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Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

March 27, 2014

Caleb’s Crossing is the story of the first native American graduate of Harvard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. The story is told from the perspective of the fictional daughter of the preacher who first tutored Caleb in English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, preparing him for the classics program at Harvard. One of the most disturbing aspects of the book is the theory of how all students, not just the native students, were deprived of adequate nutrition and exercise, in these early days. Some students were fortified by extra food sent from home, but the native American boys did not have this benefit. Caleb died of tuberculosis shortly after graduating with top grades. Of the very few other native American students, some died young and one became a mariner. It’s a fascinating story, and much revolves around the exclusion of girls from education, as the fictional main character, Bethia, works in the kitchen at Harvard, but listens to Chauncy’s lectures through the doorway. She eventually marries a tutor at Harvard, and their courting often takes place in the main library among John Harvard’s original book collection. Here is the historical background from the Harvard site.

Like his predecessor, Charles Chauncy (1592-1672) got into trouble for his religious beliefs. Chauncy’s troubles, however, preceded his arrival in the New World and, in fact, probably contributed to his decision to emigrate in 1638. Prone to quibble over small points, Chauncy had even served a brief prison sentence imposed because of “his tender conscience in the matter of ceremonies.” (Samuel Eliot Morison)

Despite such episodes of nonconformity, President Chauncy continued along the path laid out by Henry Dunster. Chauncy’s outlook embraced both religious orthodoxy and scientific curiosity. On the one hand, he demanded that students adhere to a rigorous program of religious devotions. (As Morison observes, “It is a safe guess that no generation of Harvard students listened to so many sermons as the pupils of President Chauncy.”) On the other, he supported Galileo’s modern astronomical perspective, and the College received its first telescope shortly before he died in office. Many regard Chauncy as the leading scholar in the New England of his day and perhaps the most learned of all Harvard presidents of the colonial era. Arabic was but one of the several foreign languages at his command.

During the Chauncy years, America’s first university press blossomed in the Yard, producing materials in both English and Native languages. (Not all such activity found favor across the river in Boston: in 1662, responding to unspecified volumes from Harvard’s printing press, the Great and General Court passed the Bay Colony’s first law on book censorship.) Perhaps the most notable publication was the 1,200-page Indian Bible (1663), translated into Algonquian by John Eliot. The Indian Bible – the first Bible printed in North America – remained in use for almost two centuries. This period also brought Harvard’s first Native American graduate: Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, Class of 1665.

One never-ending frustration was Chauncy’s annual salary of £100, much of it paid in goods. This was more than Dunster’s salary (averaging £55 a year) but hardly enough for Chauncy’s wife, eight children (Chauncy’s six sons graduated from Harvard: two in 1651, one in 1657, and three in 1661), and three servants. Despite various appeals to the colonial legislature in Boston, Chauncy never succeeded in getting a raise.

Chauncy died in office on Feb. 29, 1672 (= Feb. 19, 1671, in the Julian calendar then used by English colonists).

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