A Bible Fit for Children

Alan Jacobs

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 73 (May 1997): 22-27.

In a famous passage from Science and the Modern World, Alfred North Whitehead gives this counsel to scholars in the various historical disciplines: "Do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which [controversialists] feel it necessary explicitly to defend." More important, and more telling for the deep understanding of a culture, are those "fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming"—indeed they do not know that they are assuming anything—"because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them." Similarly, in The Discarded Image C. S. Lewis notes the disturbingly common phenomenon of coming across passages in old books that seem perfectly transparent to understanding but in fact are hiding something: "We turn to the helps only when the hard passages are manifestly hard. But there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t."

I think of these wise warnings when, as I often have cause to do, I ask my students what Jesus meant when he said to the disciples, "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). For everyone knows what these words mean; they are utterly transparent, and even the shy students readily respond. There is a cluster of concepts that tend to gather around this saying like iron shavings around a magnet: children are innocent, I am told, they have simple faith, they have a sense of wonder. I have received the same set of responses when I have asked the question in church. And people are so easily confident in their responses that they are often surprised to note that Jesus himself employs none of these concepts.

Instead, he speaks of children in terms of humility; but he employs this notion in a peculiar way. "Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Is Jesus saying that to enter heaven one must be as humble as the child whom Jesus presents to the disciples? Or is he saying that one must treat oneself as though one were no more than a mere child in order to enter heaven? The latter option, though no one I have ever talked to has come up with it unaided, seems more likely. After all, in most societies children do not have the full rights and privileges of adults; they are not free agents, they are under the authority of their elders. One can readily see how accepting for oneself such a status would be congruent with Jesus’ insistence that the first shall be last and the last first. And indeed many, if not most, biblical scholars have linked Jesus’ statement to the low place children held in the culture of his time, in which people normally thought of children as unformed, or not fully formed, adults, who gain in personal value as they gain in ability and strength. But when I suggest to my students that Jesus may simply have been referring to the social inferiority of children, their enforced rather than natural lowliness, I am greeted with looks of perplexity or dismay or outright disapproval.

We might ask further whether humility is a notable feature in the children we have known. As sweet and gentle as my four-year-old son is, I would not immediately think of him as humble; he tends, for instance, to be much more attentive to the shortcomings of others than to his own, and such a tendency hardly makes for humility. When people make their common assumptions about what Jesus meant when he exhorted us to become like children, they do not seem to be thinking about the actual behavior of actual children. Rather, an idealized picture of the Innocent Little One intrudes between their reflections and their experience. Lacking such an idealization, Augustine in his Confessions can observe the actions of infants and small children and see in them clear testimony to the doctrine of Original Sin:

I wanted to express my desires to those who could satisfy them; but this was impossible, since my desires were inside me and those to whom I wished to express them were outside. . . . And so I used to jerk my limbs about and make various noises by way of indicating what I wanted. . . . And when people did not do what I wanted, either because I could not make myself understood or because what I wanted was bad for me, then I would become angry with my elders for not being subservient to me, and with responsible people for not acting as though they were my slaves; and I would avenge myself on them by bursting into tears. This, I have learned, is what babies are like, so far as I have been able to observe them.

This passage, and others like it, strike most modern readers as merely perverse; but it is not evident that their views fit the observable evidence better than Augustine’s.

I do not wish to overstress, after the manner of radical historicism, the differences between our world and that of the early Church, as though a Hobbesian pessimism about children held utter sway then and a Rousseauian optimism now. Augustine himself, in one of his homilies on the Gospels, acknowledges that children can be humble, while some people in our time take a view not unlike that seen in the Confessions. Conversely, as late as the eighteenth century John Wesley, in a sermon on the education of children, could simply assume that every parent knew that children suffer from pride, willfulness, and a "natural propensity to seek happiness in gratifying the outward senses." But a genuine transformation in our view of children has come about nonetheless.

