Parker Fellowship Application


A self-portrait of the art critic as a young man, this 24 page letter details Bernard's accomplishments and aspirations. He requests a travel grant, the Parker Fellowship, to help prepare “for the position of a critic, or historian of literature.” Bernard's goal was “to address my generation, in the most direct way, that is through the novel, and the story.” The letter itself may indicate why Bernard did not receive the grant: "Art prevails in this programme, because it is there where I feel myself weakest.” The letter, signed and dated 30 March 1887, is addressed to "the Committee on Fellowships of the Academic Council of Harvard University." For a full transcription, see below; for the three letters of recommendation, see cat. BB.II.4.


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Harvard University Archives: UAIII 15.88.10 1890-1968 Box 316




To the Committee on Fellowships of the Academic Council of Harvard University.




I beg leave to offer myself as a candidate for the Parker Fellowship; and I ask your attention to the following statement of my plans, and possible qualifications.


I am desirous of devoting myself to the study of belles letters toward which I have for many years felt myself strongly drawn. My interest in the subject is not merely a personal one; I am anxious to fit myself for the position of a critic, or historian of literature.
The function of a critic, at all times an important one, is especially so now, when much new information has to be assimilated, and many facts that have been regarded in various ways, demand to be put in a new light, according to modern ways of thought.


The full importance of this task may be gathered from the fact that the mere statement of this plan probably will have appeared almost trifling, in such contempt has the greater part of current criticism properly fallen in the estimation of men who really work. The prevailing criticism, a mere expression of prejudices and personal feelings, is of interest to few except to writers of such criticism; but there surely is a criticism which consists of an exposition of the ever changing thought of mankind, which is a sort of contemporary history, requiring profound knowledge of what has been, and the comprehension of what is now, which alone can furnish the necessary sympathy for the proper examination of past and present work. It is for this serious criticism that I wish to prepare myself, and the proper performance of this task requires, it seems to me, the most thorough and painstaking preparation.


I was born in Russia, in Lithuania. My native language was German, but I used to hear Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian spoken about me; and this accidental familiarity with many languages fostered within me what I afterward found to be the comparative, or historic method of study. At eight years of age, I could read German, Russian, and Hebrew, and could understand Polish, & Lithuanian, a little. At that time, I remember that I used to compare different words, and speculate on their origin, and that I often felt fastidious about the sound of words. A love of philology thus grew up unconsciously within me, which later, in my sixteenth, and seventeenth years, tempted me away for a time from the study of literature; and my former interest in comparative literature has widened my horizon, and given me some knowledge of the scientific method.
The comparative spirit fostered in me as I have described, found enough upon which to exercise itself when, at the age of eleven I came to this country. I was quick to be inspired by the contrast between the life I had known interestedly in Russia, and the life I was seeing with such wonder and pleasure here. I went to the public schools immediately upon coming here, and learned a good deal from those teachers who personally appealed to me, and nothing at all from mere pedagogues, or such as were not sympathetic.


But my great school has been the Public Library of Boston. I began to use it upon coming here, and here used it since. I fear the attendants at the library used to consider me a pest. I came so often, and drew so many books which they could not believe I read. I used to read many hours each day, even during school hours, with the permission of wise teachers.


Reading and thinking naturally urged me to write, and in my fourteenth year, I was making efforts to write for publication.


At first I read everything that came in my hands, especially popular science, Oriental history and antiquities, books of travel, and all books about Russia. But my reading more and more became purely literary, until I entered college, where I devoted myself almost exclusively to this subject.
For eight years now I have been following a principle of conduct to which I can say I have subordinated everything. I have tried to build myself up with one aim in view: the comprehension of literature. I have endeavored to augment my capacity to observe, to understand, and to be able to convey to others what has been done, and is done in literature, not as a mere expounding of books, but of our expression of human life.


During this time I resisted two temptations, one, less forceful, to strive for academic rank, and marks, the other, the abandon my studies and make money. This temptation has been incessant and strong. I have seen the toil to which my father has subjected himself in order to earn even the necessaries of life for himself, and his five children of whom I am the oldest, and I have never been anything but miserable at the thought of the burden I have been to him from the expenses of my apparently unremunerative education. The fact that I resisted the first temptation not only enfeebles my confidence in this application for a Parker Fellowship; it makes it necessary that I should describe my college courses, now coming to an end.


My freshman year I spend at Boston University, where I am yet remembered for the work I did, drawn from me by a true, sympathetic teacher, Prof. I. B. Lindsay, to whom I refer you to confirm me. It was quite natural, however, that I should find Boston University insufficient for my needs, and I came here in Sept. ’84.


