Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Learned Blacksmith
By Elihu Burritt (18101879)
[Born in New Britain, Conn., 1810. Died there, 1879. Elihu Burritt; A Memorial Volume. Edited by Chas. Northend. 1879.]
I WAS the youngest of many brethren, and my parents were poor. My means of education were limited to the advantages of a district school; and those, again, were circumscribed by my fathers death, which deprived me, at the age of fifteen, of those scanty opportunities which I had previously enjoyed. A few months after his decease, I apprenticed myself to a blacksmith in my native village. Thither I carried an indomitable taste for reading, which I had previously acquired through the medium of the social library, all the historical works in which I had at that time perused. At the expiration of a little more than half of my apprenticeship, I suddenly conceived the idea of studying Latin. Through the assistance of an elder brother, who had himself obtained a collegiate education by his own exertions, I completed my Virgil during the evenings of one winter. After some time devoted to Cicero, and a few other Latin authors, I commenced the Greek. At this time it was necessary that I should devote every hour of daylight, and a part of the evening, to the duties of my apprenticeship. Still I carried my Greek grammar in my hat, and often found a moment, when I was heating some large iron, when I could place my book open before me, against the chimney of my forge, and go through with tupto, tupteis, tuptei, unperceived by my fellow-apprentices, and, to my confusion of face, sometimes with a detrimental effect to the charge in my fire. At evening I sat down, unassisted and alone, to the Iliad of Homer, twenty books of which measured my progress in that language during the evenings of another winter.
I next turned to the modern languages, and was much gratified to learn that my knowledge of Latin furnished me with a key to the literature of most of the languages of Europe. This circumstance gave a new impulse to the desire of acquainting myself with the philosophy, derivation, and affinity of the different European tongues. I could not be reconciled to limit myself, in these investigations, to a few hours, after the arduous labors of the day. I therefore laid down my hammer and went to New Haven, where I recited to native teachers, in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. At the expiration of two years I returned to the forge, bringing with me such books in those languages as I could procure. When I had read these books through, I commenced the Hebrew, with an awakened desire for examining another field; and, by assiduous application, I was enabled, in a few weeks, to read this language with such facility that I allotted it to myself, as a task, to read two chapters in the Hebrew Bible, before breakfast, each morning; this and an hour at noon being all the time that I could devote to myself during the day.
After becoming somewhat familiar with the Hebrew, I looked around me for the means of initiating myself into the fields of Oriental literature, and to my deep regret and concern, I found my progress in this direction hedged up by the want of requisite books. I immediately began to devise means of obviating this obstacle; and, after many plans, I concluded to seek a place as a sailor, on board some ship bound to Europe, thinking in this way to have opportunities for collecting, at different ports, such works in the modern and Oriental languages as I found necessary for my object. I left the forge and my native place, to carry this plan into execution. I travelled on foot to Boston, a distance of more than a hundred miles, to find some vessel bound to Europe. In this I was disappointed; and while revolving in my mind what step next to take, I accidentally heard of the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester. I immediately bent my steps towards this place. I visited the hall of the Antiquarian Society, and found there, to my infinite gratification, such a collection of ancient, modern, and Oriental languages as I never before conceived to be collected in one place; and, sir, you may imagine with what sentiments of gratitude I was affected, when, upon evincing a desire to examine some of these rich and rare works, I was kindly invited to an unlimited participation in all the benefits of this noble institution. Availing myself of the kindness of the directors, I spent about three hours, daily, at the hall, which, with an hour at noon, and about three in the evening, make up the portion of the day which I appropriate to my studies, the rest being occupied in arduous manual labor. Through the facilities afforded by this institution, I have been able to add so much to my previous acquaintance with the ancient, modern, and Oriental languages as to be able to read upwards of fifty of them with more or less facility.