Phillippe Ariès, in his fascinating history, Centuries of Childhood, contends that the belief in the innocence of childhood was almost unknown at the end of the sixteenth century, but had become a commonplace by the end of the seventeenth. "Commonplace" seems to me too strong a word, but then my knowledge comes chiefly from English culture, while almost all of Ariès’ examples are French. It seems that the first time this note is fully and clearly sounded in English culture is the end of the seventeenth century, in the works of Thomas Traherne. Traherne was an ecstatic and visionary writer whose works were not discovered until 1896, when a collector browsing through a London bookshop came across the notebook in which they had been scribbled. In verse and in prose, Traherne celebrates the perfect innocence of childhood: "an antepast of Heaven sure!" he calls it in a poem entitled, precisely, "Innocence." "Within, without me, all was pure: I must become a child again." And in what came to be called his Centuries of Meditations, he loses himself in a rhythmical trance of remembered perceptions: "The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. . . . The city seemed to stand in Eden, or be built in heaven. . . . Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world than I when I was a child."

If this sounds familiar, that is because it is an almost eerie prefiguration of the Romantic rhetoric of childhood. If we did not know that Traherne’s work was utterly lost until a century ago, we might suspect that Wordsworth, in his "Intimations" ode, was a mere plagiarist:

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Indeed, it is only with the advent of Romanticism that the innocence of childhood assumes a talismanic status: in a historical world that always disappoints (especially in the disastrous and bloody aftermath of the French Revolution, for which hopes had been so high) the pull of nostalgia for an earlier and purer state becomes almost irresistible. In the terms favored by W. H. Auden, the Utopians of the eighteenth century become the Arcadians of the nineteenth: and while the Arcadia they long for can be historical, it is more often personal. "Carry me back, Master," Auden mockingly writes (and he is mocking himself, for he recognized Arcadianism as one of his strongest temptations), "carry me back to the days before my wife had put on weight, back to the years when beer was cheap and the rivers really froze in winter. . . . Give me my passage home, let me see that harbor once again just as it was before I learned the bad words." Ah, childhood! Perhaps when he wrote these words Auden (a new resident of the United States) had already noted that Arcadianism is—even more than its near relative, Harold Bloom’s beloved Gnosticism—the "American religion."

One early (and distinctly American) version of Romanticism was the Transcendentalism of New England; one of the key figures in that movement was A. Bronson Alcott, best known today as the father of Louisa May Alcott. Bronson Alcott participated to an almost Trahernian degree in the Romantic cult of the innocent child, which for him took a curious and interesting form. In 1835 he founded a school in Boston called the Temple School, and a key part of the weekly routine involved a time for Alcott to gather his pupils together and discuss the Gospels. Alcott did not lecture, but rather asked questions, trying to follow the Socratic example ("Plato for thought, Christ for action!" was one of his mottoes). He saw to it that these "conversations with children on the Gospels," as he called them, were recorded by a secretary; soon thereafter he had them published.

These "conversations" have recently been reissued under the title How Like an Angel Came I Down, the phrase taken, perhaps not surprisingly in light of the little history I have been recounting, from Thomas Traherne’s poem "Wonder." The reissue came about because of the enthusiasm of Alice O. Howell ("therapist, author, teacher"), who provides an excitable introduction—"Oh, Boston, where is your innocence now!"—filled with statistics provided by the Children’s Defense Fund, references to Carl Jung, and, yes, extended quotations from Wordsworth’s "Intimations" ode. Also noteworthy are the facts that this reissue is published by the Lindisfarne Press, which is associated with the Anthroposophical Society, and that it features a forward by the poet and translator Stephen Mitchell, who has recently found it necessary to repeat the Jeffersonian project of producing an edition of the Gospels with everything that could offend a decent-minded liberal neatly excised. (The chief difference is that Mitchell had the resources of a publishing empire, HarperCollins, behind his work, while Jefferson had to make do with scissors and paste.) In such details the cultural history of the modern West is writ small.

The conversations themselves, though, are absolutely fascinating, because the children are fascinating. Here is a passage chosen utterly at random:

MR. ALCOTT. What do you mean by Judgment Day?
ELLEN. The last day, the day when the world is to be destroyed.
MR. ALCOTT. When will that day come?
CHARLES. The day of judgment is not any more at the end of the world than now. It is the judgment of conscience every moment.
MR. ALCOTT. Ellen is thinking of burning worlds, open books, a Judge, an assembled universe.
LUCIA. I think the day of judgment is when anyone dies; the conscience judges.
JOSEPH. Mr. Alcott, it does not mean any particular day; but they wanted to express how very certain and real the judgment is which goes on all the time, and so they expressed it in this way, for no words can exactly express it.
JOHN B. Whenever we do wrong it is a day of judgment to us.
MARTHA. Death is necessary for complete judgment.
EDWARD J. Death is necessary for any judgment.
AUGUSTINE. I do not think the world is to be destroyed.

