Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Pliny the Younger
By James Kirke Paulding (1778–1860)
From ‘The Dutchman’s Fireside’

MADAM VANCOUR was extremely fortunate in procuring a most efficient auxiliary in the engineering of this her good work, in the person of Master Pliny Coffin (the sixteenth), whilom of Nantucket Island. Pliny was the youngest of nine sons and an unaccountable number of daughters, born unto Captain Pliny Coffin (the fifteenth). Being called after his uncle, Deacon Pliny Mayhew (the tenth), he was patronized by that worthy “spermaceti candle of the church,” as he was called, and sent to school at an early age, with a view to following in the footsteps of the famous divine. But Pliny the younger had a natural and irresistible vocation to salt water; insomuch that at the age of eighteen months or thereabouts, being left to amuse himself under the only tree in Nantucket, which grew in front of Captain Coffin’s (the fifteenth) house, he crawled incontinently down to the seaside, and was found disporting himself in the surf like unto a young gosling. In like manner did Pliny the younger, at a very early age, display a vehement predilection for great whales; to the which he was most probably incited by the stories of his father, Pliny the elder, who had been a mighty harpooner in his day. When about three years old, one of these monsters of the deep was driven ashore in a storm at Nantucket, where he perished, to the great joy of the inhabitants, who flocked from all parts to claim a share in his spoil. On the morning of that memorable day, which is still recorded in the annals of Nantucket, Pliny the younger was missing, and diligent search being made for him, he was not to be found in the whole island; to the grief of his mother, who was a very stout woman, and had killed three Indians with her own fair hand. But look ye: while the people were gathered about the body of the whale, discussing the mysterious disappearance of the child, what was their astonishment to behold him coming forth from the stomach of the huge fish, laughing right merrily at the prank he had played!  1
  But the truth must be confessed: he took his learning after the manner that people, more especially doctors, take physic,—with many wry faces and much tribulation of spirit. In fact he never learned a lesson in his whole life until, arriving at his fifth year, by good fortune a primer was put into his hand wherein was the picture of a whale; with the which he was so utterly delighted that he mastered the whole distich under it in the course of the day. The teacher aptly took the hint, and by means of pasting the likeness of a whale at the head of his lessons, carried him famously along in the career of knowledge. In process of time he came to be of the order of deacons, and was appointed to preach his first sermon; whereby a great calamity befell him, which drove him forth a wanderer on the face of the earth. Unfortunately the meeting-house where he was to make his first essay stood in full view of the sea, which was distinctly visible from the pulpit; and just as Pliny the younger had divided his text into sixteen parts, behold! a mighty ship appeared, with a bone in her teeth, ploughing her way towards the island with clouds of canvas swelling in the wind. Whereupon the conviction came across his mind that this must be the Albatross, returning from a whaling voyage in the great South Sea; and sad to relate, his boyish instincts got the better of his better self. Delirious with eager curiosity, he rushed from the pulpit, and ran violently down to the seaside, like one possessed, leaving Deacon Mayhew and the rest of the expectant congregation astonished nigh on to dismay. The deacon was wroth, and forthwith disinherited him. The people said he was possessed of a devil, and talked of putting him to the ordeal; whereupon the unfortunate youth exiled himself from the land of his nativity, and went to seek his fortune among the heathen, who had steeples to their churches, and dealt in the abomination of white sleeves. Of his wanderings, and of the accidents of his pilgrimage, I know nothing, until his stars directed him to the Flats, where there were no salt-water temptations to mislead him.  2
  As one of the contemplated improvements of Madam Vancour was the introduction of the English language among her pupils, instead of the barbarous Dutch dialect, she eagerly caught at the first offer of Pliny, and engaged him forthwith to take charge of her seminary. In this situation he was found by Catalina, who, as we have before stated, in the desolation of her spirit, resolved to attempt the relief of her depression by entering upon the difficult task of being useful to others. She accordingly occasionally associated herself with Master Pliny in the labors of his mission, greatly to the consolation of his inward man. He took great pains to initiate her into the mysteries of his new philosophical, practical, elementary, and scientific system of education, on which he prided himself exceedingly—and with justice, for it hath been lately revised and administered among us with singular success, by divers ungenerous pedagogues, who have not had the conscience to acknowledge whence it was derived.  3
