship or a curacy, a legal fee or a post in a university. Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose. If you can take this course, and in so far as you take it, you will bless this country. In so far as you depart from this course you become dampers, mutes, and hooded executioners.
As a practical matter a mere failure to speak out upon occasions where no opinion is asked or expected of you, and when the utterance of uncalled-for suspicion is odious, will often hold you to a concurrence in palpable iniquity. Try to raise a voice that will be heard from here to Albany and watch what comes forward to shut off the sound. It is not a German sergeant, nor a Russian officer of the precinct. It is a note from a friend of your father's offering you a place in his office. This is your warning from the secret police. Why, if any of you young gentleman have a mind to make himself heard a mile off, you must make a bonfire of your reputations and a close enemy of most men who would wish you well.
I have seen ten years of young men who rush out into the world with their messages, and when they find how deaf the world is, they think they must save their strength and wait. They believe that after a while they will be able to get up on some little eminence from which they can make themselves heard. 'In a few years,' reasons one of them, 'I shall have gained a standing, and then I will use my powers for good.' Next year comes and with it a strange discovery. The man has lost his horizon of thought. His ambition has evaporated; he has nothing to say. I give you this one rule of conduct. Do what you will, but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don't be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.