All of these children were between seven and twelve years old (except for Edward J., who despite his Kafkaesque outlook on life is listed as "under seven"). Through the course of the book Charles emerges as one of the most interesting and resourceful, and it is not uncommon for him to establish a direction for the others to follow, as he does here. Charles seems in many ways a prototypical nineteenth-century Bostonian, capable at one point of insisting that the phrase "Father and Son" does not mean "God and Jesus" but rather "God and any man," and at another point of saying, "I think the mission of my soul is to sell oil."

But the most extraordinary child of all was the youngest, six-year-old Josiah Quincy, one of the several Josiah Quincys in Bostonian history. (The previous Josiah, his father, had been Mayor of Boston, as had his grandfather, who also served as the president of Harvard.) In the foreword Mitchell notices this, as I suppose every reader would, and quite properly singles out this amazing outburst from Josiah:

MR. ALCOTT. Can you say to yourself, I can remove this mountain?
JOSIAH. (Burst out) Yes, Mr. Alcott! I do not mean that with my body I can lift up a mountain—with my hand; but I can feel; and I know that my conscience is greater than the mountain, for it can feel and do; and the mountain cannot. There is the mountain, there! It was made, and that is all. But my conscience can grow. It is the same kind of spirit as made the mountain be, in the first place. I do not know what it may be and do. The body is a mountain, and the spirit says, be moved, and it is moved into another place. Mr. Alcott, we think too much about clay. We should think of spirit. I think we should love spirit, not clay. I should think a mother now would love her baby’s spirit; and suppose it should die, that is only the spirit bursting away out of the body. It is alive; it is perfectly happy; I really do not know why people mourn when their friends die. I should think it would be a matter of rejoicing. . . . I cannot see why people mourn for bodies.
MR. ALCOTT. Yes, Josiah; that is all true, and we are glad to hear it. Shall some one else now speak beside you?
JOSIAH. Oh, Mr. Alcott! Then I will stay in at recess and talk.

(Incidentally, Josiah stuttered, for which the recording secretary, Elizabeth Peabody, was thankful, since it enabled her to preserve Josiah’s comments with greater accuracy than the speed of the children’s responses would normally allow for.) Though the other children are apparently rather in awe of Josiah’s ardent eloquence and enjoy listening to him talk, Alcott often has to remind him that it would be good for others to contribute. Once, when Josiah is expositing his theory that "temptation is always necessary to a real prayer," Alcott gently asks, "Now will you let someone else speak?" But Josiah exclaims, "Oh, Mr. Alcott, I have not half done." All the same, the others do speak, though typically in single sentences, and occasionally they are overwhelmed by one of Josiah’s extemporaneous cadenzas. At the end of one conversation Alcott asks, "Have all been interested today?"

MANY. Very much interested.
JOSIAH. I have been interested, because I have had a chance to talk so much.
MR. ALCOTT. Do you think some others were not interested, because they had no chance to talk?
JOSIAH. The next time I will not speak till recess.

It is tempting indeed to compile an anthology of the Collected Eruptions of Josiah Quincy—Emerson knew the child at roughly this time, and called him a "youthful prophet," who had "something wonderful and divine in him"—but I will confine myself to noting that the first discourse I quoted is very characteristic of Josiah (and in a different way of Alcott as well). For all of Josiah’s verbal precocity, his inability to comprehend grief is an indelible mark of his youth. His remarkable conceptual sophistication is not, and perhaps could not be, accompanied by the empathy that we learn, if we learn it at all, from hard experience. George Steiner is almost certainly correct when he says that there are only three human pursuits which can produce true prodigies, because proficiency in them does not rely on such experience: music, mathematics, and chess.