  As Newton took the hint of the theory of gravitation from seeing an apple fall to the ground, and as the illustrious Marquis of Worcester deduced the first idea of the application of steam from the risings and sinkings of a pot-lid, so did Master Pliny model and graduate his whole system of education from the incident of the whale in the primer. Remembering with what eagerness he himself had been attracted towards learning by a picture, he resolved to make similar illustrations the great means of drawing forth what he called the “latent energies of the infant genius, spurring on the march of intellect, and accelerating the development of mind.” But as woodcuts were scarce articles in those times, he devoted one day in the week to sallying forth with all his scholars, in order to collect materials for their studies; that is, to gather acorns, pebbles, leaves, briers, bugs, ants, caterpillars, and what not. When he wanted an urchin to spell “bug,” he placed one of these specimens directly above the word; and great was his exultation at seeing how the child was assisted in cementing B-U-G together, by the presence of the creature itself. In this way he taught everything by sensible objects; boasting at the same time of the originality of his method, little suspecting that he had only got hold of the fag-end of Chinese emblems and Egyptian hieroglyphics.  4
  But pride will have a fall. One day, at Catalina’s suggestion, Master Pliny put his scholars to the test, by setting them to spell without the aid of sensible objects, and by the mere instrumentality of the letters. They made sad work of it: hardly one could spell “ant” without the presence of the insect to act as prompter. They had become so accustomed to the assistance of the thing, that they paid little or no attention to the letters which represented it; and Catalina ventured to hint to Master Pliny that the children had learned little or nothing. They knew what an ant was before, and that seemed to be the extent of their knowledge now.  5
  “Yes,” answered he, “but it makes the acquisition of learning so easy.”  6
  “To the teacher, certainly,” replied the young lady. In fact, when she came to analyze the improvements in Master Pliny’s system, she found that they all tended to one point,—namely, diminishing not the labor of the scholar in learning, but that of the master in teaching.  7
  I forbear to touch on all the other various plans of Master Pliny for accelerating the march of mind. Suffice it to say, they were all, one after another, abandoned, being found desperately out at the elbows when subjected to the test of wear and tear. Yet have they been revived with wonderful success by divers illustrious and philosophical pedagogues abroad and at home, who have brought the system to such perfection that they have not the least trouble in teaching, nor the children anything but downright pleasure in learning. Happy age! and happy Pliny, had he lived to this day to behold the lamp which he lighted shining over the whole universe. He however abandoned his system at the instance of a silly girl, and soon after deserted the Flats: the same cause being at the bottom of both issues,—a woman.  8
  The evil spirit which influenced Master Pliny to run out of the pulpit now prompted him to run his head into the fire. Pliny was a rosy-cheeked, curly-headed, fresh-looking man, exceedingly admired by the Dutch damsels thereabout, and still more by a certain person who shall be nameless. He thought himself an Adonis; and argued inwardly that no young lady in her senses would turn schoolmistress without some powerful incitement. The said demon whispered that this could be nothing but admiration for his person, and love of his company. Upon this hint he began, first to ogle the young lady, then to take every opportunity to touch her hand or press against her elbow, until she could not but notice the peculiarity of his conduct. Finally he wrote her a love epistle, of such transcendent phraseology that it frightened Catalina out of school forever. She did not wish to injure the simple fellow, and took this method of letting him know his fate. Poor Pliny the younger pined in thought, and soon after took his departure for the land of his nativity, where on arrival he was kindly forgiven by his uncle the deacon, and received into the bosom of the meeting-house. Here he preached powerfully many years, never ran after whale-ships more, and in good time, by the death of his father, came to be called Pliny the elder.  9

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.