My first year I took a number of courses from each of which I got as much as I could use, profiting especially from the Greek that I have read, but less from the Latin. In Hebrew I got 85%. In English 85%. Prof. James gave me about 80% for the course I took under him, although a senior of that year who knew nothing absolutely of the course until I coached him a few hours, got 92% on his examination-book for the same course. In the required physics and chemistry of that year I gained no more glory than I meant to gain. Ina course on Medieval German literature and art I got 98%.


In my second year, the Junior, I took the first courses in Arabic, Assyrian, and Sanskrit, and the second course in Hebrew. Of that the only one to profit me was the Arabic. It was well I took the others. Otherwise I should have been haunted all my life with the thought that there were treasures of literature in Sanskrit, and Assyrian, of which I knew not. It was well to take them, and to find that by taking hold of them I was biting trunks of trees, the fruit of which I already had enjoyed. Still I carried off 90% in Sanskrit, and 75% in Assyrian. The Hebrew brought me 75%. Arabic on which I did a good deal of work, brought me only 85%.


But from the beginning of my Junior year, my heart shut itself completely against all that was not belles letters, or art; and my living interest became my writing, an interest fostered not a little by the required themes.


Aside from my Arabic, this year, I have done nothing and cared to do nothing but write and prepare for writing. One course, English V has fairly met my desire to write, and I refer you to Prof. Hill who surely has an opinion about me. I take this year all that Prof. Norton gives, much more because he gives the courses than because they themselves are such as I could work on, this year. Under Prof. Child, I am taking Eng. I with less profit than I might have gotten from it, had I not been distracted by other interests.


The Arabic which I am reading with Prof. Toy is interesting me more, and more, and it is my intention to devote a good portion of my time I the future to the literary study of Arabic literature. I feel what few have realized: that Arabic literature has a tangibility, a virility, and a sanity of passion not only to inspire the student, but also to be a revelation to the Occident, where Arabic literature has been very little appreciated.


It is not my intention, however, to hunt for new treasures, or to edit new editions. I mean to learn to appreciate the Arabic classics so well, that my appreciation may tempt others, - a temptation I hope to foster by my writings. All this, and much more I owe to Prof. C. H. Toy, who understands me, and to him I appeal.


I have given a fair summary of my college work, which never in reality meant anything to me compared with the reading I was doing. For many years, it always has been my reading first, my school-work afterwards, and whatever I am now, I owe to this. I have by no means idled away my time. Few men sleep less, and devote themselves to their true interests more than I do.


I may be allowed to call my already semi-published writings to speak for me. They bear the traces, as any one must acknowledge, of a good deal of reading, and thought.


It is because I have had the idea of fitting myself to speak to my age, that I have pursued the courses I have described. I feel some power as a critic, already. In time, if my growth cease not, I may be able to address my generation, in the most direct way, that is through the novel, and the story.
I graduate this year if at all. What I shall do afterwards depends largely upon your decision. I have no money. I can not ask my parents even “to keep” me another year. I should be obliged therefore to take what I could by which to earn my livelihood; although, come what may, I mean to devote every spare minute to literature.


This is the most decisive period of my life. Whatever is in me may be incalculably fostered, or hindered by what the next three years bring me.


I feel that if I stay here longer I shall stagnate, and lose my savor. And it is because I love this my adopted country so well, and have such hopes for its future that I long to be able to prepare myself to serve it, in as far as literature and art can serve it.
My plan, if I should be fortunate enough to obtain this fellowship, would be something like this, which I had dreamed of for a single year, although, of course I can not speak very definitely.


From the middle of July to the opening of the university at Berlin I should make Paris my head-quarters, and devote myself to the study of the buildings, and the galleries of Paris, and to the cathedrals in the Isle of France. The winter semester I should spend in the study of practical art problems, and of Arabic at Berlin. Then I should go [to] Italy where I should spend the rest of the year in the study of art, and Italian literature.


Art prevails in this programme, because it is there where I feel myself weakest. One can study literature, after a fashion, here; but art, not at all. And if I am to do what I want to do, I must have at least a fair familiarity with art. My thought, moreover, is, and for some time has been occupied with aesthetic problems that I must solve for myself, and which I can not begin to solve until I have the necessary first-hand acquaintance with art.
In a sojourn abroad of three years I should much extend my plans. I should devote a good part of the time to the study of the literature which had its origin in the places in which I happened to sojourn. I also should avail myself as much as possible of opportunities for literary study of Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian. My first winter, for instance, I should spend in Paris, taking a course each in Arabic and Persian at the school, listening to Renan, studying French literature, art, and the theatre. I should make much longer stays at each of the places I have mentioned, and make short stays in England and Russia also. I should be able to let things dye me through and through, instead of having to swallow them. I should be able to acquire that indispensable thing for the critic: familiarity with the atmosphere of the writers of whom he is to speak.


I should employ every minute of my time in fitting myself by reading, study, observation, and susceptibility to all cultivating influences, to enable me to do the work I feel I may do.
Your obedient servant.
Bernhard Berenson


March 30th, 1887