Now, what are the concepts with which Josiah is so fully at home? Not surprisingly, they are Alcott’s concepts. Alcott believed the Platonic doctrine of knowledge as recollection, and therefore, as I have noted, prided himself on his Socratic reticence. He fully believed that he merely allowed the thoughts of his pupils to emerge; indeed, when he became aware that he was directing, he censured himself and determined to pull back. (Today we would call him a "facilitator," God forgive us.) But he does make sure, here, to tell Josiah "that is all true." And it is interesting to note how fully Josiah has absorbed the Gnostic elevation of the spirit and denigration of the body so common to Romanticism in all its manifestations.

In a conversation about the Nativity narrative, Josiah offers a characteristically extravagant and virtually Manichean theory: "The spirit comes from heaven, and takes up the naughtiness out of other people, which makes other people better. And these naughtinesses put together make a body for the child; but the spirit is the best part of it." Alcott doesn’t exactly disagree; he presses the children for their reactions to Josiah, and when they start to wander from that point, he (untypically) draws them back to it. Then he tells them what he thinks, which is that "God makes my spirit, and my soul all the time makes my body." This does not exactly make the body a compound of "naughtinesses," but it does place the body at one remove from God’s creative activity, just as in the Timaeus Plato invents a Demiurge to make the world so that the Deity itself is not defiled by contact with matter.

Children, in the view I have been describing, seem to be more spiritual than material: "Heaven lies about us in our infancy!" But they grow more fleshly and matter-bound as they get older. Alcott’s students believe this about themselves.

JOSIAH. [at the end of one of his briefer discourses] You must be full of spirit.
MR. ALCOTT. Are any of you full?
AUGUSTINE. When I was a little baby I was full.
THE OTHERS. We all were.

Charles takes this belief to its logical culmination when, near the end of one conversation, he pronounces this astonishing dictum: "God is babyhood." (To which Alcott replies, "There is truth in that, I believe; and yet it is language so liable to be misunderstood, that it had better not be used.") But now these children have lost that divine Spirit, which is the Spirit of Innocence, and by repentance they try to get it back. It is not clear that Alcott or his secretary Elizabeth Peabody believes that such a reclamation project can be successful. And I would be willing to bet that the book’s new editor, Alice O. Howell, does not so believe. For it appears that she has no interest at all in what happened to these children when they grew up. Howell tells us that one child, George Kuhn, died of consumption while a student at Harvard, and that his sister Martha "grew up to be a distinguished linguist." But not one word is spared for the futures of the others, though the book has a formidable apparatus, with forewords, introductions, notes, appendices, bibliographies, and so on. It is as though the children cease to be interesting when they cease to be children. "So that with much ado I was corrupted," writes Traherne, "and made to learn the dirty devices of this world." In the end, writes Wordsworth, the child comes to "Forget the glories he hath known, / And that imperial palace whence he came." Little ones who have forgotten that palace and learned those "dirty devices" are no longer little ones; they have no more to teach us.

But who could fail to wonder what became of the marvelous Josiah Quincy?

One may, perhaps, see signs of Josiah’s inevitable fall in his comment about the "naughtinesses" that make bodies for us. How does a six-year-old know of such things unless he has eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? And once a child has done that, as Ivan Karamazov says to his brother Alyosha, he is one of us—he has defaulted on our pity and deserves whatever suffering he gets. Ivan’s heart breaks only for those who have not "eaten the apple."

Josiah’s theory about the origins of the body disturbed Elizabeth Peabody. She thought it "very remarkable," but counseled Alcott to excise it from the transcript of the conversations, or at least to remove it to an appendix. He did the latter, but that theory, along with some other comments made by the children in a discussion of Mary’s labor and delivery—which Alcott did his best to spiritualize—scandalized many Bostonian readers, whose assumption was that Alcott had become a purveyor of obscenity to children. After all, if children are such pure and innocent beings, and have to be taught "dirty devices," then there are only two ways to account for Josiah’s little theory: an adult has taught him wickedness, or he has of his own accord fallen into it. And who would want to think the latter about a six-year-old? The Temple School was out of business within a year of the publication of these conversations.

It is not clear how one can evade such uncomfortable questions when discussing religion with children, unless by eschewing all references not only to wickedness but also to bodily existence. Yet how can Jews and Christians preserve their children in such ignorant bliss while teaching them the Bible? For the Bible is full of bodies and wickedness. Would it not be strange to say that some children pluck the forbidden fruit of knowledge from the tree called Holy Writ? Yet every thoughtful Jewish or Christian parent wonders about just this.

My son Wesley has two so-called "children’s Bibles": one he cares little for, perhaps because his burgeoning aesthetic sense rebels against the unprofessional quality of the illustrations, which are by other children. The second he likes a lot, referring to it as "my Bible"—a locution he doesn’t use for any of his other books, which indicates that he has picked up on the distinctive way that Christian adults talk about Bibles. When he asks me to read his Bible to him, he always wants to begin with the story of Noah and the Ark, which is just fine, since the death of a world of people and animals is not mentioned in this version; but after Noah’s rainbow appears the mood of the text darkens rather considerably. Of course, the most gruesome tales are left out: we have no crayonishly colorful depictions of Jael nailing Sisera’s head to the ground with a tent spike, or of Elisha unleashing two ornery she-bears on a pack of smart-mouthed brats.

Still, the list is a rather dismal one. Here is Isaac narrowly avoiding being slain on an altar by his father, followed soon thereafter by the various lies and deceptions of Jacob; here are Jacob’s sons selling their brother Joseph into slavery; here are the plagues visited upon Egypt, culminating in the death of Pharaoh’s young son. I find myself trying to skip forward to the less unpleasant parts, like the manna in the wilderness, or Samuel’s anointing of David, or even David’s slaying of Goliath. Unfortunately, Wesley is the sort of child who likes to go through a book from beginning—or at least from the point at which he chooses to start—to end; so we can end up wrestling ludicrously over control of the pages. How can such disturbing tales (I ask as I try to pry Wesley’s little fingers loose from an account of Samson’s massacre of the Philistine army) contribute to my child’s moral and spiritual development?

Of course, the makers of such books have to deal with the same problems, as can clearly be seen in Ruth B. Bottigheimer’s recent history, The Bible for Children. Some decisions come, as it were, pre-made: no ceremonial law, no prophecy, no apostolic theology, no apocalyptic visions. Indeed, as Bottigheimer points out, what we call "children’s Bibles" are in fact retellings of selected narrative passages from Scripture, often accompanied by "commentary, verses, summaries, questions and answers, or bits of ancient history." But the question of which narrative passages to include can never be avoided. And if you think of children as pure and innocent—or even if you think of them as merely too immature or inexperienced to make proper sense of some things—you will want to exclude passages that might endanger their hearts.

But what Bottigheimer’s history makes clear is that earlier ages did not always think as we now do about what children can profitably read. Indeed, her project began when, while researching a book on the brothers Grimm, she came across a children’s Bible put together by Jacob Grimm:

I could hardly believe my eyes. Here, in a book for children, was Lot offering his virgin daughters to a rapacious mob, Abraham ready to slit Isaac’s throat, and Joseph sexually importuned by his master’s wife. David committed adultery with Bathsheba, tried to palm her ensuing pregnancy off on her husband, and, when that failed, had him traitorously dispatched so that he could marry Bathsheba himself.

Later in the book, Bottigheimer shows that passage after passage which no modern compiler would dream of including in a Bible for children—for fear of lawsuits, if for no other reason—was widely accepted in earlier centuries. For instance, Jael’s pegging of Sisera’s head to her floor "appeared in nearly every seventeenth-century German Bible for children, and the same held true in France." Most writers of that time heartily approved of her deed, though one English commentator (in a passage Bottigheimer doesn’t appear to catch the humor of) suggested that, "though this act of Jael was of a most extraordinary nature, and God, for wise purposes, gave a sanction to it, yet we must not think of making it a precedent."

Increasingly, says Bottigheimer, the compilers of children’s Bibles grew uncomfortable with Jael, and began to surround her story with critical commentary (for instance, more than one gives her story the title "Jael’s Treachery"); but the awkwardness of this eventually leads to the situation we now have, the exclusion of the story from compilations. Perhaps we do not think that children can appropriate whatever profitable lessons may be taken from this episode; perhaps we are not sure that we can appropriate them. Bottigheimer—whose research is almost always far superior to her interpretations of it—thinks that the story disappeared because society grew increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of a mere woman being the savior of Israel. But the status of women in Western society began measurably to improve at precisely the time that the story of Jael started to fade from the compilations. A much more likely explanation derives from the cultural history we have been tracing here: a growing belief in the innocence of children leads to a growing determination to shield them from stories that might corrupt or wound that innocence.

Jael’s case is an unusual one. Problems usually arise for the makers of children’s Bibles not because they are uncertain how to interpret a story, but rather because they do not know how bluntly they dare relate that story. No one questions the evil of David’s adultery with Bathsheba; but how do you explain that adultery to children who may not yet know anything about human sexuality? Some writers, Bottigheimer shows, said that David "took another’s wife," leaving the concept of "taking" ambiguous. Others (especially in the nineteenth century) made no reference whatsoever to the sexual nature of the sin: David committed "a shocking offense," one said, while another noted still more vaguely that "he grew tyrannical and began to sin." In my son’s Bible, David slays Goliath, becomes friends with Jonathan, and helps Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth. Then he dies and Solomon takes over. Perhaps that’s for the best; perhaps a four-year-old cannot quite grasp how David can be called "a man after God’s own heart" and yet fall so terribly, nor comprehend the depths of David’s repentance. But the essential shape of spiritual life is traced in that story, and I wonder if it is ever too early for a child’s mind to be directed along that path, to be trained in that shape.

So, to the story of Jael I give a definite thumbs down; to the story of David’s crimes I give a fairly strong thumbs up. One could go up and down the list of potential inclusions casting one’s vote, but if one is a Christian, sooner or later one must confront the most fundamental dilemma of all: the Crucifixion. In Wesley’s Bible, it is the only act of violence pictorially represented. The nearest approximation is a picture of Samson wrestling with the lion, and in that it looks like the two are playing. But at the end of the Gospel stories, on facing pages, we see Jesus reclining limply on the laid-out Cross as a soldier prepares to drive a nail into his left palm, and then Jesus hanging on the upraised Cross, the four nails clearly visible, his face showing sadness more than pain.

My cursory research, coupled with my reading of Bottigheimer, suggests that this is the modern norm. Few contemporary versions for children avoid representing Jesus on the Cross, though some tend to downplay the violence and brutality of the event: for instance, the illustration by the wonderful Tomie de Paola in his collection of Bible stories views the Cross from behind. Older versions often were more sobering, not primarily because of their illustrations but rather because of their sometimes hideously detailed texts. Modern Christians, it appears, don’t think their young children need to know just how horrific death by crucifixion is; but they do not see how an acknowledgment and a representation of this particular Crucifixion can be avoided. (Incidentally, Bronson Alcott’s Temple School closed before he could get as far as the Passion narratives.)

If children are going to be introduced to Christianity at all, we seem to think, the death of God’s Son on the Cross must be a part of that introduction. Perhaps the knowledge that at the center of our faith, at the center of our account of the world, lies such a death—perhaps this knowledge weighs too heavily upon a child. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, after such knowledge, what innocence? And yet Christians, if we are to be Christians, have no other story to tell; when we stop telling of this death, even to our children, I fear that we are lost. What remains for us is what remains for Alyosha Karamazov. In a book that contains the most unsentimental, realistic, and yet warmhearted portrayal of children in all of literature, he unflinchingly listens to his brother Ivan’s cruelly detailed accounts of the sufferings of "the innocent ones"; he faithfully and comfortingly keeps his watch over the dying boy, little Ilusha; and at the end he gathers together "the boys" who have come to love him, so that he can proclaim to them the terrible and wonderful truth which alone can heal their grief: though there must be death, there will be Resurrection. Absent such knowledge, what redemption?

As for Josiah Quincy, well, a quick trip to the library to consult the Dictionary of American Biography assuaged my curiosity. After taking bachelor’s, master’s, and law degrees from Harvard (where else?), he briefly pursued a legal practice before devoting himself full-time to writing: poetry, fiction, reportage, essays. He married and had five children, the oldest of whom (named Josiah, to no one’s surprise) became Mayor of Boston. Our Josiah died in 1910 at the impressive age of eighty. The Dictionary tells me that he was "distinguished ‘of mien and carriage,’ democratic and friendly, and modest and unworldly to a rare degree." I for one am glad to hear it.

Alan Jacobs is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College.